Former Prosecutor General and Rwanda’s representative to the International [Criminal] Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) Martin Ngoga was recently voted in as the fifth speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) for a period of five years.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Times’ James Karuhanga last week, Ngoga revealed his plans on how he will confront the immediate challenges of the regional legislative body and those likely to crop up in the future. He spoke passionately about the urgent need to get everybody onboard and ensuring challenges are overcome.
Below are the excerpts:
In your acceptance speech you made it clear that your speech does not define what the fourth EALA will do but you were also clear that elections by their nature leave their own traces. You then urged members to seal all traces the election might have left and move forward as one focused, determined and united region. What traces in particular were you talking about?
I think my speech itself was explanatory. Every election involves some traces, as I put it. But people must go beyond the elections when the election is done; move forward. During campaigns, people can hold different opinions, people can raise their emotions but what would not be a good choice is to maintain or sustain them after elections.
So, even in this one we had different opinions and different understanding of the situation we were going through but the democratic process was undertaken. Now, EALA is constituted and it has a Speaker. Members are there and we are now calling on everybody to be on board and continue as one united body without divisions and that is pursuing a common objective as defined in the [EAC] Treaty.
You also said that, in your duties, you will give the majority their way but respect and protect the rights of minorities at all times. How does this apply to the situation especially considering what happened with lawmakers from Burundi and Tanzania, who were the minority, boycotting the election?
Well, first of all, there was nothing on record of the House as to why the two partner states were absent so I just don’t want to speculate on what would have caused their absence. I can only emphasize the fact that they are urgently needed to be part of what we are doing now.
We have members who are validly elected from those two partner states. Who were duly sworn in. and who have a duty to do. They have work of the Assembly to do. I think efforts will be done, within the Assembly and outside, to make sure that everyone who is supposed to be here is actually here.
Reading what was published in the press, and social media, it was apparent that there are some people out there who think the Heads of States Summit can come and reign in EALA. And lawmakers also appeared not to want the Summit to usurp the Assembly’s powers. Let’s talk about the independence of the House. To what extent is it…?
First of all I think there is no intention by the Summit to usurp the independence of the House. And indeed, parliament, or the Assembly, is an independent organ [of the Community] and there is a way we debate issues and reach conclusions. Those who have grievances have a way to raise them according to our rules of procedure.
The Assembly and the Court [the East African Court of Justice] are the only organs of the East African Community that do not need to have consensus in their decision making. We vote. And the majority, as I said, has the way although the rights of the minorities must be respected in the sense that they have to debate and have to be convinced and persuaded. But at the end of the day when the voting is done, a decision is made. So, it is impractical to suggest that you can generate a consensus in the Assembly because that is not parliamentary work.
Having been a member of the Assembly before, and now a Speaker, what are the most important challenges will you need to deal with?
First of all, it is to have everybody onboard. It is the reality. Whichever way it came up and it is manifesting itself; it is the reality that we need everybody onboard. As long as we don’t have everybody onboard then we have a challenge, primarily to the Assembly itself but also to other organs of the Community; to the Summit and to everyone.
That is an immediate thing but, hopefully, this may not stand in our way longer because we have to embark on the main business for which we were elected. The functions of the Assembly are defined in the [EAC] Treaty and we have a legislative function, oversight functions, and a representative function. We have our own structures in which we plan how to undertake those activities.
And let me remind you that we had been waiting for seven months for one partner state [Kenya] that we could not do elections in time. So, we have so many things that we have to do and time is not on our side. That’s why I am emphasizing we should work together to ensure that anything causing us further hitches should be overcome.
Back to what happened in the Assembly on Wednesday, the EALA Commission, the leading committee of the House, was set up but again Tanzania and Burundi presented a challenge. Let’s start with the motions moved on the floor. What were these motions really all about?
Two motions were moved. One of them was to move that the House conducts elections of the members of the Commission. Another motion was to the effect that the rule on quorum be suspended. Both motions were properly presented, properly debated and decisions made based on the vote.
This is how parliament operates. So, in terms of procedure and in terms of what we should do when we are in that chamber, everything is in order. But the other part of it is what we need to address, even if it does not necessarily offend our procedure today or any other day but it is a reality that we need to address. Those who were not present in the debating chamber should be present.
The decision and request by Tanzania to withdraw its nominations for members of the Commission was not upheld and the House went ahead and elected Tanzania’s two representatives. But as regards Burundi the case was different and we don’t have Burundi representatives in the Commission. What is your take and what is the way forward on this?
Members from Burundi who had earlier been nominated withdrew their nominations and they did so procedurally. We thus had no candidates from Burundi. But with regards to members nominated from the United Republic of Tanzania, the withdrawal of nominations was not properly done.
How particularly different were the two withdrawal requests?
In the case of Burundi, the individual members wrote withdrawing their interest or their nominations. In the case of the United Republic of Tanzania, somebody else wrote on behalf of the nominated members. Those are two clearly different instances.
What would be your final message to all east African citizens?
My final message is that we know what our mandate is. We sought their vote and support for us to come here and assume that mandate. We are willing and able to do that. We are facing some challenges and we may face challenges in future but there is will and determination to overcome and deliver to the expectations of east Africans.