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Speaker Ssekandi

By Melina Platas  

Traitor or a survivor?

Many believe that Ssekandi will not be remembered for his objectivity, as Nsibambi suggests, but rather as the Speaker who made the most controversial decisions.

Get me the Speaker,’ Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi demands, and then hangs up the phone. A few moments later it rings. ‘They are asking me about your weaknesses,’ Nsibambi tells the third most powerful man in the land ‘“ Speaker of Parliament, Edward Ssekandi. ‘I said you sometimes allow members to repeat themselves. You should be a little more ruthless,’ Nsibambi laughs.

As the Leader of Government in Parliament, Nsibambi interacts often with his fellow NRM strongman, Ssekandi. But while the Prime Minister has only kind words for the Speaker, his accolades are not shared by all. The 65-year old Ssekandi is the first Speaker to preside over a multiparty Parliament, and in his seven-year tenure, he has driven a polarising wedge between his critics and supporters.

If you want to meet the Speaker face to face, you will need to climb the many flights of stairs to the fifth floor of Uganda’s Parliament building, where you will reach a wing almost entirely devoted to his chambers. Once you pass the police security checkpoint, you will be ushered into a spacious reception room with windows overlooking downtown Kampala “ and with some luck, you may even be shown into his elegant office. But if you do manage to reach into the depths of the regal chambers, who exactly is the austere gentleman you will find there? Is he a traitor, as some of his former Democratic Party colleagues would have you believe or an upstanding leader looking out for the good of the country? Is he an impartial judge who is carefully balancing a multiparty house, or an NRM die hard who is pushing forward his party’s agenda?

One of the most interesting things you will find in attempting to unmask Ssekandi is the polarising effect he has had on those who have observed his stewardship of the house. On the one hand, you have NRM strongmen practically kissing the ground he walks on. On the other, you have members of the opposition marching across this ground and out of Parliament in protest of his rulings. Depending on whom you talk to, you will either hear that he is the most objective or the most biased Speaker ever to set foot in Parliament.

The Speaker is a hard nut to crack. This is not helped by the fact that ‘accessible’ is not an adjective that has been used to describe the man by either his critics or supporters. His severe appearance and stoic demeanor are easily intimidating, and he has never been one to engage freely with the press. In fact, though he became Speaker in 2001, he did not address a press conference until 2007, and even then did so only grudgingly. It took a walkout by opposition MPs, who were questioning Ssekandi’s impartiality in ruling in favor of the release of over Shs 150 billion for the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), to prompt the Speaker to finally speak up for himself and his decision-making.

In the mold of an NRM cadre

The Speaker, in the mold of the NRM cadre, is defensive when confronted with an appraisal of his performance. He is generally unwilling to admit that he, like any other politician, is prone to make errors of judgment, particularly when faced with political pressure. When accused by the press and opposition of being partial toward the NRM in his decision-making and handling of the house, he addressed the 2007 press conference, saying, ‘I am the Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda as a whole, and I treat all members fairly, irrespective of their party. I was, after all, elected Speaker by both sides of Parliament.’ He left no room for the possibility of human error, instead digging in his heels in firm defense of an impossible claim to perfect impartiality.

His supporters uphold this claim. Nsibambi, for example, will fire off a laundry list of the Speaker’s strengths ‘“ that Ssekandi is ‘knowledgeable’, a ‘good listener’, personally mediates quarrels that arise within the house, and has abstained from NRM caucuses that otherwise could be seen as biasing his judgment. But when asked about Ssekandi’s inevitable weaknesses, Nsibambi could list only one ‘“ that he allows MPs to repeat themselves, wasting time on the floor of Parliament. Even this could hardly be considered a real weakness. Nsibambi thus essentially had only words of praise for Ssekandi. ‘He is very objective,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘He is a man of integrity; that I can confirm.’

