Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Six months since Parliament passed a revised Genetic Engineering Bill, 2018, that included demands by President Yoweri Museveni, he has not signed it into law. But he has also not written to Parliament to explain why.
This is the latest saga over a Bill that started out seven years ago as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012.
Since then, although almost everyone wants a biotechnology law, there has been tension between those for and against specific provisions in the Bill.
So when Parliament passed the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018, in November last year, it attracted celebration and frustration in equal measure.
Civil society, farmers’ groups, women and trade policy organisations, consumer groups, and environmentalists issued a joint communiqué last December thanking Parliament for “addressing their long standing concerns in the Bill.” But the science community of researchers did not want it.
It was a dramatic reversal from when the first Biosafety Bill was passed on Oct. 04, 2017. That was celebrated by the science community of researchers but civil society activists did not want it. They were happy when the President declined to assent to it and returned it to parliament.
In a letter addressed to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, in December, 2017, Museveni insisted on a change in the Bill’s title, provisions on patent rights on indigenous farming products, and sanctions for scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.
Most of these were demands of civil society activists and they celebrated the passing of a revised version in November last year. But the scientists were unhappy. And now the President has neither signed it into law nor rejected it.
Arthur Makara, the Commissioner in charge of Science Advancement and Outreach at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation confirmed to The Independent that the ministry is yet to get any guidance or directive in regards to the law that seeks to regulate biotechnology in the country.
“We are waiting for the President’s signature for us to implement the law,” he said.
Politics at play
The President’s silence has caused confusion, anxiety, and speculation among government officials, scientists, and farmers for and against biotechnology.
“My thinking is that perhaps the president is buying time. He fears appending a signature on a bill that is not political but is somewhat controversial,” Arthur Tugume, an associate professor of plant pathology and genetics at the Department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Biotechnology in Makerere University told The Independent.
He added: “This is not a political bill but politics seems to be at play”.
Lee Denis Oguzu, the MP for Maracha County in northwestern Uganda and Shadow Minister of Science, Innovation and Communication Technology told The Independent on May 15 that it is unclear why President Museveni has not acted. He said, however, the law gives the President in excess of 45 days within which to assent or revert to Parliament.
Uganda’s Constitution demands that when the president fails to sign or return a bill to Parliament within 30 days, “the President shall be taken to have assented to the Bill and at the expiration of that period, the Speaker shall cause a copy of the Bill to be laid before Parliament and the Bill shall become law without the assent of the President.”
When asked about it, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, referred The Independent to either the Speaker of Parliament or the Clerk to Parliament.
“The Clerk to Parliament or the Speaker must know what is going on,” he said. But when The Independentcontacted the office of the Speaker, they refused to comment.
Esther Mbayo, the Minister in charge of the Office of the President told The Independent that the Bill is on the President’s table.
“What do you want me to do? You want me to ask him to sign it?” Mbayo said.
Don Wanyama, the Senior Press Secretary to President Museveni told The Independent on May 17 that he needed to physically crosscheck with the president’s Principal Private Secretary to see if the Bill was signed or not.
When The Independent talked to the activists, they said President Museveni must sign the version now on his desk. They said it is better than the one he rejected in December 2017. But some were equally unsure if Museveni would sign the new version into law.
“We know that a lot of politics happens in between Parliament up to the point when the law is gazetted,” said Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Food Rights Alliance, a Kampala-based non-profit.
“We have experiences where things are agreed on the floor of Parliament and by the time the actual Act is gazetted, some of the clauses have been thrown out of the window.”
“At the moment, we believe it is a very good step forward because this law has a strict liability and redress mechanism.”
The activists were particularly happy with the liability and redress mechanism clauses which stipulate that the advancement of modern technology requires a precautionary approach in addressing safety issues.
The strict liability provision places legal liability on whoever introduces a GMO product for any damage caused as a result of the product or process of developing it.
“Globally there is consensus that this is not a safe technology and Uganda being a poor country with incompetent institutions that are not strong enough to really safeguard us, we must have a law that safeguards us,” Kirabo told The Independent on May 16.
The revised version also covered “benefit sharing” which protects the rights of the communities because, civil society says, Africa is facing an onslaught of GMO developers who take indigenous seed and patent them without recognizing the rights of farmers.
The law calls for a comprehensive labelling and liability traceability system whereby the promoter of GMO products must label the products sufficiently, including the product’s relevant traits and characteristics to enable traceability.
All genetically engineered material will also have to be labelled, with the phrase: “Contains genetically engineered material,” to help consumers exercise their right to choose products free from GMOs.
A provision on co-existence of farming practices was also included in the Bill, noting that a person who cultivates any GMO shall prevent contamination or co-mingling of GMO crop with indigenous crops. Any person who keeps or owns genetically modified livestock shall prevent cross-breeding between genetically modified and non-genetically modified livestock.
Critics of biotechnology say it is a “selfish” technology which goes against the social norms of African farmers who for generations have depended and shared seed yet this technology is capable of wiping out indigenous seed.