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Makerere professor criticises MPs as they seek oil sector role

While the Natural Resources Committee of Uganda’s parliament scrutinises the draft petroleum bills tabled in February, an ad hoc parliamentary committee set up last year is investigating allegations of corruption in the oil sector. MPs evidently feel they have an important role to play.  But what should that role be?

A stinging critique of parliament’s capacity comes from veteran Makerere University Political Science professor, Aaron Mukwaya.  Many Ugandan MPs, he says, do not understand their core role as legislators and are instead wasting resources on activities better left to advocacy and civil society organizations.

“This is a serious problem, but they do not want to know. This is why they are struggling to find a role in the oil and gas sector and, in the end, they are not giving anything useful to Ugandans,” he told Oil in Uganda.

An underlying issue, Professor Mukwaya points out, is that Uganda’s government has tended to make parliament a “rubber stamp” rather than a serious lawmaking body.  He cites, for example, the 2010 spending of state resources without parliamentary approval, which was sought only later in the form of a “supplementary” budget.  This undermines one of parliament’s key roles: to approve government expenditure.

The professor adds that parliament is supposed to scrutinise government policies to make sure that they are being implemented and accounted for. Yet Ugandan MPs, he says, do not do proper research to find why past development policies failed and then offer solutions.  Moreover, Professor Mukwaya suggests, many MPs are ill-qualified for such a task. “If you get a Form Six dropout into parliament, or someone who has stolen votes, how can they understand serious economic issues of the country?” he asks.

In his view, parliament has no business carrying out in-depth investigations such as that under way by the ad hoc parliamentary committee set up last year to investigate allegations of corruption. MPs can set up an inquiry, but its report should be handed over to the government to do the investigations.  Yet, he says, “Our parliament wants to do the judiciary and executive work and this has made them irrelevant and useless. They do not know what their role is.”

When the ad hoc committee finishes their investigations, he points out, they will have to pass their findings to government to investigate further. “So, they are wasting time blaming and mistrusting each other—because in the end they will need each other.”

MPs respond

During a special parliamentary session on oil in November 2011, Youth MP for Western Uganda, Gerald Karuhanga, rocked the country with allegations that Tullow Oil PLC had bribed ministers of state. He defends the role of parliament in pushing for greater transparency.

Before that parliamentary debate, he says, bureaucrats and politicians within government kept parliament out of the oil sector by “doing everything silently and secretly.”

“Some individuals tried to keep us out – for some selfish reasons. But when we learnt this was done deliberately – to avoid transparency in oil sector, we called for an urgent meeting [of parliament],” he says.

“We forced government to initiate laws governing the sector and bring it to parliament. They did that and now the public is also sending in their observations.”

He points out that the Natural Resources Committee is also involved in the oil and gas sector by going through the draft bills and receiving comments from the public before the bills go to the whole house for debate. He adds that parliament will also form a standing oil and gas committee.

“So, as you can see parliament has a huge role to play. As soon as the laws are passed, we shall not just sit and fold our hands, but we shall also play the oversight and monitoring role,” he explains.

He adds that the Petroleum Authority to be formed by government should report to parliament to ensure accountability in the sector.

Cecelia Ogwal, the MP for Dokolo district and a member of the ad hoc committee also believes that parliament is already playing its role.

In her view, after the discovery of oil, the government wanted to rush into oil production without first putting in place the necessary laws in place to govern the sector.

“They were only using the 1985 Oil and Gas exploration act that did not talk much on how the sector will be regulated and how the revenue will be used or generated. But when parliament realized that some people were using this to cheat Ugandans, we called for an emergency meeting and now we have several things in place, like fixing laws and also Ugandans are getting more involved,” Ogwal explained.

Ministry response

Government officials strongly reject the idea that parliament forced their hand in tabling the oil bills. “This is not true,” says Ministry for Energy and Mineral Development spokesman, Matovu Bukenya, who also denies that government has attempted to “rush” into production without laws in place. “These bills have been worked on since 2008. We are moving with timelines for discoveries and appraisal.” A draft of the ‘upstream’ petroleum bill was circulated for comment in 2010.

A key issue in debates around the petroleum bills has been the respective roles of the government minister and parliament.  International organizations such as Global Witness, and numerous Ugandan civil society organizations, have argued for greater parliamentary oversight of production sharing agreements and the proposed National Oil Company.

Report by FW with NY.