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COMMENT: Parliament is not a lodge

Museveni’s Rip Van Winkle MPs who sleeping and wake up to vote undermine democracy

COMMENT | MWAMBUTSYA NDEBESA | I am sure most readers are familiar with a popular short story about escapist fantasy of a one Rip Van Winkle who instead of facing challenges of his home and solve them, took to drinking, fell asleep and woke up twenty years later. To the uninitiated, Rip Van Winkle is a story written by an American author Washington Irving. The main character; Rip Van Winkle, runs away from his wife and family, goes into the woodlands where he is offered booze by some people, and decides to hide from challenges he had left home by drinking himself to a record twenty years of sound sleep.

He slept in pre-revolutionary America and woke up in post-revolutionary America. He slept a Briton and woke up an American. He slept a subject of Britain and woke up a citizen of Independent America. When he woke up he even told people his head of state was King George III of Great Britain when actually America had been independent and a republic with a president and not a King for twenty years.

Now what is the parallel lesson for Uganda’s ruling party, NRM? President Yoweri Museveni has time and again exhorted NRM supporters to vote and send to Parliament MPs who are free to sleep if they choose as long as they wake up in time to vote for the party positions. He declared in the Jinja by-election campaigns that voters are better off with sleeping NRM MPs than with active opposition MPs. In line with president Museveni’s thinking, sleeping MPs are good and active opposition MPs are bad. Not long ago while campaigning in the Ruhaama by-election, Museveni equated Parliament to a bus park where travelers shout without any collective goal to achieve in mind. He went on to opine that resource allocation is not done in Parliament but somewhere else and I guess he meant State House or in his cabinet.

Museveni would prefer sleeping MPs (read Rip Van Winkle’s) to active MPs like those in the opposition. To this extent, therefore, is it any wonder that we have in parliament gender blind MPs; the likes of Onesmus Twinamatsiko (Bugangaizi East)? Like Rip Van Winkle of the old, MP Twinamatsiko has been sleeping in the museum of mediaeval Africa thinks a wife should be beaten into behavior by the husband.

At the higher level, Museveni’s sleeping model of parliamentary democracy, treats patronage based voting as superior to issue based voting. Museveni’s parliamentary model of sleeping MPs, for example, does not mind sending to parliament a gender biased MP like Twinamtsiko provided when he is woken up from his slumber, he is politically correct and votes the correct line of the executive position.

What is the political moral lesson that we learn from the story of Rip Van Winkle? Rather than escaping from the realities that active opposition MPs point out in parliament and seek to find solutions to them, NRM has opted to voting sleeping MPs to parliament in the hope that, when they wake up, Uganda’s problems will have disappeared.

The sleeping MPs should know that time will not wait for them. They will wake up to the harsh reality like Rip Van Winkle who could not recognise what he saw in the post- revolutionary America. In fact Twinamatsiko has woken up to the rude shock that wife beating is no longer tolerated in contemporary Uganda. The Minister of State for Water, Ronald Kibuule woke up from his slumber to realise that even if the Namasole (queen mother of the Kabaka of Buganda) is not elected, her influence can make him eat humble pie.

Museveni and his sleeping MPs will wake up to realise that change is inevitable; that things are changing even if these MPs are not ready for this change. They will wake up to realise that the national mood is gradually changing from politics of patronage to politics of issues. They will wake up to realise that it will not serve any good to get be drunk on politics of manufactured popularity and make reckless and unguarded statements such as those made by Twinamatsiko.

The sleeping MPs will wake up like Rip Van Winkle to find that voters are beginning to consider issues rather than patronage in order to make a choice. The passage of time will teach these sleeping MPs that they should think of policy based voting. They should think of issues such as equitable access to quality education, medical care, and productive resources. They will wake up to realise that voters will not accept to live in two Ugandas. The Uganda of those who go to UPE schools and that of those who go to international schools.

Rip Van Winkle when he woke up and was asked how he voted he told them he was a faithful servant and subject of King George III. In a similar way when the sleeping MPs would be asked how they voted in Parliament, they would say, they voted what was agreed long ago in the NRM parliamentary caucus.

The Rip Van Winkle political model of sleeping until an MP is woken up is not what was expected of revolutionary politics like the one we were promised under the fundamental change. Citizens should vote active MPs, not sleeping MPs. Parliament is not a space for sleeping-it is not a lodge. It is a space for exchange of ideas. Parliament is not for Rip Van Winkles who sleep away challenges facing the country.


Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala

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