Members of parliament are confronting a politically bruising issue: whether to support President Museveni’s push to deny bail to capital offenders or maintain the status quo.
Mathias Mpuuga, the leader of opposition in Parliament, has said in an interview that he will not try to persuade the ruling NRM MPs, who are the majority in parliament, to reject the no-bail proposal for murder, rape, treason and terrorism suspects.
The Nyendo-Mukungwe MP told The Observer at his parliamentary office that if the law is passed, it will not only punish Museveni’s opponents, who are the target, but will also pin down those who will support it.
You come from Masaka, a district attacked by bijambiya (panga)-wielding gangs. Has the place been pacified now?
Pacification would allude to the annihilation of the area by the so-called insurgents but my sense is that there were pockets of well-orchestrated insecurity, which found a security lapse and were able to prevail in the area for almost 50 days and were able to kill.
But because we raised the red flag, there has been a response, which has brought some level of normalcy in the area. At least in the last 30 or so days, we have not had any attack or killings related to bijambiya in the region.
Are you, therefore, satisfied with the job done by security agents?
In as far as calming the situation, yes; but what is left to be seen is whether the measures undertaken are sustainable. The jury is out there because what initially caused the security lapse was that police was thin on the ground. And the claim was that they don’t have adequate manpower and logistics like motor vehicles, motorcycles and fuel.
So, we wait to see whether government is going to sustain the logistical provisions. We shall probably be able to see after the storm has calmed down.
Why were you so displeased with Internal Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire when he said you should take some responsibility as political leaders for what was happening in your area?
My rage at the General can be understood by every sane citizen. One, he’s reckless because the reading of his statement alluded to the fact that he’s aware of who is killing our people. That’s why I said that in another jurisdiction, he would be called to book; he would not be minister anymore. But this being Uganda, the recklessness and insensibility is probably acceptable to the powers that be.
As a leader of a community that has been affected by the insecurity and as a person who has visited families that have lost breadwinners, those statements were in bad taste. That’s the reason every rightthinking Ugandan was wondering what kind of food the General was eating lately. But that caps the description of his character as reckless.
Do you accept any political responsibility for bits of what has been happening in your area?
Anyone who has a fair understanding of how the government system works knows that the executive controls the state, which provides security. Political leaders are supposed to alert the state wherever they see gaps.
Our responsibilities are to mobilize the people and inform the state about what is obtaining. As far as that is concerned, I can nod in approval that we did our job as political leaders.
We alerted everybody who cared to listen; we raised the issue in parliament and it’s upon the executive to deploy security. I don’t command police or the army in the area. So, the sleeping state was awakened by our red flag to go and do its job.
Some state actors have accused people in Masaka of being non-cooperative due to their anti-government sentiments. Do you agree?
Far from the truth; the people of that area are very alert and I can never take them for granted. Despite their displeasure with the status quo, they are able to communicate with the state players much as some state players have been hunting them down for their political views.
I have been to many meetings attended by security people and the local people were telling them these issues. The problem is that resident district commissioners (RDCs) and other security people are too partisan to the extent that even when information is given to them, they look at it as the usual partisan banter from the community. It’s this kind of partisanship that is continuing to cause insecurity in the area.
The president gave families that lost relatives Shs 10 million; does the principle of giving money and the amount sit well with you?
I don’t think giving money, whatever amount, can atone for the laxity of the state. The gesture of the president giving out Shs 10 million (some of which has actually been stolen by the same security people), would be good. In my culture, we give mataaba in the aftermath of the burial but that can’t atone for government failure.
I’m very sure if these people took government to court, it will properly compensate for its absence. As a lawyer, if you go to court, it will look at the age of those killed, the level of responsibility and other intervening factors and then it can be able to determine the proper amount. But I hasten to say, there isn’t any amount that can make up for the loss of life.
What do you make of the surprise indictment of your MPs; Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana?
Ordinarily, you would think the state would take time to investigate but we have been around long enough to know how the state does its investigations when matters are as dicey as this. Arresting an MP on those kinds of charges is not a small thing.
I’m not here to say that an MP cannot be charged but due process and a quick and transparent trial is what we are calling for. What we abhor is the kind of scenes we saw where MPs were brutally rearrested upon release by court on bail. It doesn’t matter whether these are MPs or not.
What we are saying is that no citizen should be arrested in that kind of manner. And being MPs makes it unique because in them, we see their people. So, arresting them is akin to indicting their people. That’s why we have been warning the state not to be reckless in arresting and black- listing these leaders.
You walked out of the House in protest and threatened not to return until your MPs are released. You have talked about due process of the law; in walking out aren’t you trying to circumvent the due process?
Our protest was meant to object to the conduct of the state and we are saying if the courts are doing their work; the state should desist from raising its ugly hand. We are objecting to the rearrest of these MPs yet they could be summoned decently to appear like they did in Masaka earlier.
