It was always going to be an uphill task to stop the Raphael Magyezi bill in parliament this week given the opposition lawmakers’ inferior numbers; so, in the end a handful of them huffed and puffed in vain.
A combination of the ruling party’s determined state machinery and money on the one hand, and lack of a clear strategy on the part of the opposition, dashed any hopes of unexpected victory.
“Everything is being done in a knee-jack way. We have resorted to short-term tactical deployment that has not helped matters. We could have done better than this,” said Masaka municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga after the group walked out of parliament following a string of unsuccessful interventions.
The Observer has established that before parliament convened on Monday, the opposition had agreed on a strategy to get the bill thrown out on technical grounds.
The first technical ground was Uganda’s obligation under the East African Community Treaty. Wilfred Niwagaba, the shadow attorney general and Ndorwa East MP, was expected to lead the debate on this by arguing that the House should not proceed to consider the report on the bill since the substance is before the East African Court of Justice.
The case in question was filed by opposition politicians seeking a declaration that amending the presidential age limit opens Uganda to a life presidency, which is contrary to the democratic principles enshrined in the East African Community Treaty.
Article 38(2) of the East African Community Treaty states that “where a dispute has been referred to the Council or the Court, the Partner States shall refrain from any action which might be detrimental to the resolution of the dispute or might aggravate the dispute.”
This argument was expected to sway the speaker, given that she had deferred the debate last week on similar grounds, an MP who was privy to the planning said.
Whereas Niwagaba made the arguments as planned, the speaker appeared to have anticipated the challenge, as she pulled out a written ruling that extinguished the challenge. Taken aback by the speaker’s ruling, the opposition MPs resorted to raising procedural objections in a bid to buy time and perhaps postpone the inevitable.
Amid multiple points of procedure from frustrated MPs, Ntungamo municipality’s Gerald Karuhanga raised yet another technical ground of objection to the effect that parliament could not proceed to debate the report that had just been tabled until after three days in accordance with Rule 201(2) of parliament’s Rules of Procedure.
“This was intended to allow us…to analyse and study…so that when we come here, we debate for Ugandans, and not ourselves,” Karuhanga said.
Whereas this seemed a valid argument, one opposition MP said the timing wasn’t right. In the end this too was shot down. Then Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo came in with another argument that sought to have the report nullified on grounds of having been signed by members who belonged to another sessional committee.
Ssekikubo argued that it was procedurally wrong for Rose Lilly Adong (Kaabong Woman MP) and Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi (Rubanda Woman MP), who belonged to the Defence and Internal Affairs committee, to have signed on the report of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee.
This too was overruled by the speaker who pointed out that the affected members were designated to the said committee by their chief whip, and this was allowed by the House then presided over by the deputy speaker.
We understand that when it came to singing the national anthem as agreed, after all tricks seemed to have failed, it was only a handful of MPs that sang along with Kira municipality’s Ssemujju Nganda who had been tasked to lead that part.
Eventually, the speaker adjourned the House and also suspended six MPs; Ssemujju, Karuhanga, Mubarak Munyagwa, Allan Ssewanyana (Makindye West), Jonathan Odur (UPC- Erute South) and Anthony Akol (FDC-Kilak North).
With benefit of hindsight, Bugweri county MP Abdu Katuntu says that at this point some of his colleagues were not proceeding as agreed.
“I would understand that they were playing the urban constituency politics, which is playing to the gallery, but this was not what we had agreed. What were some of these guys doing on the floor? That was not helpful. They should have left the chief whip [Ssemujju] to make the points on our behalf but when he stood up everyone was standing to speak, something that armed the speaker,” he said.
Mathias Mpuuga agreed with Katuntu: “No wonder they were suspended. What were they doing? This recklessness and unilateral decision-making made them play in the enemy’s hands.”
Mpuuga added that their members had to exercise caution upon judging the speaker’s mood.
“Suspension was inevitable after it became clear that the speaker was not on our side. So, the ideal thing was to refrain as much as possible,” Mpuuga said.
Speaking to The Observer yesterday, Ssemujju said whereas there was no coherent plan on the part of the opposition, this criticism should be put into its proper context.
“We are working in a dictatorship. You don’t know who is with you or not. That is why I was ready to move with those MPs who were ready to cause chaos. I agreed with a few…I was leading a troop that was not willing to fire. We are dealing with mercenaries,” Ssemujju said.
Sources have told us that President Museveni had indeed infiltrated the opposition through an independent woman MP.
“This MP distributed money to some members in the opposition. This made planning hard. In fact, we could not even agree on basic things such as returning the money that was meant for facilitation. Whereas there are those who returned it, a substantial part of us did not,” said one senior opposition leader.
After the House was adjourned, it was believed that opposition members would now rally around a common way forward. Indeed, they met in the Leader of Opposition’s boardroom but the meeting was characterised by divided opinion on almost everything.
However, there was some agreement on the basics such as challenging the suspension of their colleagues and re-introduction of the sub judice argument.
The lead voices on this were to be Leader of Opposition Winnie Kiiza, Medard Sseggona (Busiro East) and Wilfred Niwagaba.As the trio put up a spirited fight, Winnie Kiiza led a walk-out, a move that some in the opposition felt wasn’t right at the time.
“We had agreed to walk out after the speaker has turned down our request to rescind her decision on the suspended MPs. Instead, we moved when the speaker overruled us on our plea to have the NRM MPs, who were standing on their seats, ruled out of order,” said one MP.
Nakaseke South MP Paulson Luttamaguzi Ssemakula acknowledged on a radio talk-show after the Monday session, that their uncoordinated approach had made it harder to fight the bill.
“Even when it came to walking out; the LOP said ‘all those who are with me should follow me’ while others stayed because they could not see the reason for boycotting,” Luttamuguzi said.
After walking out, the group sat down to discuss another strategy.We are told that while majority of MPs decided to go back in, Muwanga Kivumbi (Butambala), Mpuuga and Odonga Otto (Aruu South), among others, opposed the idea.
“Our argument was that if you don’t agree with the process, like what they said at the press briefing, it is okay to stay away from it. This is not the same as not to participate in the decision-making. We were to stay away for only that evening,” Mpuuga said.
Whereas the opposition might have made mistakes in strategy, theirs was a tall order given the speaker’s determination to thwart their every move. According to Busiro East MP Sseggona-Lubega, their case was killed by Kadaga’s readiness to sidestep rules of procedure.
“For instance, when Niwagaba raised the issue of the matter being in the East African Court of Justice, she should have sought an opinion from the court in Arusha other than merely rushing,” he said.
On sub judice, Sseggona says Kadaga was wrong to overrule the procedural concern on grounds that there was no judgment on the matter.
“When there is judgment, the matter ceases to be subject to the sub judice rule,” he argued.
On waiving the rule about debating after three days, Katuntu said although the rules allow such a waiver, it was not prudent to suspend Rule 201.
The rationale for this clause is to ensure that a proposed amendment to the constitution has been thoroughly discussed and consensus generated, the Bugweri MP argued, adding that parliament should not have rushed to throw its own rules in the dustbin like the country is ending tomorrow.