Persistence, political acumen have seen her beat the odds to rise to the highest level
The new Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) is the latest addition to Uganda’s political hierarchy. At the reading of the Budget in Parliament on June 14, there was a bit of confusion in the protocol – should Margaret Zziwa be addressed before or after the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament? Should she be mentioned before or after the Chief Justice? Yet, barely a month ago, her name would only be mentioned in passing as the former Women MP for Kampala.
Probably former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s saying, “A week is a long time in politics” best describes Zziwa’s meteoric rise to eminence. Barely a month ago May 21, she beat off stiff competition from 15 people including politically well-connected men, to win an unlikely nomination for the EALA seat that was vacated by Lydia Wanyoto, whose term had expired. Her election in Parliament was a mere formality, but her presentation came off as the surprise package of the day.
At the EALA elections in Arusha Tanzania on June 6, she beat the party’s ‘official candidate’ - Dora Byamukama - hands down to become the unlikely first woman to be the EALA Speaker. The rest as they say is history. At her residence in Naguru in Kampala, two official limousines - a sleek black S320 Mercedes Benz and a Jeep both with East African Community (EAC) registration plates – as well as several police guards, alert one to the fact that the relatively modest house is no longer the ordinary home it has always been.
Indeed, a recent visit to her home indicated that the loftiness of her new office is yet to sink in. Warm as she has always been, she shakes hands with the journalists waiting outside and takes a seat close to the main entrance to the house. She has been in the news lately and wants to tell her story. But she also has fears. Not too long ago, she says, she was presented as a “goof” in one newspaper. She takes her image seriously and pleads with the photographers not to capture on the leisure shoes she was wearing. A second thought hits her and she decides to change into closed boots, if only to be sure.
As she settles into rhythm, in comes her 10-year old son from school. “Hello Francis,” she calls out, “How was your day?” Francis enters the house to join his sister Edna, 19, who will join university later this year. Their two elder siblings - a boy and a girl - are away studying in the US. Her motherly instincts will certainly come in handy as she steers the 50-member EALA.
The mother of four and wife to NRM Chairperson for Kampala District, Edward Francis Babu, cheerfully talks about her life. She is one of 13 siblings born to Charles Mugerwa, an assistant radiographer and Josephine Mugerwa in the small Kampala suburb of Mpererwe 50 years ago. She sees it as a good omen that as Uganda celebrates her Golden Jubilee of independence, it also boasts of the first ever female EALA Speaker.
Zziwa started her education at Jinja Karoli Primary School and in the mid 1970s joined Kololo SS and Caltec Academy Makerere, before joining Makerere University for her Bachelor of Economics in 1983. While at Makerere, the war that brought President Yoweri Museveni to power was still raging and Zziwa and many of her colleagues embraced the ideology of the rebel outfit that later formed the new government. Throughout her life, she has been a fighter who would go all out to achieve her goals. She also holds two masters degrees, one from the University of Sterling in UK and another from Makerere University. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Sterling.
If there is a subject that Zziwa would rather say little about, it is her showdown with Dorah Byamukama, who had been widely reported to be the official NRM candidate for EALA speaker. Zziwa, who eventually beat Byamukama by 33 votes to 12, says the story that Byamukama was an official NRM candidate, and that therefore she rebelled against her party by challenging her, was just concocted.
She says she would have dropped out of the race had word come from President Yoweri Museveni, the NRM chairman, asking her to do so. She says she was kept updated by the East African Affairs Minister Eriya Kategaya, who she says was in constant touch with Museveni, and who kept assuring her that NRM had no official candidate. In his State of the Nation Address on June 7, Museveni confirmed that indeed there was no NRM candidate for EALA Speaker “because the NRM caucus had not chosen one.”
Zziwa won’t say why the Caucus members kept saying that Byamukama was the “official” NRM candidate.
The one who appears to know why is her husband Babu, who we encounter on our way out. “We have some really bad-mannered people in NRM,” Babu says, “They make our otherwise great party look bad.”
Babu, who fell out with NRM Secretary General and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi over the nomination of the NRM candidate for Kampala Lord Mayor in the last election, was on hand to “argue” with Byamukama’s backers in Arusha in a frantic campaign for his wife. He reasoned that the two candidates should tussle it out and the “best woman” would win. The camp that supported Zziwa is said to have had Mbabazi’s backing.
The public is keen to know what happened in Arusha but Zziwa prefers to play diplomatic, fearing that focusing on her showdown with Byamukama could “distract” her from embarking on the challenge that have been presented to her.
Reluctantly, Zziwa says within NRM, the race for EALA Speaker was somewhat tribalised, at some point pitting the Buganda NRM MPs against the MPs from western Uganda. “I stayed out of it,” she says, revealing the political awareness and tact that has enabled her beat the odds on many occasions. “The only person I told of my intention to run for Speaker and at a later date was Byamukama herself when we met in the Distinguished Members’ Gallery.”
