By Haggai Matsiko
Why refusal to recall parliament will not save Speaker
Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament, will be on the spot when the House reconvenes in a few days. The façade of a fiercely independent speaker she had built has been dealt a heavy blow by her decision to throw out a petition by a group of MPs to have parliament recalled and discuss events following the death of Butaleja MP, Cerina Nebanda.
“Kadaga is finished,” seasoned lawyer, Laudslaus Rwakafuzi told The Independent, “she has destroyed herself. She has done what Museveni wanted, he is very happy and so is Amama Mbabazi (Prime Minister).”
Rwakafuzi was commenting on the legality and implications of the Speaker’s action.
Kadaga’s popularity as Speaker might have for over a year grown into a political nightmare for President Yoweri Museveni but her decision, which critics have called “cowardly and illegal”, appears to have reversed her fortunes and possibly dealt a fatal injury to her political career. By throwing out the petition, Kadaga is seen to have succumbed to pressure and chosen to salvage her personal interests while sacrificing those of her constituency, the independent-minded MPs from all parties, at the altar of President Museveni’s whims.
It has left her a flippant loser; the MPs had already got their trophy when they successfully collected the signatures.
Jan. 15 when she announced the decision not to recall parliament might come to haunt her in the new session of parliament. Coming just one year and a half into her five-year term at the helm of parliament, it might mark a turning point. In advertisements in the media, she has sought to reclaim her independency badge but many see her as a lost cause. What remains to be seen is how President Museveni deals with a weakened Kadaga.
Nicholas Opiyo, another lawyer who is considered knowledgeable on such issues told The Independent that Kadaga now knows that she can be removed from the speakership just like happened to another Speaker, the late James Wapakhabulo, who became quite popular.
“That parliament has very few MPs who can debate, the rest of them are like villagers, they are just a voting bloc and Kadaga knows that the NRM’s overwhelming majority can be triggered to vote her out,” Opiyo said, “So the card she plays is very delicate.”
Former Chwa county MP, Livingstone Okello Okello whose knowledge parliamentary politics is respected also says Kadaga’s reputation has been badly damaged.
The 70-year-old who spent over two decades in parliament told The Observer newspaper that Kadaga’s action was highly regrettable and that her political career has been damaged.
“I remember, I used to tell my friend James Wapakhabulo (late former speaker) whenever he faced situations like these, that shifting to what Museveni wants cannot save him politically,” Okello Okello reportedly said, “And I don’t think what Kadaga has done will save her from Museveni. I think her political career has been damaged.”
Kadaga had become popular as the leader of the 9th Parliament which, although dominated by Museveni’s NRM, was perceived to be independent-minded. She was the-most-sought-after public figure at public functions—a development not missed by many including President Museveni who has not hidden his discomfort at the wave of popularity that she was surfing with her Speakership. Prime Minister Mbabazi, seen by many as Kadaga’s competitor, in early 2012 reportedly told a high level NRM meeting that Kadaga, an NRM Vice President was building a power base for her presidential ambitions.
Kadaga’s alleged ambitions have gained momentum ever since March 2012, when outspoken Kabale priest Fr. Gaetano Batanyenda publicly endorsed her to become Uganda’s first woman President. Later in June, when Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi, noted that the next President should be a woman; many understood the man of God to be vouching for Kadaga abilities. A survey by Research World International that same June showed that Kadaga to be the favorite for next president across the political divide.
She acted firmly when she led parliament to lock out some of Museveni’s nominees for ministerial positions. MPs have since the October 2012 oil debate worshipped Kadaga, surrounding her like bees surround the queen mother.
Indeed, since she was elected speaker in May 2011, Kadaga’s star has been rising—the climax of her popularity was late last year, when she lashed out at a Canadian Foreign Minister about homosexuality. From Social network cites to church leaders, MPs, everybody was full of praises for Kadaga for defending Uganda.
Kadaga has a lot to lose. She must have realised she was selling short the constituency that had built around her and that was looking up to her, most of the times urging her to aim for the presidency.
Two days after Kadaga kicked out the recall petition, MPs who were with him at NRM Caucus retreat at the National Leadership Institute at Kyankwazi say President Museveni was so happy. He led his flock of MPs, including Prime Minister Mbabazi in the rarest of dance moves as they concluded the six-day retreat which was called to pour water on the recall petition by threatening MPs who were for it with severe punishment including dismissal from the party.
Museveni who rarely shakes hands without his gloves and at one point said he stopped dancing in high school, danced with a few female MPs, wearing a smile that had become rare as he fought to bury the petition.
With the petition looming, Museveni’s signature expressions had become threats and abuses.
When he was not meeting delegations of politicians to lobby against the petition, he was consulting on how to deal with Speaker Kadaga who seemed to be giving it momentum.
Museveni had told Kadaga that the parliament could only be recalled “over my dead body”.
President Museveni called MPs who wanted parliament recalled to discuss the circumstances surrounding Nebanda’s death idiots and directed that Kadaga be interrogated after she told mourners at the fallen MP’s burial that she did not believe the government’s toxicological report.
Indeed, Grace Akullo, the director CIID, paid Kadaga’s office a visit. To MPs, all this showed that President Museveni had gone too far in undermining the independence of parliament. The petition therefore was a missile to get Museveni out of their space. With Kadaga holding the final key to the recall, the MPs did not expect to go wrong; after all, it was partly to protect her.
The MPs chased after any signature they could to defend Kadaga and wrestle Museveni influence out of their parliamentary space.
The fighter he is, Museveni also summoned all his forces and deployed threats, money, pressure and presidential clout. It worked.
