By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
How Mbabazi lost round one
Item no.6 on the Order Paper of Parliament on Nov. 9 was just 28 words. But its outcome could transform the relationship between parliament and the executive. Item 6 was a motion to force the most powerful member of President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet to obey a parliamentary resolution that the executive, including Museveni and the Attorney General, Peter Nyombi, has dismissed.
The mover of the motion, MP Chemaswet Abdi Fadhil Kisos of Kween County is a member of the ruling party but he was clear; his party bosses, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Internal Affairs Minister, Hillary Onek, were “liable for contempt of parliament” when they refused to obey a parliamentary resolution asking them to step aside as their role in alleged bribery in the nascent oil sector is investigated.
The petitioners insist they have evidence that the ministers took bribes.
One of the petitioners told The Independent: “We are setting aside whatever else we have to do to first get to the bottom of this very important matter. In this endeavour, we have got support from circles you can hardly imagine.”
Officially, the “Contempt of Parliament” motion that was debated amidst acrimony was referred to the Rules, Discipline and Privileges Committee, specifically to define what contempt of parliament means and whether Mbabazi and Internal Affairs Minister Hillary Onek acted in contempt of parliament by refusing to “step aside”. Attorney General Nyombi says “stepping aside” is a “new creature” not provided for under the law.
Unofficially, the motion was deferred because of behind the scenes manoeuvrings in a power-struggle between the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
Kadaga, according to inside sources, was reluctant to have the issue resolved quickly and had, despite protests from various emissaries from Mbabazi, refused to put it on the order paper. When she did, she always put it far down on the order paper. On the day it was debated, item. No.5 was an item to congratulate, rally driver Susan Muwonge about her success.
Mbabazi, who has a reputation for wiggling past opponents, had wanted an immediate vote to dismiss the motion, which his side could possibly have won in a numbers game. Instead, the Speaker, in an unexpected burst of independence, referred it to the rules committee prompting speculation of ill-motive.
Since then Kadaga has shown that although she might laugh hilariously when amused, she can equally growl when incensed.
When Mbabazi’s camp criticised her for allegedly admitting ‘fake’ unauthenticated documents to be tabled in the House as a basis for ‘false’ allegations against ministers, she mounted a public defence in the media, saying she was doing her job according to the law and would not be intimidated by the “mafia”. Even if claims that Kadaga is out to pull Mbabazi down in a power fight could be far-fetched, it is clear that he shouldn’t be counting on her to pull him out of a rut. Effectively, he has lost round one.
While the public is fixated over Mbabazi’s fate over “contempt of parliament”, it is a minor act that has obscured the main activity which is the investigation by the Parliamentary ad hoc Committee into allegations that Mbabazi, Onek and Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa took bribes in the award of oil exploration contracts. The ad hoc Committee investigating the alleged corruption is quieter but it is holding the bomb, as one observer described it.
Bukenya pins Mbabazi?
At the centre of new “evidence” to pin Mbabazi is former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya. When Bukenya was sent to Luzira Prison on charges of corruption that were subsequently quashed without trial, many read Mbabazi’s imprint in his humiliation. Effectively, Bukenya aka Mahogany, who just a few months back had looked a likely contender to Museveni’s throne, became spoiled goods.
Bukenya, according to buzz in the corridors, now smells an opportunity to give Mbabazi a taste of his own medicine.
Bukenya could become a prime witness to link Mbabazi to Eni, which allegedly bribed him. One of Mbabazi’s accusers, MP Gerald Karuhanga (Youth West) on Nov. 23 told the ad hoc Committee investigating the bribery allegations that on February 21, 2010, at 8.00 pm, then-Energy Minister Hillary Onek met then-Vice President Gilbert Bukenya in the VIP Lounge at Kabira Country Club in Kampala.
A distressed Onek allegedly told Bukenya that the President was angry with him and had refused to meet him for the past eight months.
Karuhanga said Onek told Bukenya that he had been misled by Mbabazi to believe that President Museveni was interested in having Eni on board. Onek allegedly hoped that Bukenya would help him secure an appointment with Museveni.
Bukenya, who is famous for coining the word “mafia” to describe Museveni’s kitchen cabinet that included Mbabazi and Kutesa, has in the past been reluctant to pin them over corruption allegations. The petitioners say they have names of two officials privy to the meeting at Kabira who will be examined by the committee on oath if necessary.
However, questions are being raised now about how the petitioners found out about his secret meeting.
Karuhanga told the committee Onek told Bukenya that he had been misled by Mbabazi to believe that the government and the President were interested in having Eni on board. Onek allegedly hoped that Bukenya would help him secure an appointment with Museveni.
In a statement Onek made to Parliament in November 2009, a copy of which the petitioners availed the committee, Onek appeared to root for ENI, referring to it as a “big, credible” oil company as opposed to Heritage and Tullow Oil, which he called “small” companies which had no capacity to drill Uganda’s oil. The petitioners want an investigation into the Eni-Heritage contest.
It is also noteworthy that during Bukenya’s ordeal at the Anti-corruption Court, MP Rosemary Seninde (Wakiso Woman) stood by him. Coincidently, it is also Seninde who proposed that Mbabazi and the other ministers step aside temporarily as investigations into the bribery allegations are done. Seninde also went to radio stations arguing for Mbabazi and others to step aside. Could Seninde’s boldness be a sign that Bukenya (her political god father in Wakiso) is ready to speak out now?