He also added that Ssekandi ‘has mastered the Rules of Procedure and understands the Constitution very well.’ Of course, these last points should go without saying for anyone in Ssekandi’s position. As Speaker of the House, Ssekandi has many important duties to fulfill. He is the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Commission, the Committee on Appointments and the Business Committee. He (or his Deputy) chairs all sittings of Parliament, determines the order of business in Parliament, ensures that the Rules of Procedure are at all times observed, represents Parliament in corporate relations, and may prorogue Parliament by proclamation after consulting the President.

All of this, of course, requires someone well-versed in law and with the Constitution. That Ssekandi has experience in legal matters is not in dispute. He received his law degree from the University of East Africa, was a lecturer and then director of the Law Development Centre in the 1970s, lead counsel for the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights from 1986-1993, a member of the Drafting Committee of the 1995 Constitution, the Chairman of the Rules, Discipline and Privileges Committee and on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee under the sixth Parliament, a member of the Law Society Disciplinary Committee, and has been a member of the Standing Committee of Commonwealth Speakers since 2004. He was an MP for Bukoto Central from 1996-2001, and was the Deputy Speaker from 1998-2001, under Francis Ayume. All of these qualifications made him a relatively easy choice for Speaker in 2001. But for all of his praiseworthy accomplishments, it serves no one ‘“ NRM top echelons included ‘“ to suggest that he is faultless.

Catalogue of bad rulings

The lack of honest self-reflection, on his part or on the part of the NRM, should give one pause. If anything, a Speaker of Parliament should be more thoughtful, reflective and open to new ideas and criticism than the average person or politician. After all, he (or she) must listen carefully to all sides of an argument before deciding how best to proceed.

But even if the NRM and Ssekandi himself refuse to admit his flaws, there are many others who will readily voice their discontent with Parliament under Ssekandi’s tutelage. Many believe that Ssekandi will not be remembered for his objectivity, as Nsibambi suggests, but rather as the Speaker who has made the most controversial decisions. There are some observers for whom one vote in particular can never be disassociated with Ssekandi ‘“ the 2005 Parliamentary vote to eliminate presidential term limits from the Constitution. In this vote, to the dismay of many who objected to the amendment, the Speaker opted not to use the method of secret ballot, leading many to suspect that MPs were being strong-armed into voting in favor of it.

Earlier during debate of the First Constitutional Amendment of 1999, Ssekandi allowed a Bill to be tabled and passed in two hours and within the next hour the president had assented to it, making it law. The Constitutional Court later ruled that Ssekandi never complied with the correct procedure ‘“ i.e. between first and second reading, a bill should take at least seven days.

He also recently ruled, in October 2008, that for a document to be tabled on the floor of Parliament it has to be certified by the author, meaning that if an MP came across a classified document and the state or author is not willing to certify it, then Parliament cannot entertain it!

Three weeks Ssekandi added another of those when he ruled that the majority NSSF-Temangalo probe committee report be given to the minority to use as a basis for drafting theirs’, a view disputed by Deputy Speaker Rebecca Kadaga who ruled that the minority group should use the records of proceedings to write their report and that the two should be handed in at once. When committee chairman Johnson Malinga refused, Ssekandi ordered the clerk to hand over the report immediately. The report was in the end given to non-committee members, some of them ‘“ including key accused Security Minister Amama Mbabazi ‘“ were thus able to help the dissenting MPs compile a counter report.

And to complete the job, Ssekandi would rule a week later as The Independent predicted in its Issue 34 article titled ‘Museveni Wants IGG to Investigate Mbabazi’, that only the IGG is legally mandated to hold leaders to account under the Leadership Code.

How we will remember Ssekandi

For better or for worse, ‘It is those negative rulings that are remembered,’ says Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Professor Ogenga Latigo. He listed, for example, the decision to release Shs 150 billion for CHOGM, the removal of Henry Banyenzaki from the Standing Budget Committee that ‘raised serious issues about the security of tenure’, and the most recent judgment on the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) saga, for which the opposition again marched out of Parliament.

For the NSSF decision, Ssekandi appealed to the Attorney General for a ruling. Ultimately, it was determined that the Constitution gives the power to enforce the Leadership Code of Conduct to the Inspector General of Government (IGG), not to Parliament. Nevertheless, many MPs, especially in the opposition, felt that the Speaker had stripped them of their power to hold the two ministers in question ‘“ Amama Mbabazi and Ezra Suruma ‘“ accountable to their actions.