While the MPs were celebrating their 129th signature, Museveni was also celebrating the 10th signature from his MPs to discredit the petition in a letter dated Jan.4 to the speaker.
Having threatened Kadaga enough, with 10 MPs seeking to withdraw the signatures and one claiming his signature had been forged, for Museveni, things could only look up.
But the MPs looked to Kadaga, after all she was armed with the constitution, parliamentary rules of procedure and a precedent in which in 1998 then-Speaker James Wapakhabulo had refused MPs to withdraw their signatures in a petition to censure then-minister of Education Jim Muhwezi saying that that once you have submitted this petition to the Speaker, you cannot withdraw your signature.
“There is nothing they can do,” Merdard Ssegona, the Busiro East MP told The Independent after they had submitted the petition, “Once you submit to the speaker… you have set in motion a constitutional process that is irreversible.”
The law is never silent
But Kadaga decided otherwise. She threw out the recall petition.
A previously hopeful and energetic Sseggona was guarded about Kadaga’s move to ignore the Wapakabulo precedent.
“We are not disappointed with the Speaker,” he said, “We are disappointed with the system that the executive can exert itself over parliament and intimidate people.”
Obua Denis Hamson, the chief petitioner told The Independent that Kadaga, in a letter to the petitioners, gave four points as justification for her ruling.
He said: “The first was that 10 MPs had written to her requesting to withdraw their signatures, the second was that one MP had written alleging that his signature had been forged. She also noted that while Article 95(5) provided for a recall, rule 20 of the parliamentary rules of procedure was silent on the issue of the withdrawal of signatures.
The last one, where I think she used her discretion, was that in the circumstances, the petition loses the number of signatures that are a constitutional requirement for parliament to be recalled”.
Obua added that whether one is satisfied or not, does not matter since the speaker of parliament has the final word.
“What we have decided is to seek a constitutional court interpretation as to whether an MP can withdraw their signature,” Obua said, “because as it is now, it is almost impossible to recall parliament through Article 95(5).”
Obua bought Kadaga’s justification that there was a lacuna in rule 20 that deals with recalling parliament in the parliamentary rules of procedure.
He said that the difference between the law about censure, which is Article 118 of the constitution and rule 98, is that once one has signed to have a minister censured, they cannot withdraw their signature unlike Article 95 (5) whose corresponding rule 20, is silent on the withdraw of signatures.
Rwakafuzi ruled out any lacuna in the law.
“The law is never silent,” Rwakafuzi said, “the law does not address each and every consequential detail. For instance, the law did not foresee that MPs would behave like children. That is not the nature of the law.”
Rwakafuzi further told The Independent that what Kadaga has done is dangerous.
“The danger is that tomorrow, if there is no immediate ruling for a petition, any MP can withdraw their signature,” Rwakafuzi said, “That fluidity, where people are free to change their mind every time is very dangerous.”
Nicholas Opiyo, another lawyer, said that the rules of procedure are very clear that in such situations; the Speaker uses her good judgment, guided by the Commonwealth practices and those of the parliament of Uganda.
“The speaker’s action may have been politically expedient and sound but I find them legally wrong and variant with the practices of parliament,” Opiyo said.
He said that even the constitutional interpretation that MPs are seeking may not be very helpful because article 95 (5) and the rules of procedure are very broad and ambiguous.
He counsels that the article and the rules of procedure need to be revised to provide for clear procedures under which parliament can be recalled and on the collection of signatures such that if the rules demand that the signs are collected in the presence of the Sergeant At Arms, you do not have the MPs driving all over to get signatures and then allegations of forgery.
Opiyo added that it is interesting that the speaker has not referred the case of forgery to the Criminal Intelligence and Investigations directorate (CIID for investigations to protect the integrity of parliament because forgery is a criminal offence that is not covered by parliamentary immunity.
“If she thinks there was forgery considering it was the basis for her not to work on the petition, why hasn’t she referred the case to the CIID for investigation?” he asked, “I think Kadaga is a populist speaker that lacks the skill to make the hard decision at a time of calling.”
To back his statements, Opiyo cited how Kadaga had dodged several controversial parliamentary sessions leaving them to her equally controversial deputy, Jacob Oulanya; the tribute session for Nebanda, the approval of Lands Minister, Aidah Nantaba’s appointment, and the passing of the controversial Oil bill.
But some MPs who were at the centre of the recall petition, like Kyadondo East MP Ssemujju Nganda, are shielding the Speaker from blame.
“Any fair person understands the circumstances under which Kadaga works with the President threatening her all the time,” he told The Independent.
“You cannot compare Kadaga with (Former Speaker) Sekandi,” Ssemujju said, “Sekandi was a very bad speaker, I think for him he was like a minister. Kadaga has not gone that far as some people are saying.”
Ssemujju added that apart from a constitutional court interpretation, they had resolved to meet with the Speaker to discuss the issues and move a motion to discuss what they would have wished to discuss if the House had been recalled.
Others like Wilfred Niwagaba remain upset. He told The Independent that he was disappointed with the speaker’s action. “That is obvious,” he said, “There was no justification for her not to recall parliament.”
Whether or not basing on political maneuvers to throwing out the recall petition was Kadaga’s lowest moment will be seen in how she tries to recover lost ground when parliament reconvenes. She has promised an explanation of her actions but it is unclear what more she can add to the statements she has already given that have failed to satisfy some in her corner. They simply want her to work harder and be firmer.
“When you are firm, even people who do not believe in you know they can rely on you,” Rwakafuzi said.