The accusers led by MPs Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri), Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga), Gerald Karuhanga (Youth West) and Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa East), on Nov. 23 made further allegations before the committee.
They asked the committee to investigate allegations that a one Ciccareli Guissepe, an Italian national who is the former head of Italian oil company ENI Africa operations, currently works as a consultant on the proposed oil pipeline project that will transport Uganda’s crude oil to the Indian ocean coast.
Eni is the Italian oil company alleged to have offered Mbabazi a bribe, basing on a US diplomatic cable leaked by the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. The petitioners want the committee to investigate the link between Mbabazi and Guissepe’s recruitment as a consultant on this project.
The petitioners want trips abroad by the accused, particularly to London, Dubai, US, and Kenya, for the period under review to be investigated by forensic experts.
They allege that on December 7, 2009, Mbabazi held a meeting at Carlton Towers Hotel, Banier Street, in Dubai, with a one Kabucu, Kimbaleba, Guissepe, Heritage Oil chief executive Tony Buckingham and two other whites. Ssekikubo claimed recordings of what transpired in the meeting can be accessed.
Ssekikubo says a similar meeting took place in London on January 4, 2010, and in attendance was Mbabazi, Kabucu, Kimbaleba, Tony Buckingham and Khlubuse Zuma and two aides. Khlubuse, according to Ssekikubo, is a cousin to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Kabucu and Kimbaleba, the petitioners allege, are Mbabazi’s aides.
If this case against Mbabazi, Kutesa, and Onek is confirmed, they would be automatically censured and President Museveni would effectively have to reconstitute cabinet without his core team. Can he let that happen?
When the resolution, and nine others, designed to streamline the nascent oil sector were made, Museveni called an NRM MPs retreat to the party indoctrination centre, the National Leadership Institute – Kyankwanzi, and announced that he had investigated the claims and found they were untrue. He followed that up on Nov.4, with a letter to the Speaker of Parliament objecting to some of the resolutions, including the requirement for the ministers to step-aside.
Since the committees were formed, Mbabazi’s side have launched a media blitz to make the same spin.
But the way the Rules Committee is structured, it should technically sift through noises like this. Although it is headed by a man who worked as Museveni’s legal assistant for a long time and is also thought to be Mbabazi’s sympathiser, MP Fox Odoi, its outcome has got to be more technically nuanced and move beyond numbers for or against Mbabazi.
The stakes are so high, however, that one opposition leader, Jeema party President Asuman Basalirwa, has said the outcome of the Rules Committee could spark a “constitutional crisis” if parliament and the executive do not agree a way out.
The committee hearings have hosted the Who-is-Who in the legal community to interpret “contempt of parliament”. Originally set to do the job in a fortnight, the committee has asked for a farther two-week extension to complete the assignment.
Attorney General Nyombi told the committee that it would have been ‘gross indiscipline’ for the ministers to step aside without President Museveni’s consent as only he can punish errant ministers.
But Jim Muhwezi, the lead counsel of the committee asked who, going forward, will have to categorise resolutions as “advisory” or “binding.”
“Can you point to the law that makes some resolutions of parliament advisory?” he asked Attorney General Nyombi.
“It is common practice,” Nyombi replied.
“So we can go by common practice (to require ministers to step aside)?” Muhwezi quipped.
Muhwezi argues that the wording of resolution 9(c), which required the ministers to step aside, “is clearly a command”.
Rules Committee member, MP John Baptist Lokii (Matheniko) asked: “Since for a resolution of parliament to be binding it needs to be backed by an act of parliament, should parliament never come up with any resolution as long as there is no law backing it up?”
The retired Supreme Court Justice, Prof. George Kanyeihamba, told the committee: “Parliament has the power to order anyone out the moment it is displeased with them”. He said Attorney General Nyombi’s claim that the executive was not obliged to implement parliamentary resolutions because they are ‘advisory’ was a ‘new twist’.
Prominent Kampala lawyer, Dr. Joseph Byamugisha Byamugisha, who represented President Museveni as lead counsel both in 2001 and 2006 when his main challenger, Kizza Besigye, challenged Museveni’s re-election, pushed Mbabazi’s lines neatly. But he riled the committee when he feigned ignorance of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure which are the meat of investigation.
“I have heard talk of the independence of parliament,” he said, “I must say, however, it doesn’t exist. It is not provided for in the law.” He said the only binding parliamentary resolutions are mentioned in the Constitution; calling a referendum, passing the budget, proclaiming a state of emergency, approving presidential appointments and approving that the president assumes executive and legislative power of a district.
It’s unclear which way the Rules Committee and the various corruption investigations will swing, but Mbabazi’s political mettle is clearly being severely tested. If the Rules Committee finds him guilty of contempt of parliament, he faces suspension from the House for a specified period of time.
He took over as Leader of Government Business at a time when the NRM had virtually annihilated the opposition at the election and stymied its activities on the street with brutal police force. But opposition has sprung from within the NRM. Many see it as a battle to succeed Museveni but for some, it is a reaction to an arrogant and proud leader, who is a master of intrigue.