By Haggai Matsiko
Why the Deputy Speaker does the dirty work
August 6 was a busy day for the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and her deputy, Jacob Oulanyah. It is the day the controversial Public Order Management Bill (POM Bill) was passed in parliament.
The action on the floor of the House when the Bill was passed was interesting; with opposition MPs singing, shouting in protest, and threatening to commit parliamentary unthinkable by grabbing the mace while the ruling party MPs sat stone-faced; waiting to vote.
But the real drama happened before, in the Speakers chambers on the second floor of Parliament. First, the Leader of Opposition, Nandala Mafabi, opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Secretary General Alice Asianut Alaso, and party Spokesman Wafula Oguttu were huddled in the meeting with Kadaga.
Parliament was that afternoon meeting for the first time following the acrimonious session of Aug.1 in which Oulanyah insisted on carrying on with a vote on the POM Bill. Opposition MPs protested and Aruu County MP, Odonga Otto had grabbed and tore up a voters list forcing an abrupt adjournment.
The opposition MPs argued that although the ruling side had the voting numbers on their side; it was important to find a middle ground of such a contentious Bill. Oulanyah refused to budge and immediately suspended Otto and two other MPs’ Semmuju Nganda (Kyadondo East) and Theodore Sekikubo (Lwemiyaga) from the House.
The atmosphere around parliament was tense with anticipation of what would happen as Kadaga met with this time the leaders of the opposition. The MPs petitioned Kadaga against Oulanyah’s conduct, which they said was unbecoming of a Speaker and also asked her to first hold onto the Bill to allow for calm to return in parliament. As a result, they struck a deal with Kadaga to exclude the POM Bill from the Order Paper.
But shortly after they left, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi also entered into a meeting with the Speaker and his Deputy. The ruling party Chief whip, Justine Kasule Lumumba, accompanied Mbabazi, who is the leader of government business in the House, to the meeting. Following this meeting, the POM Bill was reinstated on the Order Paper and Oulanyah was charged with the task of ensuring it went through.
What the opposition MPs failed to realize is that even with Kadaga steering the House, the Bill would have passed because like Oulanyah, she is a member of the NRM—a second National Vice Chairperson—and ought to support the party.
While Kadaga is cagey about this, Oulanyah embraces with enormous energy.
“Members,” Oulanyah had told the House as soon as the Aug.1 plenary session started, “we have urgent business concerning item number seven.”
The usually confident Oulanyah meant the POM Bill and it was item number six, not seven, on the order paper.
Oulanyah’s fumble became the signature of how the passing of the bill would be remembered. Although the NRM, which boasts a 262-member majority, could have easily seen the Bill passed smoothly, Oulanyah’s handling of business meant it will go down as yet another controversial piece of legislation passed under his watch.
Like a lumberjack, Oulanyah is gaining a reputation for cutting through the tide of derision from MPs, not minding the resistance against the Bill and the chaos in parliament.
“We are going to pass this bill, the aggrieved, you know where to go,” he had vowed in the previous session and ruled the House would pass the Bill by vote tally and roll call. But then Otto had grabbed the registrars, tore them up, and tossed them at him. He was taking no chances this time.
He called the vote, and amid an unprecedented din, ruled that the Ayes had it. Shame, opposition MPs shouted back. Some MPs even tried to grab the speaker’s mace. Oulanyah fought back by suspending a fourth MP; Angelina Osege (Soroti District Woman).
By pushing the passing of the POM Bill through parliament without any compromises and amendments, Oulanyah, might have just hit the high-water mark in President Yoweri Yoweri Museveni’s strategy to block opposition dissent.
Since winning a third term in power in 2011, Museveni appears to have become more intolerant of dissent.
The new law fits Museveni’s strategy to use the law to stifle his opponents; including four members of his party that he wants expelled.
Museveni, who faces another election in 2016, is possibly trying to ensure there is no repeat of the opposition violence that erupted after the 2011 election and saw foreign dignitaries invited to his inauguration pelted with rocks and escorted under a barrage of bullets.
The Bill has since its inception, been a hot issue. The government devised it in the wake of deadly riots especially the 2009 Buganda riots and those sparked by sky-high inflation and led by Besigye.
While the government argues that the bill is meant to protect protestors and non-protestors, critics view it as a counter measure to protests that have increasingly threatened President Museveni’s government.
Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo describes it as the most “obnoxious law that is the most serious affront to civil liberties since the promulgation of our constitution” in 1995.
He is concerned that the law gives the police chief, army Gen. Kale Kayihura, the power to allow or block a public meeting on a whim.
Amnesty International, the global human rights campaign body, has called the bill “insidious” and “designed to intimidate civil society and shrink Uganda’s diminishing political space further still”.
“Prohibitions on open political discussion and peaceful demonstration are alarming and utterly impermissible under international law,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.
Civil society organisations have punched holes in the new law and say it infringes on articles of the constitution that provide for the freedom of speech and expression.
They say it undermines rule of law, constitutionalism, and independence of the judiciary as it seeks to revive Section 32 of the Police Act which was held unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in the Muwanga Kivumbi v. Attorney General constitutional Petition.
The court ruled that it is unconstitutional to require Ugandans to seek permission from police before exercising their right to demonstrate and assemble.
“Powers given to the Inspector General of Police to prohibit the convening of an assembly or procession an unjustified limitation on the enjoyment of fundaments right,” the court ruled, “Such limitation is not demonstrably justified in free and democratic country like ours.”
