The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: NRM Plots to Kill MPs' Petition

Although MPs have managed to secure at least 125 signatures required to recall Parliament for a special sitting, the odds are still starkly against their petition, with NRM trying all tricks in the book to block it.

The MPs submitted their petition to the speaker's office on Monday, moving closer to a session President Museveni has vehemently opposed.

"We have managed to prevail on this one and the struggle continues until we emerge as victors in the next showdown that is looming over this petition," said Ajuri MP Hamson Obua Ogwal (NRM), the lead petitioner.

The petitioners want the House to discuss the events following last month's death of Butaleja Woman MP, Cerinah Nebanda. They accuse the executive of, among other things, undermining the doctrine of separation of powers. While it might appear like a fait accompli case for Obua and group, The Observer has learnt from reliable sources within the NRM that the ruling party--particularly President Museveni-- is still bent on blocking the recall process.

Tamale Mirundi, the President's Press Secretary, told The Observer yesterday that despite garnering the signatures, his boss remains opposed to the special sitting because it is based on "flimsy grounds."

"If you allow Parliament to do things using funny excuses, what if Museveni also used artificial reasons to declare a state of emergency, say in Butaleja and the elections do not take place? Will this be right because he has powers to do so?" Tamale asked in a telephone interview.

During a meeting with Speaker Rebecca Kadaga on Christmas eve, Museveni reportedly urged her not to recall Parliament. Kadaga is said to have replied that she was in a helpless situation because the Constitution commands her to call the session once the required signatures have been obtained and the right procedure followed by the petitioners.

The tactics

Parliament returns from recess on February 4, 2013 and since the speaker has 21 days within which to recall the House for such a special meeting, time is of essence for the pro-petition MPs. NRM appears to have noticed this and plans to employ all delaying tactics possible. For starters, Rosemary Namayanja, the acting chief whip, wrote to the speaker, questioning the authenticity of some of the signatures appended to the petition.

"My office has received information from some NRM Members of Parliament to the effect that some signatures which are appended to the petition are allegedly forged...the purpose of this letter is to request you that in the event you receive the petition, allow my office to access the petition and the signatures to enable us verify whether they are authentic or not before you take a decision to recall or not to recall Parliament," Namayanja's letter reads in part.

The letter was written on Friday, January 4, 2013, the day the petitioners had initially planned to hand over the petition to the speaker. We understand that the speaker is yet to reply to the request but if she granted Namayanja's request, the process of verification could be used by the NRM to buy time and make the special sitting irrelevant.

Yesterday, Kore County MP (UPC) Fred Ebil told journalists that his signature on the petition had been forged. Other NRM MPs Sempala Mbuga (Nakaseke South), Beatrice Rusaniya (Kiruhura Woman), Boaz Kafuda (Busongora South), Sara Nakawunde (Mpigi Woman), Godfrey Lubega (Kasanda North) and Onyango Kakoba (Buikwe North) were demanding to withdraw their signatures. These demands threaten to derail the petition or even deny it legitimacy.

These MPs claim they signed the petition in the heat of the moment but having received sufficient explanation from their party, they have since had a change of mind. They have written to the speaker seeking to withdraw their signatures. We learned that Parliament's Legal department will look into the matter. If this request was successful, the petition would lose its one-third sponsorship required to sustain it.

But the petitioners argue that withdrawal of signatures can only be possible after they have provided a justifiable ground endorsed by the courts of law. Wilfred Niwagaba, the Ndorwa East MP and one of the legal brains behind the petition, said: "Once you have signed, there is no way you can withdraw your signature. What I can only do is to thank the bold members who have withstood the intimidation."

Secondly, NRM has the legal option. Party functionaries have questioned the process used in handing over the petition. They claim the petition was not handed to the speaker as it should be, but to Principal Assistant Secretary Patrick Wanyama Ngolobe, who was acting on behalf of Cosian Opata, the substantive Principal Private Secretary to the speaker. This has sparked debate as to whether the handover of the petition followed the right constitutional procedure.

Legal experts like Makerere University's Prof Oloka Onyango say as long as it is the office of the speaker which received the petition, no law was broken.

"These offices are not individuals and this is how we are getting things wrong. Once the speaker's office acknowledges receipt of the petition, there is no way the speaker can deny having received the petition," Oloka said yesterday.

But objecting NRM MPs insist the Constitution speaks about the speaker not the office. With the two sides seemingly headed for a deadlock over the interpretation of the rule, The Observer has learnt that the party is considering sponsoring a "concerned citizen", who will petition the Constitutional court seeking an interpretation.

The petitioner will immediately demand an injunction to halt any such special sitting until his petition has been disposed of. Given the time left before the next parliamentary session on February 4 and the case backlog in the Judiciary, such a protracted court process might take months and thus make it difficult for the sitting to take place.

Such a manoeuvre would not be new. In 2010, a "voter" from Kanungu, one Saverino Twinobusingye, successfully petitioned the Constitutional court which declared that Parliament had no power to force Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and two ministers to resign over bribery allegations.

Another thing that is likely to get in the way of the special sitting is the 10-day NRM retreat that kicks off on Friday, January 11, and ends on Sunday, January 20, 2013. With most NRM MPs--including those who appended their signatures to the petition---likely to attend the retreat, a special sitting during this time would be unlikely as it could lack quorum (which is one third or 125 MPs).

Moreover by this time, more NRM MPs might have been intimidated into seeking to withdraw their signatures or simply staying away from the sitting to deny it quorum.

Whether the tactics work or fail, the petitioners say they have developed a tough skin after what they have endured to have the petition delivered to the speaker.

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