The acrimony in NRM politics was again at play in Arusha in the run-up to the Speaker elections. Zziwa says she was told the NRM EALA MPs had carried out a vote to decide who between her and Byamukama would run for Speaker. In the vote, five voted for Byamukama and one abstained or voted for Zziwa, according to different accounts. “I didn’t participate in that exercise,” she says. However, she says she was intrigued that the exercise was presided over by Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko and her husband’s political rival. “Is he a member of EALA or NRM Electoral Commission?” Zziwa asks in a somewhat sarcastic tone that pointed to the rivalry between her husband and Nsereko.
Nsereko beat Babu in the nomination race for NRM candidate for Kampala Central Constituency in the 2011 elections while Babu in turn beat him to the party chairmanship of Kampala. Both elections were acrimonious, coloured by accusations of rigging and voter bribery. Observers say Nsereko had originally gone to Arusha to back Mike Ssebalu’s candidature for the EALA Speakership and when Ssebalu pulled out, Nsereko had to turn to Byamukama to settle an old score. Zziwa regards the backdoor operations to drag her out of the race as a “circus.”
But why did she wait too long to clear the air that there was indeed no official candidate? She says she likes to sequence her battles. At the beginning, she knew she first had to be nominated by NRM to run for EALA and then win the vote in Uganda’s Parliament before looking elsewhere. So at that stage, she didn’t mention her interest in running for EALA Speaker, lest she antagonises some of her voters in the NRM Caucus.
In fact it was said Zziwa had told some people that she wasn’t interested in being EALA Speaker; that all she wanted was to return to Arusha as an MP. But Zziwa dismisses this as propaganda.
But to be sure that the EALA Speaker can stand the heat, we pose one more question: How did you feel when it took almost five minutes for someone to stand up to nominate you for EALA Speaker? “Well, I entered the race knowing there were two possible outcomes; winning and losing. I have won and lost elections before and there would be nothing new whatever happened.”
In her battle for EALA Speaker, Zziwa was cushioned by a powerful ally in Babu. They share a long history as players in Kampala politics stretching back decades. And, according to Zziwa, they are driven by common aspirations and have the same interests.
Zziwa joined the Resistance Council (RC which was later renamed Local Council) system in 1987, less than a year after Museveni captured power. Progressing through the RC system, she joined the former Kampala City Council (KCC) as a councillor as she at the same time worked with the former Uganda Commercial Bank.
It was from there that she rose to become a member of the Constituent Assembly (CA), which wrote the 1995 Constitution and later became Kampala Woman MP in both the 6th and 7th Parliaments. While Zziwa was Kampala woman representative, Babu represented Kampala Central Division in both the Constituent Assembly and the 6th Parliament up to 2001 when he lost to Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago. Zziwa’s sojourn in Uganda’s Parliament stretched a term further than her husband’s until 2006 when she lost to Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Naggayi.
The duo’s experience as NRM politicians in Kampala at a time when their party was losing support could have influenced their approach to politics. Some NRM members accuse Zziwa and Babu of not being NRM enough, owing to the comments and behaviour they consider to be against the party’s interests. However, most observers refer to the dual as liberal and independent-minded.
Probably that is what the duo needed to survive in Kampala politics. In the 2001 election, for instance, Museveni lost to Kizza Besigye in Kampala District but Zziwa was returned as Woman MP. Babu later lost narrowly to Lukwago, whose star was rapidly rising. This invited criticism from some NRM members, accusing them of only campaigning for themselves and not for Museveni. Zziwa rejects the accusation by her detractors saying she would concentrate on her campaign when she saw that an attempt to sell Museveni in the opposition stronghold would jeopardise her chances of getting elected.
She has also had to defend herself against allegations of not being an NRM supporter, and being aloof to the plight of the people, accusations that she vehemently denies. “Show me one person who is more NRM than me in Kampala,” Zziwa challenges. She says she has been at the centre of working to improve housing for low income Kampalans and that her work in this area earned her the presidency of Global Parliamentarians on Habitat. She says she started St. Margaret’s College Makerere on a humanitarian basis.
Some people thought a lawyer like Byamukama would make a better Speaker but Zziwa is not intimidated by suggestions that not being a lawyer could affect her performance. First, her predecessor Abdirahin Abdi of Kenya was not a lawyer either. She says as an economist, her profession is “distinguished” in itself and going forward many of the issues to be handled at Arusha are of an economic nature. Zziwa says as Speaker, she takes her responsibility as providing leadership to the assembly with support from the technical people. “I will get all the assistance I will need from the technical people in Arusha,” she says.
But her biggest assets as she steers the EALA house will be experience, diplomacy, tact, a mother’s patience and hard work. Under her leadership, she says, the assembly will strive to consolidate and deepen the achievements of the EAC integration and create opportunities for citizens. If the five member countries can deepen the use of Swahili, she says, integration will work better.