But under the new law Clause 7; an organiser of a public meeting is required to write to police about the venue and date of a meeting and in Clause 8, the police have powers to allow or block meeting.
These are meetings on matters of public interest that have as few as “three or more persons” congregating to discuss the principles, policy, actions or failure of any government, political party or political organisation.
The police boss can also block any gathering “held to form pressure groups to submit petitions to any person or to mobilise or demonstrate support for or opposition to the views, principles, policy, actions or omissions of any person or body of persons or institution, including any government administration or government institution”.
Prime Minister Mbabazi says the Bill is meant to protect those who protest and those who do not.
“It was the decision of the people, I am sorry if you are few in number,” Mbabazi told protesting opposition MPs.
But critics say the Bill that Oulanyah let through parliament is an unmistakable legal sledgehammer that Museveni’s government seeks to use to hit the opposition on the head. It is a futile move, observers say. It appears only more violence can result from blocking peaceful democratic opposition for those opposing Museveni’s 27-year hold-on to power.
So why does Oulanyah do the dirty work? Would it not have been logical for him to withdrawal after his run-in with the MPs?
Sources that know Oulanyah say he is a stubborn man with a very short memory. On December 10, 1990, Oulanyah was the Speaker of the Makerere University students Guild in Kampala.
Together with then-Guild President Norbert Mao, who is now leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Oulanyah led students into a riot. Two students; Tom Onyango and Tom Okema, were shot dead by police quelling the strike. Oulanyah was beaten up so badly by the riot police that students thought he had been killed. He was admitted to Mulago.
History seems to have served Oulanyah a sour dish by letting him preside over the abolition of the very rights of assembly, association, and speech that he was willing to die defending in 1990. What has surprised many is the Oulanyah seems to be enjoying it.
Oulanyah who belonged to the opposition has since switched sides and prefers to stick out his neck for the NRM government. His stance has won him praise in high places.
“I see Oulanyah’s plan,” one observer noted, “His moves are clear; Oulanyah will be the next Speaker of Parliament. Kadaga is out.”
Opposition Leader of Parliament, Nandala Mafabi, was also a student at Makerere University in 1990 when Oulanyah led the riots in which the two students were shot dead by police.
After the Aug.6 ruling, Nandala Mafabi had no kind words for Oulanyah.
He called Oulanyah “mercenary” who had come specifically “to pass a law which is good for tyrants”.
Sam Otada, at a press conference said the manner in which the bill was passed showed that the executive has hijacked Parliament.
“If there is business of the day and then it is changed by the Leader of Government Business,” he said, “a point has been made that the executive has overrun parliament.”
For Chris Baryomunsi, the Kinkizi East MP, the message from the POM Bill saga was that leaders of parliament and government need to realise that parliament is a platform for intellectual debate and not a voting machine.
“For a contentious Bill like that,” Baryomunsi said, “the best thing should have been to build consensus between the government and the opposition and not to overwhelm the opposition with numbers.
By passing the Bill, which he said was draconian in its original form; Baryomunsi said that the government was becoming overzealous in shrinking the political space. “It is not good for our democracy,” Baryomunsi added.
Indeed many argue that the manner in which the Bill was passed and the Bill itself reveal how the Museveni government is leading Uganda on a trajectory of a fully-fledged police state—a state characterised by repressive governmental control e usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police.
The POM Bill has been passed as the de facto opposition leader and political protests icon, Kizza Besigye is reviving his running battles with police. In 2011, his deadly riots got security operatives physically and financially exhausted —with the police spending in the region of Shs 500 million daily on teargas and other riot related gear.
Museveni image suffered internationally as images of security operatives killing and brutalising civilians became a staple on world news. Besigye, who was always in the frame, saw his star rise.
Whenever police arrested him, the courts released him and accused police of arresting him illegally and infringing on his constitutional right to protest. The new law seeks to block that gap.
Any protester will now be deemed to have committed a criminal offence and be liable for any loss of life and property in a riot.
But supporters of the Bill say it is about time the government tightened its grip on opposition led protests have to be regulated.
They cite challenges of the police face in the wake of protests that have become a common feature in countries like Uganda, following on the examples of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprising in northern Africa that kicked out regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
They argue that even Britain, an icon of western democracy and its freedoms and rights, put in stricter public order policing measures following the August 2011 London riots.
Very well, the opponents say, just as Oulanyah was among those protesting just 10 years ago, the POM Bill is a dragnet so vast it will inevitably end up capturing some of those supporting it today. Oulanyah, they say, should have thought about that too.
Quick Facts: Jacob Oulanyah
- Recently, MP Betty Nambooze accused Oulanyah of stoking controversy when he accepted a parliamentary committee report calling on President Museveni to intervene in the wrangles at the Kampala Capital City Authority. It was defeated in parliament.
- Oulanyah supported a move by the ruling party to have chief whips to pre-determine which MPs could speak on an issue. It was defeated.
- Oulanyah riled many when the appointments committee meeting he chaired approved State minister for Lands, Aida Nantaba, who had been rejected.
- He presided over the controversial Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill 2012, with the controversial clause that gave sweeping powers to the minister of energy to issue or revoke exploration licenses.
- He made the ruling exonerating Bank of Uganda governor, Emanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile of wrongdoing in a case where city businessman and ruling party icon Hassan Basajjabalaba was compensation over Shs160 billion under unclear circumstances.