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Recalling parliament

By Haggai Matsiko

Why does Museveni fear it?

Members of parliament seeking to recall parliament for a Special Sitting in defiance of President Yoweri Museveni needed 125 signatures to push their petition through.

Previous petitions, including one to impeach the President, had failed. This time the MPs paced around, at some point announcing more signatures than they had and they weathered the storm of speculation that they would fail. In apparent desperation, they even sneaked their list into Luzira Prisons to have an MP sign—every signature mattered.

To block them, Museveni convened two urgent meetings with the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who is also the leader of government business.

The Parliamentary Commission, chaired by Speaker Kadaga, held two meetings of its own with Mbabazi. They all failed to block the signing of the petition.

When the defiant MPs handed their petition to the Speaker on Jan.7, however, it was clear they had barely scraped through. They got just 126 signatories.

From then, the Speaker of Parliament who is embroiled in an ugly public standoff with the President over the issue, constitutionally had 21 days in which to recall parliament.

Counting working days, the 21 days elapse on Feb.5. That is the same day that parliament is slated to officially reopen, usually with an address from President Museveni. Is the timing by coincidence or calculated? If it is by calculation, Speaker Kadaga and Museveni’s moves are being watched.

Sources within State House say Museveni is losing patience with renegade MPs within his party and is devising ways to silence them.

“These people are in NRM but are adversaries of the party,” the newly appointed Minister for the Presidency, Frank Mwebaze, told The Independent. “Now is the right time that we are going to know who they are.”

At that point, the petition to recall parliament was signed by 39 NRM MPs, 31 FDC, 17 Independents, 16 from the Democratic Party, and one each from the Conservative Party and JEEMA.

More arrests feared

Tumwebaze said the government is querying some of the signatures on the petition and compiling a list for action.

“If the 126 signatures are genuine and the Speaker gets convinced with the grounds of the petitioners, they can recall parliament,” he said, “But those petitioners have proved they are liars. First, they told the public that they had so far gathered 133 signatures but then said they have 126 and that is why the quickly hurried to tender their petition to the Speaker.”

At this point, it became obvious Tumwebaze was setting the ground for a fight over the signatures.

Evelyn Anite, the youthful NRM Caucus spokesperson, also mentioned tough action, including arrests, when she spoke to The Independent.

“Recalling Parliament is guaranteed in the Constitution just like talking; everybody is allowed by the Constitution but it does not mean you should go round abusing everyone, you will be arrested,” she said, “An MP is immune from arrest as long as they are in the House but when you are making reckless statements outside parliament then you will be arrested and that is why those who have been arrested are facing it.”

Museveni also appears aware that since events in his NRM-dominated but rebellious House tend to shift at hair-rising speed, it is best not to leave anything to chance. Starting Jan.11, he has ensured that his NRM-party MPs are locked away at a `retreat’ at the National Leadership Institute at Kyankwazi.

There are some MPs who he can no longer count on. Among them are his former Vice President, Gilbert Bukenya, erstwhile blue-eyed boys, Fox Odoi , Theodore Ssekikubo, and Kampala Central MP Mohammad Nsereko. All these MPs, 39 in total, signed the petition defying the President, who is also their party chairman. The question is why?

Officially, the petition sought to recall parliament for a Special Sitting about the controversial death of Butaleja Woman MP Cerinah Nebanda, the subsequent arrest of several MPs and harsh utterances made by President Yoweri Museveni against parliament and the Speaker.

Fight over egos

Trouble started when MPs instituted an independent investigation into Nebanda’s death but were blocked by the President sparking vitriolic tongue lashing on both sides.

The MPs are infuriated that Museveni bragged that although they are called “honourables” they really are “nothing” and can be arrested any time.

Museveni was abusive when he addressed journalists, calling MPs “idiots” and “fools”, had a number of MPs detained and directed police to interrogate the Speaker, who is said to have rejected the government’s autopsy and toxicology report that linked the MP’s death to narcotic drugs and alcohol.

Underlying the tough-talking says Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of the NGO, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), an influential think-tank, is a fight over egos.

“There are big egos with each side fighting to emerge the winner,” he told The Independent.

Tumushabe says there needs to be a toning down on both sides because what Ugandans need is the leadership that moves above the fray and maintains sobriety in the midst such a crisis.

“By failing to do its work, the government is giving ammunition to different groups that want to disrupt it,” he warned.

Mathias Mpuuga, the Masaka Municipality MP, also says the melodrama that has characterised the collection of signatures shows what lengths the President is willing to go to gag parliament—something that the 9th Parliament is not willing to stand.

“He was used to the 8th Parliament that he would order around,” Mpuuga told The Independent, “but this parliament is very different and with this petition, we are further asserting ourselves and showing them that parliament is not an extension of the Executive.”

