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Mbabazi on the spot over rebel MPs

By Haggai Matsiko

How populist NRM firebrands threaten Secretary General’s hold on party

When on March 26, the four legislators also known as rebel MPs, accused of defying the ruling-NRM party leadership refused to appear before its disciplinary committee, they put its Secretary General, Amama Mbabazi on the spot to act.

Theodere Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga County), Banarbas Tinkansimire (Buyaga West), Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa Eest), Mohammad Nsereko (Kampala Central), who have cut their teeth as the party’s Enfants terribles, have always been on Mbabazi’s wrong side.

They now face tough sanctions after keeping the committee, which consists of two senior party officials that in rank are only second to President Yoweri Museveni, waiting the whole day. The rebel MPs rubbed salt in the wound when they held a press conference at the same venue and denounced the committee as “illegal”.

Al Hajji Moses Kigongo, also the party’s, National Vice Chairperson, Mbabazi also the Prime Minister, Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, Dr. Beatrice Wabudeya, Dorah Byamukama, East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) MP Mike Sebalu, Lilian Abalo, and Adolf Mwesigye, the Local Government Minister, had to sit the whole day waiting for the MPs but in vain.

The committee was convening for the second time. They first convened on March.11 after inviting the MPs in a March.5 public notice published in the press. The public notice resulted from a November 30, 2012 complaint to the party disciplinary committee that accused the MPs of violating the party’s code of conduct by defying party positions in Parliament, belonging to the Ssekikubo led-Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas (PFOG) that has disagreed with party positions on oil and associating with opposition MPs.

By belonging to PFOG, the MPs reportedly violated rule 4(a) that prohibits the formation of cliques or factions within the party and 4(b) that prohibits members from acting as agents of interests of foreign powers exposing themselves to expulsion under Rule 5(d).

On March.11, it is only Vincent Kyamadidi, the Rwampara MP that appeared. On March.26 none appeared at all.

Disciplinary committee

Kigongo who had arrived at around 9:00 and sat quietly waiting and Mbabazi who made a grand entrance are second in rank to Museveni in the NRM.

Dressed in a dark blue sharp fitting suit, Mbabazi jumped out of the shiny black SUV, fixing his watch and waved at journalists as he jogged up the stairs to the Serena Hotel conference where the committee was to seat, setting the mood for the session.

However, apart from receiving a letter from Tinkasimire’s lawyers Ocheng, Harimwomugasho and Company Advocates, in which the legislator was inquiring to find out what charges the party has against him, the committee members ended up staring at and talking to each other.

A few meters away, Ssekikubo who cuts an image of a gentle legislator, with his signature, soft-almost-childish voice, that he is not and the cantankerous Tinkansimire, held a press conference at parliament, and ridiculed and leveled vitriolic attacks against the committee members that were waiting at the Serena Hotel VIP lounge.

“They are under the guise of the disciplinary committee to achieve their own ends but today we have exposed them,” Tinkasimire said, “…if they are tired of the party and they want to break it, let them say.”

Even if it comes to the worst, he added, “We shall go to the voters and explain to them”. That was a veiled threat highlighting the MPs resolve not to bow down to Mbabazi’s team. About the letter from his lawyers, Tinkasiimire said he had played the committee members.

The more reserved Niwagaba, who was even at Serena apparently to pick his fees from a client as the committee waited, evoked the party laws to explain why he had not attended it.

“…The disciplinary committee shall not entertain any matter before courts of judicature,” Niwagaba quoted rule 12(f) of the NRM constitution.

The MPs are challenging the party in court for opening the disciplinary proceedings without formally listening to them in a case to be heard on May 13. This is after High Court Registrar John Eudes Keitirima turned down their interim injunction against the disciplinary committee and instead directed them to appear before committee.

But they won’t appear, they say.

“Do not think that I will attend this committee, at any one time,” Niwagaba said arguing that based on the House of Lords in the UK, and the Supreme Court of Uganda standards, the committee cannot try him on any matter he uttered within the precincts of parliament.

Ssekikubo, on the other hand says that the intentions of the members of the disciplinary committee members have nothing to do with party discipline.

“They are the ones that planned these charges…” he said, “They are the ones putting us in newspapers, showing the whole world how they have fired us from the party…, now how can one deal with those ones, their intentions are not about discipline within the NRM.”

Party nightmare

Dealing with the MPs is currently the ruling party’s biggest nightmare. Expelling the MPs, political commentators, say, will expose the party as “intolerant” and equip its opponents who have for long labeled the party’s managers as dictatorial. But if Mbabazi and company fail to discipline the renegade MPs, it could set a bad precedent of disciplinary impotence and encourage more chaos within party ranks.

