By Robert Atuhairwe
Last Thursday evening, the constitutional court sitting at Mbale, Eastern Uganda delivered a ruling in the petition challenging Constitutional Amendment Act 2017 featuring “age limit” and “tenure tension” and its constitutionality.
Besides the other contents of the ruling, the judges made important pronouncements that will have a bearing on future Parliamentary practice and the individual behavior of people’s representatives .
Events of September 27, 2017 when a section of Members of Parliament totally defied the Speaker leading to their forceful eviction by special security forces formed part of an attempt to distort Parliamentary culture. But Justice Alphonse Chigamoy Owiny Dollo’s panel appears to have settled that question resolutely and perpetrators will likely never resort to similar methods.
Looking at my notes, I see that four of the justices made categorical statements on the violence in Parliament.
Justice Dollo himself was of the view that “the evidence adduced in court shows that what was happening in Parliament was akin to the type of brawls and fracas one would expect to happen in a bar or a malwa (local potent brew) joint... It was when certain members of the House had shown defiance to the orders of the Speaker that he sought police reinforcement.”
He added that there was no reason for the intervention of the UPDF, but proficiently notes how members of the UPDF who intervened went (in) barehanded and in civilian attire, meaning that they went in with no offensive intention (to harm anyone) but to carry out civil enforcement.
Justice Remmy Kasule also held that “there was no justification at all for the army and other security forces to join in this scuffle, which should have been handled by the normal police personnel and within the normal security systems of Parliament” but he found that “a number of the honourable Members of Parliament acted, on some of these occasions, without the necessary restraint, decorum, responsibility and respect to the chair of the Speaker expected of them as honourable Members of Parliament”.
For Justice Elizabeth Musoke, her view was that from the available evidence “public interest was curtailed when a group of Members of Parliament by their conduct made it impossible for the debate process of the Bill to proceed peacefully. There was need for reasonable force to be used to ensure that order was restored within the precincts of Parliament”.
She, too, was of the view that deployment of the army was not justified. But none of the judges deemed the intervention illegal-it was discretionary.
Justice Cheborion Barishaki on the other had did not agree with the contention that the involvement of the army was unjustified, holding that the national army is mandated to assist in cases of emergencies.
“Given the charged environment that Members of Parliaments were using all items in the chamber to harm each other, I give the sergeant at arms and the Forces the benefit of doubt and hold that an emergency was averted,” he said. “The involvement of the army was, therefore, justified”.
Now that we have heard from the learned bench, and since they say two wrongs don’t make a right, we don’t expect anybody worth the title of “Honourable” to “invite” extra forces into the sacred chambers ever again.
As Barishaki further noted, “more than 50 years ago in 1962, Members of Parliament were able to debate intricate issues and pass legislation (without precedents). From the reading of the Hansard of 1962 to 1967 and 1967 to 1971, excerpts of which I have reproduced earlier in this judgment, the level of debate, the language, the ethics and etiquette were only comparable to that of British House of Commons”.
The collective counsel of the justices entreats all MPs to speak for the record and uphold decorum of admirable standard. I was hoping that they would require those who damaged Parliament property during the scuffle to replace them (at their own cost). As a future MP, I know that Parliamentary immunity cannot be stretched beyond “honourable” levels lest it’s lost. Parliament is not the structure but the people operating in it.
The author is a member of the Commonwealth Writers Group