Lecturer in History and Development Studies at Makerere University, Mwambutsya Ndebesa, says that more than anything, Ssekandi is a survivor. ‘He is a very cunning and shrewd politician,’ Ndebesa says, ‘But I don’t think he is principled.’ Since he was a member of DP before joining the NRM, Ndebesa says it is possible that Ssekandi ‘does not necessarily believe in the philosophy or the struggle [of the NRM], but he is a survivor.’ While Ndebesa says that Ssekandi will be remembered differently by different people, he is certain that within the Speaker’s own constituency in Masaka, which is largely DP, he will be remembered with contempt. ‘In his constituency he is not very popular,’ he says, ‘They look at him as a traitor.’

Indeed Ssekandi owes his current term as MP Bukoto Central, Masaka more or less to a technicality in law than to popular electoral mandate, having been controversially declared winner against DP’s Jude Mbabali in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

In evaluating the Speaker’s overall performance, Opposition Leader Latigo was thoughtful and diplomatic, choosing to use comparisons to illustrate his opinion of Ssekandi’s reign in Parliament. He and others have spoken favorably of the Deputy Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, for example. ‘When the Deputy Speaker is present, attendance tends to go up,’ Latigo reflected. ‘Everybody thinks they have a chance to say what they think.’ He also holds a high regard for one of Ssekandi’s predecessors, the late James Wapakhabulo or ‘Wapa’, saying he was smart and ‘allowed the logic of the argument to come out, and made a ruling on that basis.’

Democratic Party president, John Sebaana Kizito also had kind words for Speaker Wapakhabulo, saying, ‘He was exemplary. There is no comparison.’

Ssekandi himself does not seem to enjoy this discussion. In fact, if you want to ruffle the feathers of the Speaker, just ask him to compare himself to his predecessors. In the midst of the CHOGM ordeal, Daily Monitor parliamentary reporter and president of the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association, Emmanuel Gyezaho, did just that ‘“ asking Ssekandi if he could ‘fit into the shoes’ of Wapakhabulo and Francis Ayume. ‘I laughed,’ Ssekandi responded, ‘because you cannot tell me: when it is summer, try on the winter clothes. My feet maybe are bigger than the shoes of those people, maybe they are smaller. I buy my own shoes.’

His argument, of course, is that neither his forerunners had to deal with the inevitably sticky situations that arise in multiparty politics. To retain his political legitimacy, he must be seen to treat members of all political parties equally, and not favour his own party, the NRM. He is the first Speaker in Uganda to attempt this balancing act, which may in and of itself be an unfair burden to place on the man. In Kenya, for example, the Speaker of Parliament is a member of the opposition, so he could not be seen to be unfairly biased toward the ruling party. Another option is to compel the Speaker, upon appointment or otherwise, to revoke their party affiliation. While in his or her mind a person may be unable to truly rid themselves of predisposition to a particular party, the symbolism of formally retracting one’s association to a party could go a long way in showing that justice is being served.

But as Uganda’s Constitution stands, Ssekandi must try to remain impartial while maintaining his loyalty to the NRM. While some in the NRM wonder what more they can push forward under his watch, many others only hope he will not strengthen President Museveni and the NRM any more than he already has. Whether he likes it or not, many Ugandans will remember him not for his impartiality but for the historic events that took place in the Parliament he presided over. In particular, they will remember that it was under his guidance that the Seventh Parliament voted to pave the way for Museveni’s ‘life presidency’.

Ssekandi has just over two years to renew the faith of his critics, or to further bolster the NRM machine. In any case, a little honesty and humility would serve the Speaker and his party well. ‘Bias is corruption,’ Ssekandi has said, ‘If you are biased then your integrity is corrupted. I don’t take that, I cannot do it, I swear.’ But such statements mean less and less by the day in Uganda. The game is up, and no one will be fooled anymore by the façade of perfection.

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