A pronounced phenomenon within NRM has been the emergence of younger politicians that keep fomenting chaos mainly surfing the wave of public disgruntlement, with their eyes on attracting President Museveni’s generosity.

Rubanda West MP, Henry Banyenzaki, best exemplifies this. After attacking government for long streaks, the legislator was silenced with a post as Minister of State for Economic Monitoring.

Observers say that all the critical MPs are ambitious and want to be bought off. Reports have cited some of the critical MPs as looking to crack financial deals with the President.

However, the rise of populist firebrands could point to something more fundamental.  It demonstrates that the resentment towards the NRM because of wrongs like corruption, nepotism, poor service delivery that have long rankled among the public, provides ambitious politicians with a temptingly easy path to political fame.

The errant MPs have had the most rapid rise to popularity. As a result, even previously reserved legislators like Mbarara Municipality’s Medard Bitekyerezo and Kinkizi East’s Chris Baryomunsi have sought to join these ranks showing that at any one time even the most disciplined NRM legislators could rebel like the two did during the aftermath of Nebanda’s death.

Party hardliners, including those that moved and passed the resolution against them are clenching their fists; they want the MPs out of the party.

The party’s vice chairman for Buganda who also sits on the NRM’s top organ, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) told The Independent earlier this year that they could not wait to get rid of the errant MPs.

“For us we got tired long time ago, Nadduli said, “you are NRM but all the time in the public you are shoving two fingers in the air, what is that? We would rather do with a few that belong to us.”

He added that the NRM had started the revolution with only 27 members and succeeded to show that the party did not need the errant members.

Others like top NRM financier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa have long wanted the legislators out. In 2010, Kutesa publicly told supporters to kick Ssekikubo out of Sembabule and the NRM because he disagreed with everything to do with the party.

Mbabazi on the other hand has had several exchanges with the errant MPs too. In 2011, Niwagaba, Ssekikubo and Tinkasimire championed the parliamentary debate and personally exposed the documents that accused the two of allegedly taking bribes from oil companies, while calling for them to resign.

There is tension in the air whenever Ssikikubo and Mbabazi interact as happened recently when Mbabazi appeared before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee to explain the corruption under his office that wiped out billions meant for PRDP. He exchanged sharp words with Ssekikubo.

Ssekikuubo fired first: “How do we proceed? You want us to over bend and over bend before a witness, you are wasting our time.”

Mbabazi shot back: “Hon. Ssekikubo, this is a place for civilized people.”

Mbabazi’s alleged aloofness has not endeared him to many MPs.  When President Museveni left Mbabazi in charge at a party retreat at the Kyankwanzi National Leadership Institute last year, several MPs who were uncomfortable left.

Mbabazi’s call

Although Kigongo, as party national vice chairman, is the de jure Number Two in the party, Mbabazi has often used his “super” ministerial appointments and his secretary general role to act as the de facto leader of NRM after Museveni. Depending on the flavour of the season, Museveni has oscillated between tolerating and resenting Mbabazi’s cockiness.

When Museveni appointed Mbabazi Prime Minister, the gentleman’s agreement was that his Premier would relinquish the Secretary General position. Mbabazi did not and top NRM officials have accused Museveni of failing the party by having a busy SG who cannot deal with party business effectively.

As things stand now, any position the disciplinary committee reaches, will squarely rest on Mbabazi’s shoulders. The named errant MPs remain few—today only 5 and can only grow to 10MPs—still a very small component of the NRM’s 256-majority. If Mbabazi kicks the MPs out of NRM, the backlash will be on him further thinning his popularity in the party. On the other hand, Museveni might invite the MPs and hold talks with them coming off as the tolerant father of NRM.

Having groomed Ssekikubo, he is seen as the legislator’s defacto political godfather and two MPs, Simon Peter Aleper and Saleh Kamba have at different party caucuses respectively questioned the President about his relationship with Ssekikubo.

Responding to Aleper in 2012, President Museveni reportedly said: “I met the Ssekikubos four months ago. I wanted to meet the lost sheep. I have to look for lost sheep. But they have not reformed, no more talking. No more dialogue.”

Mbabazi on March 26 repeated the same: “This is the last time the committee is meeting on this matter.” That leaves one option—firing the MPs.

But that decision in fact rests with Museveni who, critics say, has personalised power leaving himself as the only person that can solve party problems. As the party has reeled from crisis after crisis in the 9th Parliament; from the stalemate over the alleged oil bribes to ministers, the fight over the health budget, oil Bills and MP Cerinah Nebanda’s death, President Museveni has been the single antidote. He has only gone to his party caucus for formality. This has left the Secretary General and other senior party officials devoid of the powers to call any shots.

