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NRM’s rebels

By Agather Atuhaire

Might they be the key to a new Reform politics?

President Yoweri Museveni could not have foreseen the hostility he has faced so far with in the 9th Parliament – not when his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party owns more than half the seats in the house.

Certainly not after he thumped his opponents with 68.3 percent of the vote in the February general elections, cementing his political mandate over Ugandan politics in general, and in particular, his party.

But 2011 is a year when the unexpected should be expected.


Even after a week of re-indoctrination, cajoling and persuasion, NRM’s rebels walked out of the President’s week-long retreat at Kyankwanzi and left him mid-speech. They returned swearing they would proceed to champion the infamous resolution that sparked off the party’s latest crisis.

Fresh from Kyankwanzi, Butaleja Woman MP Cerinah Nebanda said she and her colleagues walked out because they felt offended that the President would order them to withdraw resolutions they made in Parliament as if they were lackeys who did not know what they were doing.

“The president thinks he can undermine Parliament anytime he wants,” Nebanda told The Independent. “I have a conscience and cannot be part of that scam.”

Nebanda said they were not “rebelling” against the president, but doing their job as people’s representatives.

When asked about the president’s accusations that the MPs were fighting personal wars, Nebanda said the President was trying to divert people’s attention from the real issues.

“Let him respect what we are advocating for and he will see if we will continue fighting those proxy wars,” she said.

At the centre of this crisis is a parliamentary resolution championed by NRM MPs demanding an investigation into allegations of corruption and bribery in the award of oil contracts to Tullow Oil and its partners, as well as a stop to the implementation of the oil agreements until a legal framework has been established. The president instructed the MPs to return to Parliament and use their numerical majority to withdraw that resolution.

Nebanda said her conscience would not allow her to abandon the legitimate concerns that informed her support of the resolution, which she said have not changed.

“Everyone came in parliament individually and even if I remain in the struggle alone, I’ll continue to fight for what is right,” the MP told The Independent.

Of the dissenters, only Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala Central) seems to have had the nerve to confront Museveni in Kyankwanzi, but others have said they kept quiet only out of respect – not consent.

Dokolo County’s Felix Odong said he felt the President was using the retreat to undermine not only Parliament, but the NRM party as well.

“The president and some members of the executive have usurped the powers of the party and want to use it to defend individuals suspected of wrongdoing,” Odong said.

He said MPs realised it was time to stand up against a powerful few for what was right.

“I want to leave a legacy for my children and my constituency,” said Tinkasimire Barnabas (Buyaga East), who told The Independent that his constituency had no tarmac road, decent school or hospital.

“If I can’t be a good legislator, I’d rather go and do something else than join this government bonanza.”

Tinkasiimire said he left Kyankwanzi on Thursday morning to tend to his ailing mother, but that had he been in Kyankwanzi he too would have walked out on the President

Time will tell how defiant the MPs remain when they return to Parliament and President Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi – sustain their offensive of charm and coercion. But early signs indicate that the president has a lot more to worry about in his party than with the opposition.

In the six months since his fourth elective term started in November, the president has summoned more than five party parliamentary caucuses, the most significant being the party’s week-long retreat at the National Institute of Leadership in Kyankwazi that ended on Oct. 23, which was quickly followed by a one-day meeting with a smaller, select group at State House Entebbe on Oct. 24.

NRM’s young blood in the 9th Parliament – led by Nsereko, Nebanda and Vincent Mujuni Kyamadidi (Rwampara),  among others – defied the executive’s invisible control of the ruling party’s majority clout and touched off a phase of bi-partisan politics in Parliament.

With other notable intra-NRM critics from the previous 8th Parliament, like Theodore Sekikubo (Lwemiyaga County), Tinkasiimire and Felix Okot Ogong, the legislators started their term by openly opposing Museveni’s ministerial appointments, and it’s been down-hill from there.

Over that short period Parliament – with Rebecca Kagada as Speaker – they rejected the President’s ministerial appointees (namely James Kakooza, Nasser Ntege Ssebaggala, Saleh Kamba and Henry Kajura Muganwa); ignored Museveni’s chosen candidate for chair of the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) Margaret Kiboijana, ceding the seat to UPC’s Betty Amongi; opposed the Anti-bail Bill that targets protesters and government opponents; blocked additional funds to ministries, notably Energy Minister Irene Muloni who wanted to raise over Shs 200 billion to pay electricity-generating companies; and  opposed the give-away of Mabira Forest to Mehta for sugar cane growing.

And then came the oil agreements. Demands for public release of the production sharing agreements Uganda signed with the Tullow oil and its partners malformed into allegations of ministerial corruption against senior NRM officials – including the Prime Minister and Secretary General of the party, Amama Mbabazi – and quickly into a Parliamentary rebellion the President felt he needed to crash.

Motives

It’s not clear – some say not even necessary – establishing what motives drive the ‘NRM rebels’. Are the ‘Young Turks’ rooting for ministerial posts? Is it a rebellion against the Prime Minister? Is it an NRM trick to hoodwink the opposition? Or are they the pawns of external forces – like rival oil firms – as some sources have claimed? Are they just good, patriotic MPs fighting to get a good deal for their electorate? Given the complexity of Ugandan politics, it easily could be all of the above.

