The Human Rights and Peace Center, (HURIPEC) of the School of Law, Makerere University, under a research initiative ‘Transparency and Accountability of COVID Resources (TACOR)’, is exploring how resources including money mobilized for the fight against the COVID 19 pandemic has been utilized and what lessons can be drawn to address any future emerging crises like the resurging Ebola and landslides that the country continues to grapple with.
As part of data collection HURIPEC held a second Budget Review Platform meeting on 21st September 2022 held. This was attended by a cross section of Members of Parliament from select committees including health and budget, as well as Civil Society Organizations like the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information (SEATINI), Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), and the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) among other dignitaries. This engagement took place at the HURIPEC boardroom, at the School of Law, Makerere University.
This meeting was a follow up to the first Budget Review Platform Meeting that was held on the 8th July 2022. Through these meetings and a series of other engagements, HURIPEC has ignited a conversation around the expenditures of the COVID 19 resources by the relevant stakeholders.
Organized under the theme “Seeking Accountability for COVID funds through the lens of Budget analysis”, the TACOR research team at HURIPEC presented some of the preliminary findings from the field studies that had so far been conducted in the four regions of Uganda, that is; (North, East, West and Central) in the districts of Gulu, Soroti, Mbarara and Masaka respectively. These regional engagements raised critical views from various stakeholders in the four districts in Acholi, Teso, Buganda and Ankole subregions on how COVID – 19 funds were received and utilized. In addition, the meetings offered insights on the various actors involved in the response to the pandemic that still continues to date, albeit with limited attention and scrutiny. Preliminary findings from the district level experiences in the fight against COVID-19 presented at the Budget Review Platform meeting stimulated conversations around budget performance of the COVID-19 budget appropriations, disbursements, utilization and accountability as Parliamentarians and other participants shared their perspectives and insights on some of the findings.
ACODE, through its research fellow, under the Monitoring and Evaluation department, Eugene Gerald Semakula, presented findings from a study that had earlier been carried out under the title “The Performance of the COVID – 19 district task forces in Uganda: Understanding the Dynamics and Functionality”. A report from the study was developed and compiled by Jonas Mbabazi and Fred Kasalirwe from ACODE. Specific presentations at the meeting were also made by the Director of HURIPEC, Dr. Zahara Nampewo and Odong Jackson (a Research Associate at HURIPEC and the TACOR Coordinator), while the rest of the dignitaries had an interactive engagement in light of the presentations that were being made in the day.
According to Odong Jackson, some of the emerging issues from TACOR studies include; delayed disbursements of COVID-19 funds, contravention of procurement guidelines, politicization of COVID-19 resources, diversion of funds, and the information deficits that obscure accountability of COVID-19 resources in Uganda. Notably, these kind of field studies are among the ways that Makerere University engages communities to cure some of the problems that Prof. Christopher Mbazira, the Principal, School of Law says “research is created for”. While closing the meeting, Prof. Mbazira noted that universities were accused of concentrating on theories, ignoring field work and not being out there in the public domain to engage communities and policy makers to influence change. In his remarks, he was glad that HURIPEC and specifically through TACOR was undertaking such kinds of initiatives that required communing with the wider public.
The members of parliament present were particularly advised on some of the areas that needed parliamentary oversight during the onslaught of the pandemic (even if it was not done to the expectations of the citizens of the country) to include having oversight over quarantine centers, hospitals and other health facilities, accountabilities of government institutions, funds and information about COVID funds. However, it was revealed that parliament has had a limited involvement in holding persons under the relevant sectors and departments to account in light of the COVID – 19 Pandemic, even though some of the members of parliament present differed in opinion.
The dignitaries also commended HURIPEC and the School of Law for the research and urged that they continue “… contributing to the body of knowledge” with the research and findings, feeding members of parliament with information.
Dr. Zahara Nampewo advised members of parliament that they needed to improve in the areas of accountability of COVID – 19 funds, in how to work with the law such as the Public Finance Act, use of ICT to enhance information sharing and coordination, enhancing partnerships with Civil Society, the academia and wider community. These she hoped would be able to solve some of the weaknesses identified in the systems such as weaknesses in the legal and policy frameworks during COVID to handle issues of disbursement, procurement, information sharing and coordination, uncoordinated complementary government initiatives, lack of clarity in reporting and accountability and proliferation of entities.
This is something that the Principal School of Law agreed with when he said that the lack of accountability had been sustained by the failure to adhere to the Rule of Law.
“I agree that our laws have some weaknesses, but we also have laws that if implemented can achieve a lot”, Prof. Christopher Mbazira remarked, “the problem is alluded to politics and if not fixed, we shall lament for long”. He feared that “we (were) overseeing institutional capture. Parliament is under capture at both macro and micro levels”.
Hon. Michael Kakembo, Member of Parliament for Entebbe Municipality advised civil society organizations to research, review existing laws, provide solutions that bite and to advise on a law for oversight to create compelling obligations by the law to hold people accountable.
The members of parliament in an effort to protect themselves from the biased scrutiny advised that all public officials should be scrutinized, not just parliament, “we have become punch bags, we are bogged down”, referring to complaints about how much parliament earns and yet there were many uncriticized public officials who received more money than they did.
Member of Parliament, the District Woman MP for Soroti District, Hon. Anna Adeke Ebaju noted that there were no clear-cut channels on use of public resources, implementation of the law and the systems in place was opaque, there was no political mandate to provide the required scrutiny. “parliament” she said, “does not have power to prosecute or power to order refund of misappropriated funds”.
A shared sentiment from the meeting was the worry that Ebola was now here and the appetite for public resources was now out.
TACOR continues with COVID-19 accountability discourse, answering some of the tough questions that were posed at the Budget review platform meeting, especially one from Hon. Michael Kakembo who asked, “Where did the COVID-19 billions go? referring to the unaccounted for COVID funds. Other questions revolved around why political heads like the LC5 and other political leaders were left out of the COVID – 19 engagements, “If there (were) systems in place, why not follow them?” “Do we need to review the constitution to give parliament more power beyond making laws?”, “Should I (Principal of Law) be paid to churn out lawyers who will not do anything because the country has no rule of law. Is it worth it?”