By Agather Atuhaire
Ask any National Resistance Movement (NRM) legislator what the biggest outcome of the recently concluded party retreat was and they will point you to the 15 resolutions the party reached. But for President Yoweri Museveni, nothing was bigger than the opportunity to capture the hearts of some of the 43 independent legislators.
While the discussion around independent MPs had not been high on the party agenda, it is what has sparked the biggest debate apart from a fight involving two party legislators.
The fight erupted when two of NRM legislators—Ann Nankabirwa, the Kyankwanzi District MP and Florence Nebanda, the Butaleja Woman MP—took on each other over a bed. No wonder, the party leadership had decided to take legislators through ideology.
But with 2016 polls just months away, the hosting of some independent legislators at the NRM Kyankwanzi-based National Leadership Institute, brings the NRM closer to even gobbling more than half of the MP seats belonging to independents and even those belonging to other parties.
For those that have been keenly following the 9th parliament, which lost its initial bite partly due to Museveni’s pressure, the development cannot be good news, analysts say. President Museveni has also been able to undermine parliament by holding parallel `parliaments’ as the NRM parliamentary caucus meetings are referred to by critics.
Given that the NRM controls more than half of the House—259 of the 385 MPs—whenever the party calls its members for a caucus, it means no parliament business.
For some observer, the visit by the independents at Kyankwanzi highlights a prospect of NRM increasing its numbers. Since it fired its former Secretary General Amama Mbabazi, the NRM leadership has been moving to tighten control over its members especially those in parliament.
Kasule Lumumba, the current party SG has her job cut out and it helps that she seems to have gathered some experience while she served as the party chief whip. Lumumba is deputised by Richard Todwong, who is seen as a guru in mobilisation. Indeed, many legislators were looking forward to how their first retreat as top party officials would turn out. While the fight between Nebanda and Nankabirwa was a negative, ensnaring Independents will be a plus in the eyes of their boss. Museveni has already showered them with praise for bagging the Busia by-election in January.
The NRM party caucus leadership says they invited the independents because they were going to discuss issues that are vital to all Ugandans and therefore needed to include the independent MPs because of their numerical strength in parliament. There are 43 Independent MPs in the 9th parliament. Of these, the 35 who attended the retreat had all lost during the 2010 NRM party primaries.
Independent MPs claim they saw the invitation to Kyankwanzi as the perfect opportunity to lobby for constitutional changes to their favour.
Butambala Woman MP Mariam Nalubega, is one such independent legislator. She told The Independent that the visit presented a chance for independents to lobby the NRM, which has the majority in parliament to help them amend Article 83 of the Constitution, which deals with circumstances under which covers “Tenure of office of members of Parliament.”
Only Section 83 (g) and (h) that affect independents.
Section 83 states that a Member of Parliament shall vacate his or her seat in
Parliament if; (g) “that person leaves the political party for which he or she stood as a candidate for election to Parliament to join another party or to remain in Parliament as an independent member” and (h) “if, having been elected to Parliament as an independent candidate, that person joins a political party”.
Nalubega told The Independent that the MPs want to be allowed to stand in the parties’ primaries without forfeiting their seats in parliament as the current law requires them to do.
“We should be free to choose where to belong in the last one year of our tenure,” she told The Independent.
She added that the article confines MPs in a particular group yet Article 29 gives them freedom to choose to belong to a different political party.
But Sam Otada, who is considered the leader of independents in parliament, distanced himself from the ambitions of the majority independents.
Otada also denied knowledge of a position paper that was presented on the matter at Kyankwanzi. He said the position presented was never discussed amongst the Independents.
Another Independent Gerald Karuhanga also noted that they (independents) have never sat and discussed any constitutional amendments.
“The Independents should not hide behind constitutional amendment because there were better fora for presenting their position than Kyankwanzi,” he said, “In Kyankwanzi NRM was discussing its internal issues while the opposition retreat at royal suites was for all Ugandans who wished to deliberate on how to have a peaceful change of government because even the members of the Civil Society were there.”
Karuhanga added, however, that the proposed amendment is good for democracy because after five years, any MP should have an option of joining any other political organisation they prefer. “The current law as it is restricts MPs and confines them in one political organisation which is not good for democracy,” he told The Independent.
But as far as Nalubega is concerned, no one owes Otada or any other legislator any explanation.
“We don’t have any leader in parliament,” Nalubega said, “We are Independents in every sense of the word. All the Independent MPs in parliament take individual decisions.”
Nalubega wonders why some Independent MPs have been appointed on the shadow cabinet but yet some raise eyebrows when others dialogue with the ruling party.
Independent MPs like Gilbert Oulanya, Andrew Allen, and Mathias Mpuuga are members of the shadow cabinet.
But for some, Nalubega and company are only struggling to find excuses.
For Political Scientist Fredrick Golooba Mutebi, this is sheer opportunism.
“Museveni wants as much support for himself and as many MPs as possible for the NRM,” he said, “and as little support and few MPs as possible for the opposition.”
Indeed, for now, the NRM has agreed to support the amendment. “We agreed on principle but there are legal issues we need to first scrutinise and address,” David Bahati, the NRM caucus chairman said.
Bahati, however, says the media is overrating the issues of the Independents in Kyankwanzi arguing that it was not the main issue. He said the retreat was more concerned with consolidating the efforts that have been made towards party cohesion which to him were achieved.
“We achieved our main aim of making the NRM stronger and more unified to address the challenges that Ugandans are faced with,” Bahati added.
Apart from the Independents, NRM also invited Simon Biretek, a Policy Advisor to the Ethiopian Prime Minister and founding member of the country’s ruling party.
Bahati told The Independent that Biretek and other officials’ presentations were meant to help NRM legislators to understand how other governments have built strong parties and consolidated their achievements.
“We started this term very united but later experienced turbulent times which were worsened by the ambush of the former Secretary General Amama Mbabazi,” Bahati said, “since February 2014 we have made deliberate efforts to restore sanity and stability.”
Other speakers at the retreat were Nigeria’s Professor Vincent Anigbogu, who presented a paper on transformational democracy and a Director of management in Malysia’s Office of the Prime Minister.