These people were released after meeting bail conditions, why re-arrest them; were they going to run away? So, we are saying the state should desist from being highhanded when handling accused people. If you want to arrest MPs, send summons through the speaker who will hand them to the lawmakers.
Not that they are special human beings, but they are leaders. Ssewanyana had even spent more than 48 hours in detention without being produced in court and we were saying that was unacceptable. We are the firewall between the state and the people; so, we must lead the way in protesting the unconstitutional conduct of the state.
To be very clear, what do you aim to achieve with this protest?
Ugandans must get used to the fact that protesting is allowed in civilized societies. Whether it will yield tangible results is a different matter but for you to rise up and say, I don’t accept this; I object, is a decent thing to do and Ugandans must learn to protest against what they don’t agree with.
I saw eventually the minister of state for Internal Affairs reacting to our protests. I also saw the speaker reacting to our protest; that for me is a good reaction and I would want to see that and even more.
Are you satisfied with the reaction of the speaker on the subject matter?
I think the presiding speakers did what they were supposed to do in the circumstances; the reaction was okay. On another day, maybe the speaker should have considered suspending the House until an adequate response is given. I understand that the speaker was motivated by the fact that MPs were taken to court as part of our demands and that the government would come and make a statement on the subject matter.
In the wake of the Masaka killings, the president has suggested that capital
offenders should be denied bail; which side of the debate are you?
Of course it’s a tired debate, what’s so funny about it is that it’s gaining traction when Museveni and his government are tired. My reading is that it’s an attempt by the regime to try and suffocate political opposition. The fact that one can be kept away on trumped-up or real charges scares people from being bold in their beliefs.
I have been around to see the state attempt to prosecute opponents on trumped-up charges. You remember the charges of rape against Dr Kizza Besigye; these were made-up charges. Unfortunately for the proponents of this, the road is very long and winding for them to achieve these ob- noxious and outrageous propositions.
You have been around to see how seemingly unpopular propositions have carried the day in parliament. Do you believe that if that proposal finally ends up in parliament, majority MPs will have the spine to reject it?
Whereas I was so agitated about the age limit, I’m not bothered at all about undoing bail. I want whoever wants bail denied to do so. Historians remember the 1968 laws of detention without trial and remember who the victims were.
So, if people want to make a law, which has eyes, I want to assure them that history repeating itself is a preserve of fools. Let them make that law believing that it’s targeting their opponents. It will catch up with them just like it caught up with the previous fools. I have said it several times that I will not try to convince the ruling party MPs not to enact that law. If they believe it’s right, let them enact it for their people.
I will go to Masaka and tell the people it’s bad, my people will side with me. I will go to the country- side and tell the people there too that it’s a bad thing. If they allow their MPs to pass it, it will be their business. I would have done my part as a leader in this country.
As a leader, you know it’s very difficult for ordinary citizens to get bail in this country; so they see this as your problem...
The reason why an ordinary person is in jail without bail does not justify the fact that there should be a law stopping them from getting that bail. The factors are different; some of them relate to the fact that there is no follow-up, some of them are not able to meet the conditions of bail; therefore, there is no effort to try and get it.
It has nothing to do with the law but at least they have the right to apply for bail and now the proposition is that even that right should be taken away.
To legislate and say you have no right to apply for bail in unacceptable because the view is that this person is not guilty. If you want that person to be tucked away in prison, prosecute your case and then court will pass the verdict on whether they are guilty or not.
You have been here for a couple of months now; how is the job so far?
It’s quite engaging and you need to have all your faculties on higher alert. It’s a job that involves guiding colleagues, encouraging them and leading them all the way. You are not leading school children, you are leading colleagues and, therefore, for every action you want them to follow, they ask questions. So, it’s a tough job that comes at the backdrop of a system that believes the opposition is such a bother; they would rather do away with it.
Some MPs actually believe the opposition is illegal. My role is to raise the bar and even employ it on the naysayers and teach them that the opposition is not only constitutional but also important.
You recently launched your legislative agenda; do you believe it stands the slightest chance to see the light of the day?
The agenda is a cocktail and the output will be bills, statements and motions and we have already started moving. We are on course and as night follows day, we shall be able to account to the people. Of course, we are not oblivious of the potential frustrations along the way, but we are ready for the long haul.
What is your biggest nightmare so far in this office?
I have not had any nightmares; the challenges I encounter are process and political challenges. The major one is to rally the opposition to work together. That from the onset presented a challenge because as a young party, we had naysayers who said we stood no chance of offering leadership.
It was upon us to raise the bar and say we are actually here for business. But the chal- lenge was not insurmountable and we are on course. We work every day to improve our relationship and as we speak, people have started accepting us as leaders. There are people who are inherently bad-man- nered and we said we shall work with them too because we didn’t come here to work with friends only.