August 13, 2019

On Senatorial Elections: Do We Need Two Chambers of Parliament?

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Recently the Parliamentary buildings has been given a face-lift with a white paint

Last Friday, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) concluded receiving candidates for senatorial elections slated for next month. The exercise had started on July 22.

Noticeably, as The Chronicles reported on August 11, none of the incumbent senators applied to stay on the job despite the fact that the amended Constitution allows them to do so.

Before the 2015 amendment, the Constitution allowed senators to serve only one term of eight years but Article 81 of the revised constitution provides for a term of five years renewable once.

With no incumbent senator standing again, we will have 100 percent turn-over of elected senators once the vote is cast and announced between September 16-18.

As stipulated in Article 80 of the Constitution, only 12 of the 26 senators are indirectly elected through provincial electoral colleges while 8 are appointed by the President and four provided by the Forum for Political Parties, as the remaining two are selected by universities; public and private.

Logically, it is nearly impossible to imagine that all the senators who have served their eight years coincidentally decided not to seek re-election or aren’t aware the revised constitution offers them an opportunity to seek to stay on their job. Instead, with the benefit of hindsight, we could say that the good senators must have been “advised” against doing so by kingmakers in the system.

In Part, that’s what some might call the “politics of consensus” in practice or what I would call the “de-politicization” of political positions in the country. That’s, the question of who occupies this or that position – whether through elections or appointment, isn’t necessarily determined by individual drive, interest or even “right” to stand for election as such, but by behind-the-scenes maneuvers, calculations and political godfathers in political parties; particularly in the ruling RPF party.

In other words, while the law provides that anyone who meets certain criteria can stand for election, whether senatorial seats or otherwise, in practice, no one can wake up and “grow” interest in an elective position and win without the support of political godfathers in political parties and the political system broadly.

That said, as the Executive Secretary of NEC Mr Charles Munyaneza told the media, despite incumbent senators not putting themselves forward: “The turn-up [for candidates] has been great because on average we have about seven candidates per province. We have a good mix of both women and men, the young and old”.

Thus, as it should be, there isn’t and can’t be a shortage of individuals aspiring to be senators; whether or not incumbents seek re-election and that “good mix of both men and women” Munyaneza talks about isn’t something that naturally develops, but is engineered by those who “matter” within the system.

For me therefore, the real question isn’t about who will win, but whether we, as a nation, need two chambers of parliament; the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies as stipulated in Article 64 of the Constitution.

This is a question I have been pondering since around 2005 when I started researching the country’s political and electoral systems and how these advance or constrain women’s access to positions of power.

This research gave rise to a published book titled: “Understanding High Presence of Women in Rwanda’s Parliament: Paths to the World’s First Female Parliamentary Majority in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Since then, I have closely followed how the country’s political system works and internalized the challenges we face and have come to the conclusion that as a nation determined to develop, and confronted with challenges of endemic poverty, malnutrition – and trying to invest in quality education and good health, we don’t need two chambers of parliament, but one.

This stand point is informed by four reasons: the first is the financial cost for the two chambers and the fact that we, as a people, aren’t getting value for our money if one considers output of the two chambers. The second is that the roles and responsibilities of the two chambers can be done by one. Thirdly, due to how it is constituted, the Senate doesn’t advance democracy, and finally, the Senate has some responsibilities that would advance our democratic experiment if given to courts of law.

Let us explain.

First, in all honesty, it’s difficult to visualize how the Senate, due to how it’s constituted and works, advances the principle of democratic representation. How can a Senate of 26 members with only 12 of them indirectly elected advance our democratic ideals?

FIVE MOST POWERFUL RWANDANS: President Paul Kagame in conversation with Donatille Mukabalisa – Chamber of Deputies Speaker, Prime Minister Dr Edouard Ngirente, Senate President Bernard Makuza and Chief Justice Prof Sam Rugege. It was swearing in of PM Ngirente, Kigali, 30 August 2017

Second, while rhetorically the politics of “regionalism” is denounced as divisive, our only 12 indirectly elected senators of the 26 are supposed to represent the four provinces and the city of Kigali.

Analytically, these senators represent interest groups more than ordinary citizen. For example, while we had the first Senate in 2003, as a university lecturer─who is supposed to have a Senator that represents me─and a resident of Kigali, again with Senators, I have never been met with any nor do I know a family member or colleagues who have personally been met by these senators! Instead, Senators tend to work in groups and meet organized interest groups with their own agendas rather than citizens.

Thirdly, as provided for in Article 64 of the Constitution, the two chambers share the duo responsibilities of debating and making as well acting as a check on the executive.

Unlike the Lower Chamber of Deputies however, the Senate has three more roles: Monitoring fundamental principles in the Constitution as provided for under Article 84; ‘holding accountable political parties under Article 58 and approving presidential appointments─such as judges, heads of government institutions and commissions as stipulated in Article 86 of the Constitution.

But a look at what the two chambers have achieved since their inauguration in 2003 after the promulgation of the post-genocide Constitution in June of the same year, it can’t be said that the two Chambers have registered anything unique beyond passing laws and acting according to the wishes of the executive.

