The perception that parliament doesn’t adequately play its role has been around for some time now. Some claim that parliament doesn’t hold government accountable.
Others say it doesn’t scrutinise legal Bills tabled by government and this leads to enacting laws that rarely stand the test of time while others say MPs are clueless about citizen’s challenges.
Perhaps drawing from this public sentiment or from his own observations, President Paul Kagame told the fourth parliament to do a better job and hold his officials more accountable in a speech he delivered last Thursday after swearing in newly elected MPs.
In his speech Kagame clarified: “If you can only account for 25 per cent of the resources you are responsible for, we will ask you about the other 75 per cent.
And we will find where you have hidden them and hold you accountable And besides making sure you repay what you have embezzled, we will also ensure that we keep you somewhere (in prison!)
In other words, besides reminding parliament of its role, Kagame also signalled his political will not only to ensure that the corrupt are prosecuted, but that they also repay what they steal.
While this articulation of the will to fight corruption isn’t new in Rwanda, it’s heart-warming to hear the president support the idea of parliament holding government to account.
In politics, rarely do heads of state unambiguously demand parliament to hold their own government accountable.
So, will parliament heed the President’s call and hold government to account? For those unfamiliar with the workings of politics and what best motivates MPs or elected officials to act in public interest, the answer would be: “Yes, parliament will hold government to account both because it is its role and the head of state demands it!”
However, to answer this question, we need to ask under what conditions parliaments hold governments accountable and why our previous parliaments didn’t perform to the public expectation.
Normally, parliaments perform better under five conditions: First, when there is an entrenched culture of checks and balances between arms of government.
Second, where MPs have an established political constituency and therefore the cost of poor performance is high. Third, where the media reports parliamentary business effectively and hence the citizenry are well informed.
Fourth, where MPs are intellectually able and capable of researching and articulating pertinent issues that affect the nation. Finally, where civil society and the citizenry are proactively engaged in public affairs and make demands on MPs and parliament.
Objectively then, to discern whether the fourth parliament will deliver, we need to ask whether these conditions exist. What I can say is that while checks and balances are enshrined in the Constitution, as a polity, we are yet to develop a culture of celebrated checks and balances between institutions of government.
Secondly, due to our electoral system, MPs owe more allegiance to their political parties that put them on party lists of candidates that made it possible to win seats than the public who voted for the lists.
This tells us that for parliament to hold government to account, political parties need to make this their objective; otherwise, on their own, MPs can’t do much since acting contrary to their parties would cost them their jobs.
This teaches us that instead of making demands to individual MPs, it would help for the public to make demands to political parties.
For that to happen, the media will need not only to cover parliamentary affairs adequately, but also inform the public about how the political system works and why political parties are critical for accountability.
That said, I should add that since President Kagame, who is the chairman of the ruling RPF, which has the majority in parliament expressed his support for a robust parliament, parliament won’t have an excuse not to play its role.
With the president’s support, what MPs need to do to succeed is to summon the spirit of courage and start asking hard and consequential questions.
Developing the spirit of courage would require MPs not only to do research and independent reading on issues, but also devising a strategy that encourages the media to report their activities as well as recruit their own parties to support holding corrupt officials accountable.
And since parliamentary politics is a game of numbers, that tells us is that despite some observers placing their hopes on the two new parties that gained four seats in parliament, we can only have a robust parliament if it’s supported by the ruling party.
And having such a parliament is now possible for as President Kagame put it, “Buri gihe kigira uko ibintu bikorwa” (Every era has established ways of how things are done). Perhaps this is the era for a robust parliament!
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website: www.mgcconsult.come