In remarks reported from Kyankwanzi, the President confirmed what some critical observers had intimated – that MPs might be fighting a proxy of personal wars with the party’s top leaders – especially Amama Mbabazi.

“Baryomunsi is fighting Mbabazi’s wife, while Niwagaba is fighting battles on behalf of Father Gaetano [Tibayenda] against Hope Mwesigye [former Agriculture Minister and sister-in-law to Mbabazi,” reports quoted the president as telling the Caucus in Kyankwanzi.

The President reportedly said that Sekikubo was fighting Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa.

Observers argue that it is not a coincidence that the party is having these clashes at the same time as its most unpopular (some say most arrogant) official also appears to be its most favoured – the second in line to State House.

Apart from Tinkasiimire, who defended Mbabazi in the 2008 NSSF Temangalo scandal, all the other ‘rebel’ MPS have had tiffs with the Prime Minister. Some reportedly hate him for frustrating their hopes of becoming ministers, or supporting their rivals in election campaigns.

Some so distrust him that at the recent Kyankwanzi retreat, legislators reportedly threatened to walk out if Museveni left proceedings in the Prime Minister’s hands on the first day.

Makerere University lecturer, Ndebesa Mwambutsya,  has this sage advice to the Mbabazi-haters: Deal with it!

“The Mbabazi issue is a reflection of the who-manipulates-best politics of NRM,” said Mwambutsya. “Winning is not necessarily a result of popular will, but capacity to survive.”

Mwambutsya argued that in fact, the President might ‘like’ Mbabazi exactly because he was unpupolar.

“Museveni cannot risk putting a popular individual in the position Mbabazi occupies fearing he can outshine and unseat him,” Mwambutsya said.

Some observers have said that the MPs were just like all young politicians – eager to mark the House as their territory, craving the spotlight.

“They just want to prove the point that they are there and cannot be ignored,” one prominent analyst who preferred anonymity said.

But others argue that the stance is more calculated. That like most politicians, the MPs are ambitious, targeting the ultimate prize of rising to ministerial positions. This strategy has worked well for others and has been nick-named in politico-speak “the Banyenzaki approach”, having earned the Rubanda West MP, Henry Banyenzaki a post as Minister of State for Economic Monitoring in the last cabinet appointments.

The formerly fire-brand legislator, who together with Theodore Sekikubo kept the executive on tenterhooks in the previous House, was effectively silenced with the appointment earlier this year.

It worked so well, it was reported recently that Banyenzaki even attacked the dissenting MPs – particularly Sekikubo who was his closest ally in the 8thParliament – accusing them of championing uninformed debates.

Some may see this as self-serving politicking, using critical national issues to advance personal gain, but Makerere University lecturer, Aaron Mukwaya, sees no problem with it.

“At the end of the day, those positions need to be filled and it is okay if the young people feel they are the ones capable of filling them,” Mukwaya told The Independent.

But one of the ‘rebel’ law-makers, Tinkasiimire has dismissed claims of power-seeking as “rubbish”, saying they denigrated the consciences that drove the MPs to seek the public good, even if it meant going against their party, and personally taking on the President.

“I know what to do if I want to be a minister,” Tinkasiimire said. “I just don’t want to, because becoming a minister puts a lock on your mouth and you become a government representative, not a people’s representative.”

Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Secretary for Mobilisation, a former NRM member and bush fighter, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, was more generous to the ‘rebels’ and said people should be given the benefit of a doubt.

“I want to believe that we have selfless individuals in the ruling party and I do not read people’s intentions before they manifest,” Muntu told The Independent.

Makerere University lecturer, Ndebesa Mwambutsya, said motives did not even matter – just the actions and their implications.

“Much as I cannot establish what is informing their debate, it might generate positive results,” Mwambutsya said.

Observers say such a crisis was inevitable given the mess of the NRM’s primaries last year which left many members disgruntled, feeling cheated by their own party.

“We are reaping what happened during the primaries, which demonstrated that the party has no centre,” Mwambutsya said.

Muntu said the happenings in NRM portrayed the inevitability of change and the fragility of a party only held together by incumbency.

“I hope that this will ultimately lead us into a smooth transition,” Muntu said, arguing that what mattered was change, no matter who spearheaded it.

Mwambutsya said the ‘rebellion’ was a manifestation of the party crisis that emerged during the primaries, when members realized that one could lose or win an election, with or without the NRM.

The party’s primaries in August last year were characterized by violence, rigging and chaos, that only the best connected sailed through, explaining the high number of (formerly NRM) Independent legislators.

Is this a genuine bid for reform by the NRM’s young members? It is not impossible. But some remain suspicious.

Mukwaya said the clashes did not make sense, and might be a strategy by the NRM to confuse the public, especially the opposition, that it has internal forces of reform in the party.

But only time will tell if economic realities can persuade the MPs to sell their allegiance like their predecessors in the 8th Parliament did, and if the opposition can take advantage of the new order of politics in Parliament to push for genuine reforms.

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