There have been moments when the debate in the ninth Parliament has turned so fractious and polarized that it appears no agreement can be reached between government and the opposition.
In such times, the one legislator who has always retained the sobriety to see the bigger picture and provided the House with a fresh perspective--as a way out of the partisan maze-- has been Abdu Katuntu, the Bugweri MP. Lately, Katuntu's growing stature as the Speaker's go-to guy has come to the fore. He is no longer the young activist politician of 2001 who at times took cheap shots at government for the sake of it.
Today, at least on the side of the opposition, he is being compared to Ben Wacha, the former Oyam North MP whom various speakers often relied upon for a way forward whenever Parliament was locked in a legal gridlock. And it is easy to see why. On Wednesday, when the House debated whether proceedings of the Appointments committee should be opened up to the general public just like Parliament's other activities, Katuntu cautioned colleagues not to equate the committee to Parliament since legally the two have different definitions.
Confused, some MPs did not grasp the gist of Katuntu's argument. In the end, the House voted to shut out the public from the committee but nonetheless few of them noticed the unique perspective that Katuntu was trying to bring to the debate. It has become routine for the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga or, her deputy, Jacob Oulanyah to seek Katuntu's input especially during debates where knowledge of House procedures is vital.
At times, where other MPs are allocated five minutes to make their point, Katuntu is given an additional two or more, especially when the Speaker believes his contribution will enhance the understanding of the subject being debated. Katuntu's burgeoning influence on the proceedings of Parliament isn't accidental. Firstly, he has a penchant for reading, which enables him to stay ahead of his colleagues. If he is not in his office, chances are that you will find him in the Parliament library, which some MPs never go to for the entire duration of their term. He is always armed with the constitution and rules of procedure of Parliament for quick reference.
Little wonder Katuntu's signature is etched on most of the memorable debates that we have witnessed so far in the ninth Parliament. From the oil debate, where he was one of the architects behind the motion recalling Parliament for a special session; to the forced resignations of ministers Kabakumba Masiko, Syda Bbumba and Khiddu Makubuya, Katuntu has been in the thick of it all.
He also starred prominently during the debate on the Mortgage Bill in the eighth Parliament. In one instance, as debate heated up, Katuntu asked Omara Atubo, the then Lands minister: "How will this law guard against conmen mortgaging communal land in rural areas?"
And instead of answering Katuntu's question, Atubo posed another question: "So, are you saying [that] we should make a law for only the elite in Kampala?"
The Bugweri legislator's debating skills, honed over the last decade he has been in Parliament, have won him admiration across the political divide. For all his perceived arrogance and aloofness, the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, respects Katuntu enormously and has said so on a number of occasions. As shadow Attorney General, Katuntu has not only exposed the flaws in the arguments of government, but also offered the weaknesses in procedures on matters brought up by the opposition. For instance on Wednesday, he pointed out the loopholes in a motion that seeks to have President Museveni impeached by Parliament.
"The grounds of impeachment have to be certified by court or a legal body, which is not the case," Katuntu counselled.
Wilfred Niwagaba, the MP for Ndorwa East, describes Katuntu as very intelligent.
"He is thorough in his knowledge of the law and procedures of Parliament. I respect him very much," Niwagaba says.
Filling Wacha's Shoes
It could be too early to draw conclusions but in many ways, Katuntu is playing the role Wacha did for most of the years he spent in Parliament. The difference, some would say, lies in their approach. Wacha came off as a reserved, calm legislator whose grasp of parliamentary procedure was second to none. The then Speaker, Edward Ssekandi, always picked on Wacha whenever he needed guidance on any contentious procedural matter.
From his back row seat and in an authoritative tone, Wacha would give his views and his interpretation would satisfy most of the members. On the other hand, Katuntu sometimes allows emotions to seep through his arguments. Yet at only 46 years of age, some believe it is a trait he can outgrow and, like old wine, get better.