“Mbabazi and group overshot, they put these charges on us to chase us out of the party, that is not how things work, whenever we have issues, instead of using force, President Museveni calls us and we discuss, you don’t just wake up and say you are firing us, this is our party too,” one of the rebel MPs told The Independent on conditions of anonymity early March.

It is Mbabazi and Kutesa that while in Kyankwanzi earlier this year started the debate to have the MPs face the disciplinary committee after citing other parties like Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapenduzi (CCM) and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) where they claimed members could not behave like the rebel MPs before the rest of the party members could approve it among other resolutions.

MPs not losing their seats

But Museveni must know that as matters stand, he gains nothing from firing the MPs. For one, they would not leave parliament—Article 83 of the Constitution protects them. The article notes that an MP can only vacate a sit if they resign in writing or leave the political party for which they stood as candidates and join another party or become independent.

President Museveni has called for the repealing of this law such that when an MP is fired from a party they lose their seat as well but no sane MP can support that in their rightful mind.

Even if they lost their seats, with the popularity they have amassed—experts say they are seen as the progressive MPs—it is not likely other candidates fielded by NRM would trounce them. Already, the NRM has lost over 80 % of the bi-elections.

This would revitalize the opposition that the NRM rebel MPs had overshadowed somewhat to Museveni’s advantage. Ssekikubo has already noted that he wants to take on Museveni come 2016 presidential election.

Museveni might in the past have dealt decisive blows to those who opposed him within NRM including the likes of Miria Matembe, the former ethics Minister, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, the president of the opposition Peoples Progressive Party and Kizza Besigye, the former president for Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). But he [Museveni] is not growing any younger and cannot hold those late night meetings, countrywide rallies to canvass support, and fight off new and much younger political opponents.

Ssekikubo believes that Museveni’s biggest asset is money; otherwise a significant part of the NRM would buy into his [Ssekikubo’s] pitch for presidency.

That might be too much optimism on his part but one thing is not in dispute; Ssekikubo and group have proved they can raise dust in parliament. The oil debate they led in October 2012 was at least revolutionary.  It took Museveni to camp in parliament to quell their opposition of article 9 of the upstream Bill and the President had to have all of them detained to extinguish the fire they had set following the death of former Butaleja Woman MP, Cerinah Nebanda.

As they have demonstrated, Ssekikubo and group can also mobilize the 125 signatures required to initiate a notice to remove the President from office through the Speaker and the Chief Justice according to Article 107 (7) of the constitution.

Ssekikubo heads the most influential platform in parliament, the Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas, whose funding gives President Museveni sleepless nights.

A similar group, the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO), gave President Museveni a lot of trouble in the late 1990’s before it metamorphosed into a much bigger opponent, the FDC, whose erstwhile leader, Besigye, remains Museveni’s biggest election time challenge.

Lessons from FDC

Mbabazi and NRM can learn from the FDC the danger of dealing harshly with the errant MPs. The opposition’s once firebrand legislator Nandala Mafabi, upon becoming leader of opposition with a lot of verve, sought to use an iron hand on lukewarm party officials and, in the process, was defeated in a party election and rendered himself irrelevant.

Mafabi sought to whip into line with threats Kitgum Woman MP Beatrice Anywar whom he accused of cozying up to Museveni. He also threatened and warned for neglecting their duties Abdu Katuntu, Judith Akello Franca and Geoffrey Ekanya, and Kassiano Wadri, the chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. The four did not only fall out with him, together with others like Odonga Otto, they were partly responsible for his loss to current FDC President General Mugisha Muntu.

Mafabi had learnt nothing from Besigye, who like Museveni always treated party members with kid’s gloves.

Therefore as NRM hardliners insist that under the multi-party dispensation, acts of errant MPs are not to be accepted, the point they seem to miss is that the players remain unfamiliar with the rules of that dispensation.

NRM more than any other party should be best placed to understand that intrigue and internal contestations are part of its genetic formation and have been employed by the party’s rank and file for political survival.

Most of these contestations have relegated senior party officials like former VP Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, to less influential roles and in other cases; the Speaker of Parliament Rebbecca Kadaga who sits on the party’s CEC and earlier on Justice Minister Kahinda Otafiire all claiming to be fought by Mbabazi, who is the party Secretary General. How the NRM deals with its rebels will test its ability to sail through such intrigue, divisions, and petty spats between its leaders and members.

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