In Fact, even in the realm of lawmaking, we could say that the executive has acted as a higher check on the two chambers since there are certain laws that it has resent back for reconsideration due to lacking quality and foresight. Such laws include the bill on criminal procedures of 2019, the media law of 2009 and 2002, etc.

So, if the Senate is supposed to act as a check on the Lower Chambers and have a second look at laws and ensure they are well crafted, it has failed miserably, a factor illustrated by the fact that most laws are revised often than would be required due to lack of informed and rigorous scrutiny. For example, even before a year elapsed after passing it in June 2018, the penal code is already back in parliament to be revised; the media law has been revised three times in the past 17 years, etc.

Fourth, since its inauguration in 2003, there is no presidential appointment the Senate has rejected; it has endorsed everyone proposed. Perhaps that might be due to quality of appointees; but it might also be due to the non-questioning Senate and fear of questioning presidential appointments as some believe.

What this tells us is that, in reality, as far as lawmaking and scrutinizing presidential appointments are concerned, the two chambers offers no special value; one chamber can do the work.

With regard to ‘monitoring fundamental principles’─such as ‘power-sharing’, fighting divisionism and genocide ideology, etc, as provided for in Article 84 and “holding accountable” political organizations as provided for under Article 58, these roles can be performed by the judiciary as well as a single chamber of parliament.

In any case, there is evidence that the Senate doesn’t performs these roles adequately! For example, despite requiring it to monitor to ensure that power-sharing is observed as stipulated in Article 10, paragraph three and article 62 of the constitution, the Senate hasn’t said anything yet PS-Imberakuri and Green Party aren’t represented in government despite winning seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

The issue of holding political parties accountable can legally be best handled by courts of law─such as the Supreme Court that interprets constitutional provisions and politically, by the “Forum for Political parties” that’s made up of all legally constituted political parties in the country.

Yet, while what both chambers do can be performed by one, as a country with many competing problems for resources, we continue to spend money on both; including on elections and the day-to-day administration and staff remuneration for doing almost similar work; located in different chambers.

As NEC’s Munyaneza told the media, this upcoming senatorial election will cost Rwf 200m, and last year’s lower chamber elections cost Rwf 5,400,000,000.

Administratively, the lower chamber is allocated Rwf 6,883,198,959 in the 2019-2020 budget with Rwf 4,790,041,054 going to administration and staff while the Senate will spend Rwf 5,475,406,052 in the 2019-2020 budget with 4,920,804,159 going to administration and staff.

In the financial year 2018-2019, the lower chamber spent Rwf 6,241,854,169 and in 2017-2018 it spend Rwf 6,483,797,908 while the Senate spent Rwf 3,035,160,562 and 2,873,699,294 respectively.

What can this money do if invested elsewhere? It could be used to improve the health of citizens through boosting payment to mutuelle de sante that currently lack funds or could be used to improve the quality of education especially in primary and secondary schools where salaries for teachers is peanuts due to what government officials say is due to “lack of funds and the high number of teachers”.

In total, for the current year, the taxpayer will foot Rwf 12.4 billion to take care of our lawmakers but Health Minister Dr Diane Gashumba announced in February that the mutuelle de sante, a crucial national health insurance scheme, which the vast majority of Rwandans depend on, was short of money. As a result, the scheme does not cover many necessary treatments.

Inside the plenary session of the Senate

Currently, the government math is that each beneficiary pays Rwf 5,000 every year – of which the state covers Rwf 3,000. However, the cost of treatment goes up to Rwf 7,000 for each individual, which government is unable to find from the meagre resources available. Dr Gashumba said to cover this short fall, government needs an additional between Rwf10-12billion every year.

In addition, local media has repeatedly carried reports of well-wishers fundraising to pay health insurance for needy communities. A few weeks ago, the diaspora in the Netherlands paid coverage for several thousand people in southern Rwanda. Other groups in Canada, Ivory Coast and Europe have conducted similar projects.

In other words, while the resources used to maintain the two chambers can be used to solve other more pressing problems, the cost of maintaining both has also been increasing every year. If we add perks and privileges, the cost is even higher yet output, in terms of quality and substantive checks and balances, there is little to justify funding both chambers.

The only value I can see for the senate is offering jobs to favoured senior politicians and “near-retirees” from different political groupings to ensure they partake to the “national cake”; which value isn’t cost-effective.

This means that as a country, we aren’t getting value for taxpayer money and we should, in future, disband the Senate through a constitutional amendment and its roles divided between the Lower Chamber of Deputies, the Supreme Court and the Forum for Political Parties.

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  1. While we all would be disturbed by the existence of one chamber, It is hard to disagree with your arguments. Maybe the government needs to reduce their budgets instead. For a body of 26 people, they consume way too much money. We can for sure transfer those funds where they are needed in healthcare, education, and other key sectors that help the people.

  2. Facts based and good analytical arguments
    This should be taken into account! It might not change over night, but something needs to be done.

    Thx Dr. Kayumba

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