The Independent

By Andrew M. Mwenda

February 17, 2012

We should be suspicious of parliamentary interventions in lucrative government contracts because they often make a bad situation worse.

Recently, President Yoweri Museveni ordered government of Uganda officials to sign oil Production Sharing Agreements with companies. This was in spite of a resolution by parliament stopping all new agreements. Many Ugandans are rightfully sick and tired of corruption and genuinely suspicious of the executive. They support parliament in its self-proclaimed fight against the problem. Yet I am much more inclined to side with Museveni on signing PSAs.

The signing of oil agreements is important as a signal that investment in the sector can begin. This allows companies interested in investing in downstream and upstream activities feeding into and from the industry to bring in money. For many countries, this leads to increased employment and economic growth. In Ghana, upon signing the agreements, economic growth was 20 percent that year. In Equatorial Guinea, it was 30 percent. The challenge for Uganda actually is to examine the benefits against the costs of delaying these contracts through protracted parliamentary investigations.

I have been a journalist in Uganda for almost 18 years now; my first major story was published in The Monitor in January 1994 when I was a first year student at Makerere University. This has been a fulfilling practical craft given my love of storytelling. It has also been an intellectual journey; my interest in the complexity of social phenomenon has taught me to reflect. So I see a mismatch between the theory of democracy as presented in textbooks and the reality of its outplay in the politics I cover as a journalist.

For instance, democratic theory teaches us that when exercising its functions, parliament seeks to hold the executive to account. It seems theoretically obvious that in passing a resolution suspending signing oil contracts, the House was trying to check any abuses the executive could have made. Yet from my experience, such democratic contestations are often driven by more complex motivations. Even when well-intentioned, they often produce results at odds with the proclaimed purpose. In the case of most government contracts I have covered, these contests undermine the state’s ability to negotiate better deals for the country.

Many Ugandans genuinely believe this parliamentary intervention will stop the corruption of the executive in oil contracts. This faith is largely because many people want to have hope in the destiny of Uganda. Yet my experience shows parliamentary intervention is more likely to make the situation worse. The oil barons who come to Uganda are not fools. They have worked in many other African countries and beyond. They know that Uganda’s 9th parliament is not simply made of selfless MPs tirelessly fighting for the public good. They also know that even when MPs feel for their country – and many do – they also have personal interests…Read more.