The rebel MPs Museveni looks to purge as he hardens grip on party
The effort which Uganda's biggest political party, the NRM with its 262 majority in parliament, is investing to deal with less than five 'errant' MPs might be the latest sign of how the mighty fear falling at the hands of the miniature.
As the party hauled its members to what is increasingly becoming its discipline house, the Kyankwanzi Leadership Institute for a retreat themed "Appreciating the budgeting process for better service delivery", the unspoken main objective was to reign in the 'errant' MPs.
Party Chief Whip, Kasule Juliet Lumumba, had announced in December that the January retreat would focus mainly on dealing with indiscipline.
As she planned the move, shortly before the retreat, she penned a letter asking party Secretary General Amama Mbabazi to forward the names of MPs Theodore Ssekikubo, Barnabas Tinkasimire, Wilfred Niwagaba, Vincent Kyamadiddi and Mohammed Nsereko to the party disciplinary committee--pointing to their possible dismissal from the party.
Lumumba's letter coming on the heels of two standoffs--over Clause 9 of the oil Bill and the death of Butaleja Woman MP, Cerina Nebanda--between parliament and the executive, spoke volumes about the forces behind it.
Nebanda's death appears to have bruised President Yoweri Museveni most. He directed arrests of the MPs and held a multiplicity of secret meetings with top party officials at State House Entebbe and his country home, Rwakitura. He also did several press conferences, lashing out at and threatening the MPs. With one arm under his political cloak, he surreptitiously directed his legal machinery to look into the law for the most lethal bombshell that would deal the headache-causing MPs a numbing blow. The retreat was designed as the perfect time and venue to mobilise the rest of the members onto his project.
But of the five, Nsereko, did not even show up at the retreat saying there was nothing to debate. And when the three, Ssekikubo, Tinkasimire and Niwagaba appeared, they defied the party again.
Showing no signs of obeisance, they turned up in their civilian outfits, when the rest of the members were in the green fatigues and as everybody tried to cool down and settle in, Tinkasimire shot up like there was a pin in his chair. Looking Museveni squarely in the eye, Tinkasimire, cracked about the President's long stay in power.
"This man, who stays in power for 30 years and does not get tired; who is he?" he asked. He wanted the party to discuss Museveni's succession.
In such situations, the party's official line has been that there are party structures to deal with that but this time Museveni decided on a frontal rebuttal. He told Tinkasmire that he has been around for 50 years and not 30. "It is 20 in the bush and 30 around town here, so you are miscalculating," Museveni said. It was a multi-pronged blow aimed both to treat Tinkasimire's affront as a non-issue and remind him of the 'sacrifices' the President says he made in the 'bush'.
But for a man who had hardly a week, called these critical MPs 'bad boys' that he was going to sort out, the issue was not done--he knew the armor he has been wielding for 26 years in power was being tested.
Later when Mbabazi told the party that those errant members who had made it a habit to act in breach of the NRM code of conduct were going to be dealt with firmly, not many were surprised. Soon fellow MPs were screaming for the legislators' blood; calling for them to be expelled.
Mbabazi warned that NRM MPs who ceased being members of NRM for any reason, would automatically lose their seats in Parliament under the current multiparty dispensation, pursuant to the provisions of Article 83 (1) g of the Constitution of Uganda.
The Article reads: "If that person leaves the political party for which he or she stood as a candidate for election to Parliament to join another party or to remain in Parliament as an independent member."
More powers for Museveni
To Understand, how serious the project to weed out the errant MPs is, Peter Nyombi, the Attorney-General has cited a number of amendments lined up, including the same Article 83. A regional newspaper, The EastAfrican, reported that the government was also contemplating amendments to give President more powers; including powers to suspend parliament.
Mbabazi, who is a respected legal mind within NRM, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Sam Kutesa have already said all it takes to dismiss an MP is writing to the Speaker of Parliament.
The so-called errant MPs have vowed to challenge this in court saying it infringes on their constitutional right of association.
"In that case, the matter will be resolved by the courts," Niwagaba told The Independent, while scoffing at claims by Mbabazi and Kutesa.
Sources told The Independent that the rest of the members, who had isolated the errant MPs so as not be seen associating with them by the big man, President Museveni, almost danced at Mbabazi's announcements.
"That is cowardice," Merdard Bitekyerezo, who has also joined the ranks of rebel MPs, told The Independent, "they do not want to be seen associating with them because they have been labeled bad boys, which is bad, if I were those NRM ministers I would be trying to bring these people on board."
Another weapon is the Committee set up to examine the proposed draft Rules of Procedure of the NRM Parliamentary Caucus. It is chaired by John Nasasira and with Wilfred Niwagaba. Other members are Fred Ruhindi, Adolf Mwesige, Stephen Tashobya, Kabakumba Masiko, Daudi Migereko, Wilfred Niwagaba, Margaret Komuhangi and Jim Muhwezi. These party stalwarts have little time for 'rebels'.
