By Melina Raquel Platas
Procedure!’ ‘Order!’ ‘Information!’ ‘Clarification!’ the second floor parliamentary conference room periodically erupted into pandemonium throughout the over five-hour committee hearing last Thursday and certain participants were even ejected by committee chairman John Odit in what became just another dramatic episode in the belaboured NSSF saga.
The guest of honour, key witness Amama Mbabazi, secretary general of the NRM and minister for Security, himself arrived amidst a flurried frenzy of clicking cameras and jostling reporters a full forty minutes after the committee hearing was scheduled to begin.
Not that most of those in attendance were on time. By 10 am, the scheduled start time, Parliament staff were still setting up tidy arrangements of water and sodas and members of the committee and press were just beginning to trickle into the room. By 10:30, however, almost everyone had found their seats, and an aura of anxious anticipation filled the room. An MP hustled out of the room to try to track down the tardy minister on phone. But just when it seemed Mbabazi might no-show, he burst into the room besieged by cameramen and strode over to take a seat exactly opposite Mr Odit.
It would have been nice, or at least efficient, if the examination of the witness had begun immediately thereafter. But, as would prove to be the trend throughout the many-hour ordeal, ‘procedure’ got in the way of practice, causing delays that were exasperating to the point of hilarity. Should Mbabazi take an oath to tell the truth, a la other key witnesses who had gone before him? Someone said yes. Another agreed. Yet another said his signed written statement was sufficient. Someone said it was not. ‘Lets put it to a vote!’ was the next great idea €“ which would have been fine if the vote had been taken once instead of the five times it took to get a consensus on the count €“ five for, two against, and the rest abstained.
Twenty minutes later, at 11am, the hearing finally began with a statement read by Mbabazi. There was nothing earth-shattering for the minister for Security to reveal. The short version of the whole affair, according to Mbabazi, began with the fact that he needed money to purchase shares from majority shareholders in National Bank of Commerce where he, Amos Nzeyi and Dr. Ezra Suruma are shareholders. A quick way to raise the money was to sell land owned by Mr Nzeyi and Mbabazi’s family company Arma Ltd in Temangalo.
However, since none of Arma Ltd’s six shareholders (Mr and Mrs Mbabazi and their four children) were well-versed in business dealing, they deferred responsibility to an obviously highly successful businessman, Amos Nzeyi, or so the story goes. Fair enough. No one would mind if we let the businessmen stick to business and the politicians stick to politics. Of course, the concern is that Mbabazi not only mixed the two, but also imposed his will on a government institution, perhaps with the help of fellow politician (and maybe not coincidentally fellow NBC shareholder) Dr. Suruma.
Selling his land was a quick way to get money in a hurry, but the question everyone is asking is €“ why to NSSF? This is exactly the question lead council Abdu Katuntu began driving at after the minister calmly concluded his well-rehearsed speech. Mbabazi swore, ‘I have never even up to this day spoken with an NSSF board member,’ and ‘I was not involved even most remotely with the decisions NSSF made in this matter.’ He also swears he did not discuss it with Dr Suruma. He instead conveniently deferred all responsibility once again to Mr Nzeyi.
Mbabazi was emphatic and unambiguous regarding his non-communication with NSSF. We may be tempted to believe him if nothing else because he is so ambiguous about the pesky (if ultimately irrelevant) details he cannot find a way to explain away. When presented by Katuntu with a map of the Temangalo land for example, he was asked a simple question “ whether his two plots of land, Plot 35 and Plot 61, were adjacent to one another. Mbabazi first asked to see a copy of the map for himself.
He then informed Katuntu that he was holding the map incorrectly. To answer the question one had to rotate the map on its side you see. Somewhat incredulously, Katuntu obliged, rotating the map and repeating the question “ are the two plots of land adjacent? “What exactly do you mean by ‘adjacent’?” Mbabazi then asked him. The futile, if laughable, exercise only proved to demonstrate that Mbabazi would dance around an issue that he would rather not address.