He added that President Museveni’s attitude towards parliament was clear when he said that it does not play the oversight role on him.

“Whether the parliament is recalled or not,” Mpuuga adds, “we have sent a clear message to the president that we are an independent parliament that functions outside his whims and that national issues are bigger than his ego.”

Critics of the petition say recalling parliament is wastage of resources and time while those in favour say since the Executive has made it clear that only its voice can be heard and clogged other meaningful avenues, MPs are seeking each and every opportunity to mount pressure on the government.

Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer and political commentator, is disgusted.

In his view, even if parliament were recalled, it would be just “another venting session and nothing more yet the MPs have serious business to attend to”.

He says there is need for parliament to return to parliamentary business, like focusing on passing the several Bills pending before it, instead of focusing on peripheral issues that they have been obsessed with recently.

He says although the constitution allows MPs to petition for a recall, seeking to assert the independence of parliament, as some of them are saying, using the pretext of Nebanda’s death is wrong.

“There are other legal means as opposed to squaring up with the President on some of the comments he made in the media,” Opiyo says, “the MPs can look at amending the Constitution, and they can seek to have cabinet members of parliament removed among others.”

Tasting blood

Other observers say whatever the outcome, the success of the petitioners in raising enough signatures and getting the petition to the Speaker sets the stage for an unprecedented showdown between the Executive and Legislature further worsening the already frosty relationship between the two. It could be a harbinger for future battles.

Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, the prominent city human rights lawyer, says since it’s only President Museveni and a few supporters of NRM who are against the recalling of parliament, it means they are afraid of the mood of the populace who want it.

“The MPs wish to reassert their space of power, which the executive is trying to encroach on,” he said in a telephone interview.

He says that does not mean the people do not want NRM as a party.

“They are people who want to build NRM as a strong party; so they do not want it to be messed up by a few individuals,” he adds.

He says the petition is a hangover from the battles fought within NRM during the bitter party primaries of 2010.

“In these primaries many NRM supporters were left with bitterness that was not resolved,” he says, “Remember NRM and President Museveni were sued in this case in the High Court but without any results to-date and now people in their hearts are demanding for fresh elections.”

Whatever the case, observers say, the MPs have tasted blood and could push for drastic action next time. For example, they require the same 125 signatures to initiate a notice to remove the President from office through the Speaker and the Chief Justice.

Even Article 107 (7) of the Constitution, for example, states the following: “If Parliament passes the resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of all members of parliament, the President shall cease to hold office”.  The current petition appears to set a precedent for that.

Museveni fights back

That is perhaps why Museveni deployed fully to block the petition reaching the Speaker.

Tumwebaze, and Minister without Portfolio, Richard Todwong, the Minister of State for Luwero Triangle, Rosemary Namayanja, who is also the acting NRM Chief Whip, and the NRM caucus Vice Chairman, David Bahati, were among those that came horse high to beat back the pro-petition legislators and failed miserably initially.

This was after Museveni thought that talking tough could end the rebellion from Parliament, and reportedly told a meeting at his home country in Rwakitura that Speaker Kadaga needed to use her powers to control parliament just like he does with cabinet. He reportedly said parliament would only be recalled “over my dead body”.

Sources that preferred anonymity told The Independent, that another group of top NRM ministers resorted to the usual NRM tactic – exerting pressure and dishing out money to fail the petition.

Indeed, last minute efforts were instituted by some 10 MPs to withdraw their signatures. Another MP, Benjamin Cadet of Bunyaruguru, alleged that his signature had been forged.

True or not, the NRM pounced at the opportunity, with Namayanja penning a letter to Speaker Kadaga, reportedly seeking verification of the signatures.

“The members who wish to append their signatures in support of a petition normally do so in the presence of the Sergeant at Arms within the precincts of Parliament. This was designed to prevent the possibility of forgery and manipulation of signatures,” Namayanja reportedly wrote.

The impasse over signatures seems to have set the tone of 2013 after a 2011 and 2012 that were too, heavily coloured with rifts between the executive and the legislature. In October 2011, parliament held a heated debate and made stern resolutions that included halting of all oil transactions, resignation of three government ministers including Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi over alleged oil bribes.

This debate was unprecedented and had been a result of a petition by a few MPs who too went on a signature collecting spree. President Museveni took the day as no minister resigned but the impasse was significant—it set the tone for all the following rifts including a disagreement over the health budget and recently over the oil bill.

Nebanda’s death, however, seems to have sucked the President more.

Retired Justice Prof. George Kanyeihamba, told local media in an interview that the fallout between the two arms of government “…truly indicates that some people in governance have totally failed to read and internalise the provisions of the Constitution and our laws.”

“What we have is not bad blood between the organs of government but a total disregard almost in contempt of the rules that govern us,” he said.

Additional reporting by Julius Odeke.

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