Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa has a fondness for “begging for the indulgence” of the House over matters.
Often, when an MP raises a matter requiring a response from either the line minister or Prime Minister and they are absent, Ms Nankabirwa will leap to the floor and hazard a response, rarely convincing the inquisitor.
The matter of minister’s absence has been fodder for these pages since the opening of the 10th Parliament, but it seems pleas by the Speaker and MPs continuously fall on deaf ears as the front-bench continues to be a pale shadow of one or two ministers.
When questions are posed and there is no minister to respond, the Government Chief Whip, who cleverly sits just near the Speaker’s seat, will quickly dash to the microphone, and “beg the indulgence of the House”. The reasons she gives for ministers not being on duty in Parliament are varied.
On Wednesday, Ms Nankabirwa was at it again. Adjumani Woman MP Jesca Ababiku raised the issue of unreliable power supply to her district which required a response from the Energy ministry. But there was no minister from Energy which hosts three ministers.
Ms Nankabirwa shot up and made her customary comment of having “taken note” of the concerns of the House and how she would “work very closely with the minister of Energy to ensure that the people of Adjumani are served.”
Next up was the Tororo Municipality MP Yeri Ofwono who complained of a businessman in Tororo who has defrauded locals in Tororo and fled.
“My prayer is that the minister of Internal Affairs and the minister of Foreign Affairs bring this man to answer for the charges,” Mr Ofwono said, hoping against all hope that at least two ministers from departments that host five ministers would be at hand to offer relief to troubled, defrauded locals. Again, the ministers were nowhere to be seen.
This time Ms Nankabirwa did not even allow the distraught MP to complete his narration as she shot up and told Mr Ofwono to have his distressed constituents record statements with the police and “we will swing in action”.
“In the modern world, there is no place for criminals to hide. There are systems and so let us engage those systems to help the people who have lost their things,” Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah said, just to assure the disbelieving MP that the government could somehow do something about the plight of his constituents.
Mbale Municipality also raised the matter of the rampaging robberies and kidnappings in the town, but again Internal Affairs minister Gen Jeje Odongo was not available to respond.
Ms Nankabirwa this time “congratulated Wamai” for the way he handled his run-in with suspected criminals and put him on notice to always call police when he bumps into suspicious characters and then went into a speech about “how police has tried”. She promised to communicate to the Internal Affairs minister.
Then the controversial issue of St Balikuddembe Market (Owino), where vendors are living on the edge following the expiry of a deadline to clear an outstanding loan of Shs4.8 billion to dfcu Bank.
The agitated vendors face the risk of losing the three-acre land, which dfcu bank is threatening to auction if an outstanding loan is not cleared.
Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze wanted either the minister for Kampala Capital City Authority Beti Kamya or the State minister Benny Namugwanya to give an update on the status of the transaction between the vendors and dfcu bank. The two ministers were nowhere to be seen.
Ms Nankabirwa was again quick to jump to the fray. She said the obvious, that the “government is aware of this case” that “touches a lot of people” and that she would contact the President to get a response about the petition to bail out the vendors.
As it was getting too far, acting Leader of Opposition Roland Kaginda (Rukungiri Municipality) raised a point of order and warned that ministers had absconded from duty and abandoned their work to Ms Nankabirwa.
“We have 80 ministers. Is it in order for the Chief Whip to answer all the questions raised by members? It is continuous for the Chief Whip to answer questions [meant for ministers] and we are not getting answers,” Mr Kaginda asked. The Deputy Speaker ruled that the Government Chief Whip could be on Cabinet assignment.
Dokolo Woman MP Cecilia Ogwal proposed that the matter of the role of the Government Chief Whip (GCW) and how she takes on work meant for ministers be discussed by the Parliament Commission, arguing that she had jumbled roles that are confusing the House and her colleagues.
“The GCW should concentrate and focus on whipping the backbenchers and she should leave the whipping of the front-bench to the Executive. I think it is important that we go back to the true role of the Chief Whip.
She is being over-loaded. She is whipping the Executive and the backbench. We do not where she belongs. She is messing us up, “Ms Ogwal said.
“The role of the Chief Whip is to whip the party [members] and not the ministers. If you are doing the work properly, then you should be appointed the prime minister. Last time, I told you that Nankabirwa should be appointed prime minister and then she can use her expertise properly,” Mr Hassan Kaps Fungaroo (Obongi County) said.
At some point, Ms Nankabirwa took up the role of laying ministerial policy statements, a preserve of line ministers, much to the disappointment of Nwoya County MP Simon Oyet who warned the House was evolving into a “village meeting” because rules were being openly violated.
But the Leader of Government Business must devise means of ensuring that ministers attend Parliament as demanded by the rules or critical time that would otherwise be devoted to handling House business will be wasted in eternal bickering.
On Wednesday, plenary time was wasted for close to half an hour as MPs bickered over whether to proceed in the absence of ministers. It is about time Prime Minister Rugunda tackled the scourge of absentee ministers.
The matter of ministers attending Parliament business is well spelt out in the rules.
Rule 103(1) indicates that for any ministry, the minister or at least the minister of State shall attend sittings of the House; and where none of them is able to attend, a minister shall request another minister to represent that ministry’s interests in the House and notify the Speaker accordingly.
Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business Ruhakana Rugunda is charged with ensuring that Rule 103(1) is adhered to.
Rule 35(1a) requires ministers to attend the House to answer questions.
Rule 14 prescribes the roles of the Government Chef Whip which are largely restricted under sub-rule(2) which indicates that the CGW is to ensure due attendance, participation in proceedings and voting in Parliament of members of the ruling party.