Shs500 million 'service award' keeps jury out on Mpuuga

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In May 2022, the Parliamentary Commission meeting, with Mathias Mpuuga's in attendance, doled out Shs500m as service award to the then LoP, as well as Shs400m each for backbench commmissioners.

KAMPALA | In October 2022, Mathias Mpuuga was faced with a big dilemma. To castigate and direct Opposition legislators to return a controversial Shs40 million given to each as a "token of appreciation" after the passing of a Shs618 billion supplementary budget, or to side with them?

Mpuuga chose the easy route: play to the gallery. He effortlessly deflected the ugly green housefly on the party's face and the legislators' conduct by suggesting that some members had backtracked on their statement of receiving the money.

But there were deeper reasons Mpuuga could not roll up his sleeves on the matter - he needed the cuff-links to conceal what has now emerged as a bumper Shs500 million 'service award' given by Parliament.

Records show that on May 6, 2022, Mpuuga attended a Parliamentary Commission meeting chaired by Speaker Anita Among.

The meeting reviewed a select benefits for the LoP and Backbench Commissioners.

Mpuuga, alongside his docket's commissioners Solomon Silwany (Bukooli County - NRM), Esther Afoyochan (Zombo District Woman - NRM), and Prossy Mbabazi Akampurira (Rubanda District Woman - NRM) endorsed the 'service award' that also gave the backbench commissioners Shs400 million each.

Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake had been kicked out of the Parliamentary Commissioner two months earlier over statements he made on social media "disparaging" then Deputy Speaker Anita Among.

He did not respond when asked if he had received the money as well.

"The Leader of Opposition in Parliament shall be provided with one bodyguard when he leaves office," minutes of the meeting captured by Louis Bakyenga, who was secretary, says.

But there was a caveat and one that underscores the need for a cuff-link to cover the arms through with the handshake had reached beyond the palm. The hamper was given on a person-to-holder basis to Mpuuga and the backbench commissioners.

From legal perspective, this was a special benefit negotiated for by the particular office bearers. It was Mpuuga's benefit.

Several efforts to speak to Mpuuga or the Director of Communications at Parliament, Chris Obore, about the veracity of this financial bonanza have been futile.

It remains unclear if Mpuuga already has a guard paid for by the taxpayer as the Parliamentary Commission had resolved he would get upon leaving the office.

The decision was rendered as "taking immediate effect".

However, these "deals" - cut exactly a year into office - doodles rather grotesquely on the idea that it was a "service award."

Parliament last year forked out Shs3 billion from the taxpayers pouch to service the lifestyle of former Speakers, doling out luxury cars. The beneficiaries were undeniably worthy of the merit of "service award" but certainly not for Mpuuga who was just a year in office.

"This is surely not a case of the LoP being thanked for a job well-done, otherwise, who thanks the doctors and teachers making enormous sacrifices yet earning so little?| said lawyer and social justice activist Godwin Toko.

"From the look of it, it’s simply a case of leaders betraying their electorate that is all too common in this country."

Anti-corruption campaigner Cissy Kagaba says when it comes to money, the Opposition and the ruling party are in cahoots, but when it comes to other controversial issues, the Opposition will always come out and castigate the ruling party.

"In reality, the Opposition only becomes functional when there’s no money involved," Ms Kagaba, the former executive director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, said.

Toko said it would be unfortunate if these allegations are not adequately addressed as they risk derailing the belief that some Ugandans still have in the Opposition and multiparty politics as a whole – if not democracy.

"Leaders in the opposition must be extra cautious to avoid the ills of government that they keep talking about all the time," he said.

"Otherwise, if they preach water to the government but drink wine at the first opportunity, they’ll make many who are still fighting to hold onto some hope with politicians lose it to the detriment of Uganda."

Marion Agaba, the executive director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, said Opposition in a Westminster (UK) kind of democracy checks government and provides alternative policy direction.

"When the opposition becomes compromised, then this check and balance system will not work," she said.

Ms Agaba believes the problem is partly due to the over commercialisation of politics.

"MPs spend a lot (up to Shs1bn), to get elected to Parliament and when they get there, the focus is on recouping what was spent during elections, while also planning for the next elections. This makes MPs vulnerable and beggars," she added.

As things panned out, Mpuuga was last year dropped from the highly coveted LoP seat and replaced with Joel Ssenyonyi.

Ssenyonyi has the quiet ignominy of carrying around backbench commissioners - including Mpuuga - who sat in that meeting that agreed to milk the taxpayer further by doling out more than Shs2 billion to themselves.

Opposition leaders Mathias Mpuuga and Bobi Wine atop a vehicle

The National Unity Platform led by Robert Kyagulanyi has never openly spelt out the reasons for Mpuuga's reshuffle but it is highly unlikely that the party's leadership would not have known of the "service award" prior to the December 'change of guards'.

Toward the end of his brief 'Shs500 million tenure', Mpuuga came under intense scrutiny from both within the party and Opposition. But it was the media reports that furrowed the brows of the man from Masaka.

The storm in his cup hit the ceiling when a daily published reports that Mpuuga had held secret meetings with government officials to negotiate the release of MPs Allan Ssewanyana and Muhammad Ssegirinya.

The two legislators had been incarcerated in Luzira for a year over murder charges.

Mpuuga managed to coax an apology from the newspaper and became increasingly tense around journalists, once accusing members of the Fourth Estate of "blackmailing" Opposition legislators who were observing boycott of plenary sittings.

More than anything, however, Mpuuga's 'service award' leaves the Opposition naked. From the perspective of his hamper, it is easy to see why he could not prevail on the MPs who dripped saliva over Shs40 million token.

"Mpuuga is a man many Ugandans, especially those on the side seeking for change from the current corruption, nepotism, and extravagance associated with the NRM hold in high esteem," Toko said.

"It is disappointing therefore, that his name has come up as part of the leaders who have used Parliament as a place to unfairly enrich themselves at time the economic situation is unfavourable to a good number of Ugandans.

"The fact that he led the opposition docket in parliament makes it even worse, hopefully he will clarify on the exposé."

Incidentally, Mpuuga's loyal follower Abed Bwanika said on NBS Morning Breeze on Wednesday that there are people who came into politics because tjhey see it as an avenue for accumulating wealth and fame.

"They are building apartments. That was rare in opposition politics. Opposition politics used to be about sacrifice," said the Kimanya-Kabonera MP.

Bwanika is not wrong. The politics today is about Gonzaga and the allure of money and the jury will never call it a day as they must stay out there for many more conducts of politicians to come to light.

Lawyer Toko urged Ugandans to remember that there are still some good and incorruptible leaders who serve with integrity in the country.

The challenge for Ugandans, Ms Agaba says, is that Parliament has become a "bottomless pit" for taxpayers and no one is there to serve the citizens’ interests.

Sadly, you cannot get out of an abyss. It swallows you. That is where the Ugandan taxpayer is, with accountability institutions helpless to check parliament "because of the immense power" parliament has over appropriation, oversight and appointment.

And here is the gist: the Auditor General is an employee of Parliament and reports to Parliament. The IGG reports to Parliament.

The Executive needs Parliament for certain decision to pass. All judges must be vetted and confirmed by Parliament. Funds to all government agencies are appropriated by Parliament.

"So, who will check Parliament's excesses?" Agaba asks.

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