Niwagaba who was at the retreat for only a day had told The Independent in a telephone interview that the party leadership had already judged them.
"If you looked at the letter that the chief whip wrote to the Secretary General, you know that they have already proscribed for us the offence and the punishment as well," he told The Independent, "they said we are agents for foreigners who should be expelled."
But Rosemary Namayanja Nsereko, the acting party chief whip, said the party had ensured that it follows principles of natural justice by informing the MPs in time so that they can prepare and defend themselves.
"We informed them about the charges," She said, "you cannot go to court before you are told of the charges and there is no reason for them not to attend because some like Ssekikubo have already appeared before the committee."
President Museveni accused the MPs of 'cheap politics' before unleashing his usual tirade of how his programmes are being failed, and all but excused himself from the Jan.13 meeting where the members unanimously ruled that the five errant MPs appear before the disciplinary committee chaired by Hajji Moses Kigongo.
Kigongo also sits on the party's Central Executive Committee, whose members have long wanted these MPs out of the party.
'We are tired of them'
"For us we got tired long time ago," Abdul Nadduli, the NRM Vice President for Buganda told The Independent, "It has become too much, you are NRM but all the time in the public you are shoving two fingers in the air, what is that?"
Nadduli added that if the MPs were acting like that because they were still youthful, they ought to know you cannot be unruly just because you are youth, you have to be orderly even if you are the one to succeed the old generation.
Asked whether, the party would not be losing if they worked on expelling members other than mobilizing them, Nadduli curtly said: "We would rather do with a few that belong to us."
He said that when the NRM started the revolution it had only 27 members and succeeded, which he doubted would have been possible with errant members like that.
"Even Jesus says stop being this and that," Nadduli said, "today you are in church praying, tomorrow, you are in a shrine worshiping."
However, for Bitekyerezo, the NRM is not circulated with supporters for it to be planning on chasing away its members; they are better advised to be recruiting more.
"Sending some of us away from the party will not build the party," Bitekyerezo said, "it will tear it apart."
He added that the same people who vote Sekikubo and all those that are looked at as errant MPs, are the same people that vote Museveni, why would he want to expel them.
"We are not bad boys, we are just speaking for the people who voted us," Bitekyerezo added, "Those people including myself who has criticized the NRM, are not against the party, the problem is the ideology."
Critics like Godber Tumushabe, the executive director, who has done governance research told The Independent that the term 'rebel MPs' is a misnomer and that the MPs in question are the ones keeping parliament alive by checking the executive, adding that to the public these are looked at as progressive MPs.
But with the executive yet to recover from the stress that the same MPs mounted on them as they gathered signatures for a petition to have parliament discuss the sequel of Butaleja woman MP Cerina Nebanda, the Kyankwanzi retreat is seen as an effort to galvanise force against these MPs.
Although the NRM has always had issues with some of its members, 2012 is the year that party felt they could no longer accommodate them, telling them openly to quit NRM instead of fomenting chaos and failing government programs.
So provocative themselves, the 'errant' MPs still carrying the hangover of the October parliamentary oil debate, in June 2012, they announced a parallel cabinet with Ssekikubo as its chairman to offer 'alternative leadership'.
Silently the NRM kept monitoring their activities plotting to deal with them, the last two events of 2012 that stirred storm in parliament--the contestation on Clause 9 of the oil bill and the death of Nebanda--seem to have given the NRM, a red light to finally act.
The danger, however, lies in the backlash such a move would have on the NRM. Like Bitekyerezo said, even if these MPs are expelled a new group would emerge. Yet the five MPs cannot be underestimated either, they have been at the forefront of the storm in parliament all the time successfully mobilizing NRM members to vote against the party position.
In 2011, they successfully had parliament recalled, the historical debate that ensued almost took three cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister, the health budget debate, the debate over clause 9 and the petition to recall parliament to discuss Nebanda.
Ssekikubo says that if they were threatened, they would look into mobilising MPs to resist Museveni's leadership.
Coming at the heels of the previous standoff over the petition to recall the House, such a statement cannot be ignored. All the MPs require is 125 signatures to initiate a notice to remove the President from office through the Speaker and the Chief Justice according to Article 107 (7) of the constitution.
Ssekikubo also heads the most influential platform in parliament, the Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas, which is well funded and whose funding has been giving Museveni sleepless nights.
Funding aside, a similar group, Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO), gave President Museveni a lot of trouble in the late 1990's before it metamorphosed into a much bigger opposition political party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
It is also under similar circumstances that other critical MPs like Miria Matembe, the former ethics Minister, Jabeli Bidandi Ssali, the current President for Peoples Progressive Party and Eriya Kategaya before he made a u-turn to become Deputy Prime Minister, had left. Their departure might not have affected the NRM much but FDC under Kizza Besigye punched a hole in Museveni's popularity credentials to an extent that Museveni once asked his top army officials what they would do if Besigye won elections.
Does President Museveni need another exit of youthful, vibrant and fairly popular MPs with the current political mood? That he must decide.