Mbabazi on numerous occasions also made attempts to take the driver’s seat in the interrogation. When posed with a question that might derail his defense he simply labeled the query as ‘irrelevant.’ Katuntu could only laugh off his frustration with Mbabazi’s high handedness for so long, ultimately exclaiming, ‘Relevancy is for us to determine not you Honorable Mbabazi!’ This slippery slope into disorder repeated itself throughout the course of the ordeal as committee members and others entered a shouting match that Odit struggled to contain. All those yelling ‘Order!’ only managed to collectively escalate the continual chaos.
But despite his attempts to hijack committee proceedings, Mbabazi in any case did not dance around the question of his involvement with NSSF. Instead he continued his attack on those whom he believes have formed a coalition to bring him down. In a recent interview with NTV Mbabazi stated, ‘I think a concerted effort has been made to make me look bad. A ferocious attempt has been made. But you see, when you are hitting a rock; it’s the weapons that break and the rock remains intact.’ In the committee he maintained his defense, saying that the allegations brought against him were ‘not only baseless but obviously malicious,’ and that ‘whoever is making it knows it to be absolutely false; I dismiss it with utter contempt.’
Fellow NRM heavyweights may have an axe to grind with the self-proclaimed stone that is Mbabazi, but perhaps the enduring cornerstone of the debate should not be Mbabazi but rather the issue no one has yet been able to pin down €“ what constitutes a conflict of interest when politics meets business? Mbabazi claimed, ‘Even if I had sold directly to NSSF there would have been no conflict of interest,’ and that ‘conflict of interest is not the way the [NSSF] board understood it.’ In a country where politics can be quite a lucrative form of work, where do you draw the line when mixing the private and public sector?
Information! Big men will continue to ride roughshod over the rules while the small men (and women) trip over them and plummet to their demise, just as Big men’s Landcruisers will continue to skate over potholes while the rest of us get stuck in the craters.
What They Said
· ‘Watch your body language. Here you are a witness and not a minister.’ “Chairman of parliament’s committee on statutory enterprises John Odit to Mbabazi after he pointed at lead council Abdul Katuntu.
· ‘You will go down comrade, unless you own up.’ Gen. Muhwezi to Mbabazi during the NRM caucus meeting in parliament.
· ‘We in the NRM will not sit back and watch Mbabazi fool us in the party and Ugandan in general. He must be held accountable for his actions.’ –MP Henry Banyezaki.
· ‘Keep trying comrades, but I am going nowhere, never.’-Mbabazi, while appearing before the NRM caucus to explain his part in the NSSF-Temangalo land purchase.
· ‘I accept your ruling but find it baseless. This ruling will find you on the floor of parliament. This committee is biased and is against my tribe and religion.’-Hon Barnabas Tinkasimire after he was sent out of the committee room for disrupting procedure.
· ‘After your testimony, it is now clear that NSSF disregarded all the laws and regulations of this deal with your knowledge and advice.’-Vice Chairman to the committee Johnson Malinga to the Solicitor General.
· ‘Why did you continue with the sale after realizing NSSF was breaking the law? That was not proper.’ –Museveni to Mbabazi during caucus on the NSSF issue.
· ‘I look at this as a fight against the Bakiga. They are pulling me, Dr Suruma, Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, Mr Emmanuel Mutebile and Dr Ruhakana Rugunda in this matter and it is Jim Muhwezi who is pushing it.’ Amama Mbabazi’s remarks during the NRM Central Executive committee (CEC) meeting.
· ‘It is absurd, and bad of him. It is narrow-minded of him to say he is being investigated because he is a Mukiga. Bakiga are very straight-forward. He should not lie that the Shs11 billion was for Bakiga. He should not imply that Bakiga are involved in this saga.’-Jim Muhwezi on Mbabazi’s allegation of tribalism before CEC.