First published as a Legal Brief on Polity.org.za on 30 November 2012
Debates are raging within Uganda these past two weeks which have taken the country and the world by storm. Predictably, internet websites are buzzing about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill which the Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, indicated would be dealt with during this 9th sitting of Parliament. But there are also many other important issues at play. War, oil, corruption, and homosexuality – proved a potent mix on the agendas of Parliament and the Executive of Uganda. Clearly this is a lot to handle. After two weeks, none of these issues are close to being resolved and each of them seriously negates the credibility of Uganda’s leadership and their ability to uphold human rights and maintain the rule of law in the country.
Worsening conflict in the eastern DRC
On 20 November 1012, the 23 March Movement (M23), a rebel army in the eastern DRC, invaded Goma, a strategic access point to the mineral rich Northern Kivu. Four days later, the Heads of State of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) issued a call for the M23 to withdraw from Goma. The latest call by the ICGLR really amounts to an admission of failure, since its chairperson, President Museveni, had already been tasked by the ICGLR in August 2012 to request M23 to return to their initial positions. The M23 has been accused of persistent human rights abuses in the eastern DRC, including summary executions, gender-based violence and recruitment of child soldiers.
President Museveni, in his communications with the UN Secretary-General and with a visiting delegation from the United States, France and the United Kingdom (UK) this week, projected himself as the promoter of peace and stability in the region. The final report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC however paints a very different picture. The Report presented evidence that “senior officials of the Government of Uganda have also provided support to M23 in the form of direct troop reinforcements in Congolese territory, weapons deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advice and facilitation of external relations.” Based on this report, the UN Security Council, on 28 November 2012, passed a resolution which reiterated its demand for an “end to all outside support to the insurgency ravaging the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo”.
The on-going conflict in the eastern DRC has led to a considerable influx of refugees into Uganda, which is already grappling to deal with its existing burden of refugees and internally displaced persons.
Heated deliberations on the Petroleum Bill
On Tuesday, 27 November 2012 the Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill, 2012, came up for discussion in the Uganda Parliament. Previously, the House had agreed that authority for the granting of licences and negotiating of petroleum agreements should be given to the Petroleum Authority whose decisions would be approved by Parliament. Subsequently, President Museveni reportedly sought to convince individual parliamentarians to instead vote for a recommitted clause 9 of the bill which would give the Minister of Energy and Minerals these powers.
The outrage caused by this development bolstered attendance in Parliament on Tuesday. Riot police were called to ensure security, frisking visitors to the House and public gallery. The Speaker of the House tried to maintain order as opposing parties battled for their position to win the day. By the afternoon, the Speaker was entirely ignored, and she eventually fled the House dejected. The following day, the Speaker sought to reassert her control, ordering an investigation into the previous day’s unruly behaviour, and suspending the sitting of the House until the investigation has been completed. The developments on Tuesday puts into question whether the Speaker exerts much authority in Parliament. Discussions regarding the Petroleum Bill are likely to take precedence once parliament resumes.
Mounting claims of corruption
Allegations of embezzlement in the Prime Minister’s office surfaced mid-November 2012, resulting in the UK’s withdrawal of some development aid to Uganda and the suspension of aid by some other donors. These revelations came after the Auditor General reported that money intended to help develop areas devastated by the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels had been stolen.
The news has probably not surprised citizens of a country ranked 143rd out of 182 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. The country has consistently ranked amongst highly corrupt countries on the Corruption Index over the past decade. Corruption is defined as the misuse of public power for private benefit. It is perhaps people’s unhappiness with this corruption that led to the disruptions in Parliament this week. President Museveni’s about turn on the Petroleum Bill suggests a desire to hold onto powers to make potentially lucrative decisions.
A failing health system
On 26 November 2012, Parliament discussed recent statistics indicating that HIV prevalence in the country has risen to 7.3 percent in 2011. A reported 62 365 people died of HIV and AIDS related illnesses in 2011, whilst 145 294 new infections were reported in the same year. This is dismal news in a country where underpaid health staff wrestles with various disease outbreaks including nodding syndrome and ebola.
Civil society groups were up in arms this week when the Ministry of Finance indicated a shortfall in the money due to be released for health posts and services. The groups called on government to urgently and decisively address corruption to attract donors who have suspended aid as a result of corruption concerns.
Looming Anti-Homosexuality Bill
During November 2012, the Speaker of the House has repeatedly claimed that she will prioritise the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in parliament. Ms Kadaga reportedly wrote to the chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee requesting that the bill be expedited because “there is a high demand by the population”. Whether there really is a high demand for such a bill is in fact in great doubt. Most Ugandans, if given the opportunity, would probably argue that many other matters deserve more attention on the Parliamentary agenda than this bill. Nevertheless, in the Parliamentary Order Paper for 28 November 2012, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was reflected as business to follow, suggesting that it would be deliberated on in Parliament during the current session.
No-one seems to know much about the exact wording of the latest version of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but if its original version is much to go by, the bill is blatantly unlawful given the extent to which it wholeheartedly violates constitutional and international human rights law (and basic principles of legislative drafting). A vote for this bill would expose the Ugandan Parliament as completely opposed to human rights and rule of law.
If the Ugandan Parliament and Executive really want to show accountability to its citizens, it should focus on attending to their needs instead of being involved in death and destruction in the DRC and trying to cover up its dirty deeds by feigning piousness and righteousness with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Written by Anneke Meerkotter, a lawyer at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre