By Agather Atuhaire
How dangerous can confusion between Leader of Opposition and Opposition Chief Whip be?
But not one opposition MP followed him out. Only four of the 67 opposition MPs ended up outside with their leader.
In fact, even the Opposition Chief Whip, Cecilia Ogwal (Dokolo Woman) who is supposed to beat everyone into line stayed behind as did the Shadow Attorney General, Abdu Katuntu.
It was a low moment for Wafula Oguttu and another sign of the confusion in the opposition side of parliament.
The opposition’s ugly performance during the debate on the Constitutional Amendment Bill has left many wondering whether the opposition will ever have a significant influence in parliament.
With their leader, Wafula Oguttu, out and alone, the opposition MPs went on to vote in favour of the commencement of the Bill that they had earlier described as “shallow and meaningless”.
The opposition was expected to be angry that the Bill had disregarded calls by them and civil society’s calls for electoral reforms.
The proposed amendments were benign, including a proposal to change the name of the Electoral Commission to the “Independent Electoral Commission” without changing its substance.
Oguttu was demonstrating his disagreement over the lack of substance by walking out.
But after the vote, what ensued were accusations and counter accusations with Oguttu accusing his members of receiving bribes from the NRM and the members demanding that he resigns over failure to organise the opposition.
Although Oguttu is the one at the centre of the storm now, it seems he is not the only one who has failed to steer the opposition in one direction.
While Oguttu has been at the helm of the opposition in parliament for only two years, the troubles of the opposition in parliament have been there for as long as it has existed.
The 67 opposition MPs are badly outnumbered by the ruling NRM’s 250 MPs but they are the largest number the opposition has ever had in parliament and a lot of high expectation had been raised at their election.
Wafula Oguttu himself is a tested opinion leader who was editor-in-chief of leading political newspapers, supported President Yoweri Museveni in the bush war and early years. When he switched allegiance to the opposition, a lot was expected from him. He has offered little.
Under him and his predecessors, the opposition has lost almost all battle on issues it has attempted to take on the NRM party and President Yoweri Museveni.
These go way back to 2011 when a Public Accounts Committee report called for the resignation of former Attorney General Khiddu Makubuya, former information and guidance minister Kabakumba Matsiko and Bank of Uganda Governor Tumusiime Mutebile.
Although Museveni gave the opposition the heads of Makubuya and Kabakumba, he defended Mutebile and the opposition which had vowed to remove him lost the battle when the matter was put to vote.
The opposition also lost the battle on the Public Order Management Act where some of its members notably those on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee were said to cut a deal with the government.
In 2012 during the East African Legislative assembly elections, the opposition failed to cause the NRM party to respect the East African Community treaty on equal representation. The list of losses goes on.
While it is understandable that the opposition does not stand a chance against the NRM in parliament because of the latter’s numerical strength, there is a growing view that the opposition’s disunity makes a bad situation worse.
Oguttu is not the first Leader of Opposition to fail to unite and rally all the opposition MPs behind one cause. His predecessors possibly even failed more disastrously.
Oguttu not lone failure
Budadiri West MP Nathan Nandala Mafabi who led the opposition for the first session of the Ninth parliament led successful walkouts; during President Museveni’s state of the nation address in 2012, during the debate on rules of procedure regarding election of EALA members and when the appointments committee of parliament approved Gen.Aronda Nyakairima as Internal Affairs minister. But why Mafabli ably rallied his FDC faction of the opposition, he failed to gel with MPs from other opposition parties.
It was during his tenure that other opposition parties like UPC and DP ignored the opposition’s position and participated in the EALA elections.
The official position was for the entire opposition to boycott the elections but DP and UPC fronted Mukasa Mbidde and Chris Opoka respectively.
In retaliation, Mafabi sacked the shadow ministers from these parties, a move that was seen as unwise by many observers including those in the opposition.
They said Mafabi would have endeavored to unite the opposition rather than take a decision which would divide it further.
Later, Mafabi’s relationship became acrimonious even with MPs within his own party. Some of them, Kitgum woman MP Beatrice Anywar, resigned their positions as members of the opposition cabinet.
Others like Abdu Katuntu remained disgruntled and some attributed rampant absenteeism of shadow ministers to the unfriendly relationship with their boss.
Prof. Morris Ogenga Latigo, the first leader of opposition in parliament in 2007 did not have it any easier.
Because of his soft spoken nature, he was often accused of “being in bed with the enemy.” His style of work was at great variance with that at his FDC party headquarters which alienated itself from the opposition in parliament.
Many opposition members accused him of selling-out to the NRM and President Museveni. They said he should have reacted more strongly during the debate on the officials that were implicated in the Common Wealth Heads of Meeting (CHOGM).
But Latigo always said that being an opposition leader did not mean disagreeing and fighting all the time.
“I played politics where it was required and indulged diplomacy,” he said at the closure of the 8th parliament.
Former MP and former opposition member Aggrey Awori says there is an underlying problem. He says, as a starting point, the leading opposition party FDC, needs to establish a strong relationship with other opposition parties in parliament.
Second, he says that the opposition should desist from opposing just for the sake of it saying that in the recent case, Oguttu was just being an extremist.
“Wafula (Oguttu) took the extreme view of all or nothing,” Awori told The Independent. “That wasn’t going to help. The members that stayed back and participated in the debate on the amendments were more realistic.”
He says that Oguttu should know that the NRM members were enough to pass the Bill even without the opposition.
That is the same argument that has been fronted by the opposition members that voted for the Bill; that it was better to have few amendments than nothing at all.
Opposition Chief Whip Cecilia Ogwal who voted against the Bill at the first round when the bill was to be read for the second time but later voted `yes’ at the third reading tasked Oguttu to explain how harmful the Bill that was passed is to the opposition.
“Whatever was passed,” she told The Independent, “There is nothing hazardous to the opposition.”
Bugweri MP Abdu Katuntu who abstained on the first vote and later voted `yes’ also argued that neither blocking debate on the Bill nor walking out would have benefitted the opposition.
“Were we going to achieve the views contained in the minority report by blocking debate or by walking out?” he asked.
Jinja East MP Paul Mwiru also said that it was better to participate and struggle for the consideration of the minority report. He said that there are amendments that were passed that are good for everyone including the opposition.
But Oguttu insists that their participation legitimised a sham exercise.
Latigo agrees with Oguttu. He says that by walking out, the opposition wanted to make a point, to show their disagreement.
“I don’t buy that argument,” he told The Independent, “by participating in the debate, the members seemed to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the Bill. Everything was wrong with that Bill, the Ugandans who wasted their time and resources collecting views on matters of constitutional amendment and electoral reforms were totally disregarded.”
A day after the opposition fiasco, at a press conference by the top leadership of The Democratic Alliance, which is working to field a single joint opposition presidential candidate against Museveni in 2016, its chairman, the distinguished constitutional scholar, Prof. Frederick Ssempebwa lamented that more than Shs6 billion had been spent on gathering and crafting the proposed reforms that were thrown out.
“Since 2011,”Ssempebwa said, “substantial time and resources have been devoted to consultations on electoral reforms.”
But Awori insists the opposition could not have done much. He says the opposition needs to put its house in order and that it is grave for the Leader of Opposition and the Opposition Chief Whip to be moving in different directions.
“The Leader of opposition and the chief whip don’t seem to be working together as a team,” he says, “I was surprised that his Whip was among the people that stayed in the house and voted in favour of the Bill.”
Latigo agrees on that point. “This is the point where a reshuffle is necessary,’ he says, “You can’t have the opposition whip working against the Leader of Opposition and think you will have cohesion.”
Opposition whip Cecilia Ogwal complained that the Leader of Opposition did not give her prior notice of his decision to walk out. Awori says the opposition will register success if it stops antagonising the government and opts for dialogue in some cases.
But renowned opposition lawyer Wandera Ogalo says it would be unfair to blame the opposition for failing to influence the debate on electoral reforms.
He says that the blame should be put on voters who insist on voting NRM supporters who cannot dare oppose their chairman even when he is wrong.
He says no level of unity will make a difference if Parliament continues to be dominated by the ruling party.
“The opposition can only do so much,” he said, “they don’t even make up a third of parliament for God’s sake. What can they do with a paltry 60 members when the constitution requires not less than a one third majority on all matters? “Whether all of them had walked out or stayed,” he says, “the results would still be the same.”