After a dramatic week, Norbert Mao, the new minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, must be focusing his mind on the work ahead.
Mao, the Democratic Party president-general, signed a surprise cooperation agreement with the ruling NRM on July 20, kicking up a raging storm in his 68-year-old party. He was appointed as minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs a day later.
Now that he is the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Mao has his work cut out. Here is a sneak peek into what lies ahead. Mao, according to the cooperation agreement, will coordinate the national dialogue and the whole government response to constitutional reforms with the mandate to coordinate budget proposals in the Justice, Law and Order Sector.
On paper, Mao and DP have an agenda of their own in government. But in the real world of NRM politics, President Museveni reigns supreme. His political agenda takes precedence. There’s unfinished business. There are two hot button issues abandoned by his predecessors including Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire.
Mao, insider sources say, is going to be the man to muscle through parliament President Museveni’s controversial legislations; one denying bail for capital offenders and the constitutional amendment on land that may abolish mailo land. The two were shelved when the public opposition grew louder.
Mao is also the minister who will unveil the Constitutional Review Commission. This issue dominated debate in the last parliament but was abandoned. The commission, just like the Prof Frederick Ssempebwa commission, which provided the bulk of views in the 1995 Constitution, will gather views on the proposed amendments that will inform the bulk of the omnibus Constitutional Amendments Bill that will be tabled and passed before the 2026 general elections.
Museveni has been a harsh critic of the mailo land tenure and the release on bail of murder and rape suspects. In a June 9 2021 tweet, Museveni said; “...On land evictions, I find the Mailo Land Tenure System very unfair. Landowners in the Buganda region (especially) should be entitled to full ownership of their land like elsewhere in Uganda. In Ankole, nobody can chase you away from your land. You even fear. In Buganda, they have so many actors, all against the Muntu Wawansi (common person). We shall see how to handle this issue and that of absentee landlords. We are therefore committed to solving the issue of land evictions once and for all. I thank you.”
Although Museveni appointed Sam Mayanja, a harsh critic of Buganda and the mailo land system, as minister of state for Lands, to superintend the abolition of mailo land, the burly minister has not made much headway because he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka on several issues.
Frustrated, Mayanja has decided to work with the deputy Attorney General Jackson Kafuuzi in the absence of a substantive minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. The arrival of Mao breathes new life into Museveni’s efforts to introduce those pieces of legislation in parliament. Mao is walking into a war where battle lines have been drawn between Kiryowa and Mayanja. Whose side will he choose?
In one of the first cabinet sit- tings (after Museveni took oath for a sixth elected term), Museveni tasked Kiryowa to assess the mailo land issue and guide cabinet on the way forward, a source said.
“The president then presented Kiryowa’s report to cabinet and gave it to Mayanja to review and critique. Mayanja overhauled most of Kiryowa’s views and the president agreed to implement the Lands minister’s revised version.”
Sources in the cabinet say that due to the bad blood between the two figures, Mayanja is working with Kiryowa’s deputy, Jackson Kafuuzi.
“Mayanja’s group is determined to get rid of Kiryowa because they believe they can’t accomplish their major assignment of decimating Buganda kingdom. They say Kiryowa has a soft spot for Buganda because of his forefathers’ closeness to the Buganda establishment,” the source says. “Mayanja regularly holds meetings with Kafuuzi but he never meets Kiryowa.”
That is the space Mao is walking into. A leaked letter from Mayanja to Kafuuzi details how they should work together to take away Kabaka’s land. Dated July 2021, Mayanja refers to an earlier discussion between the two at State House to suggest the takeover of Buganda’s land because it “is a harbinger to political and security risks.”
In this letter, which is mysteriously not copied to Kiryowa, Mayanja alleges that Kabaka or his agents [Buganda Land Board] have no mandate to manage official mailo and should thus be converted into public land.
He supports his claims with documents, including laws and agreements right from the 1900 Buganda Agreement to the 1995 Constitution to the Land Act 1998. He opines that the Kabaka should establish a trust to hold land on behalf of the people of Buganda, or else the land should return to the government.
He further cites historical injustices which created bibanja holders that are suffering at the hands of landowners, including the Kabaka through Buganda Land Board. In the letter, Mayanja offers to work with the commissioner of Land Registration, John Karuhanga, to undo the wrongs brought about by these legislations.
For several years, Museveni has opposed the release of murder and rape suspects on bail and police bonds. Towards the end of last year, Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka presented a brief on the proposed amendment to Article 23(6) (b) of the Constitution to provide that any person accused of committing an offense triable by both the High court and subordinate courts, shall not be granted bail until after 180 days or trial commencement, or when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) discontinues proceedings, whichever is earlier.
The attorney general also proposed that Article 23(4) (b) and Section 25 of the Police Act be amended by parliament, both of which require a suspect to be released on police bond if not charged in court within 48 hours, to qualify the period as “forty-eight business hours”.
RIGHT TO BAIL
The right to bail is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 23 (6) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda. Its basis is found in Article 28 of the same Constitution, which states that an accused person is presumed innocent until he or she is proved guilty or he or she pleads guilty.
During the commemoration of the former chief justice, the late Justice Benedict Kiwanuka in September 2021, President Yoweri Museveni argued that suspected murderers and rapists should not be granted bail.
“This issue of life imprisonment for people who have killed yet the person you killed is not alive is not acceptable. It should be life for life. The release of capital offenders is a provocation,” Museveni said.
Since then, the president has been courting MPs to support his view of scrapping bail for capital offenders. Museveni upped the rhetoric at a time when two MPs; Allan Ssewanyana (Makindye West) and his counterpart Muhammad Ssegirinya (Kawempe North MP) were locked up on charges of murder, attempted murder, terrorism, and abetting and aiding terrorism.
A section of MPs led by the Leader of Opposition in parliament (LoP) Mathias Mpuuga said then that the no-bail law is meant to target President Museveni’s opponents. In September last year, former minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Justice Prof George Kanyeihamba challenged Museveni’s move to scrap bail in court.
“Museveni wants to change the law so that everybody is guilty until you prove that you are innocent yet the law says everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. President Museveni should first withdraw Uganda from all international treaties that guarantee bail globally. The removal of bail is a violation of human rights of capital offenders,” he said. The petition was withdrawn.
Interviewed for a comment on the appointment of Mao, the Leader of Opposition (LOP) Mathias Mpuuga said the appointment will not have any positive consequences. He said Mao entered an arena where Uganda People’s Congress is and DP will become dysfunctional.
“I don’t see him having an impact on institutions. The person who does things is Mr Museveni. Mao can only do what Museveni wishes,” he said.
“The issue of bail and mailo land has nothing to do with Norbert Mao or justice minister but Mr Museveni’s wishes. There is nothing to prepare; they will find us the way they left us last time when they tabled the age limit bill and other bills,” Mpuuga said.
Busiro East MP Medard Lubega Sseggona said Norbert Mao joined Museveni a long time ago.
“For me it is okay; he just had to be bold enough to say that I am joining NRM officially not this business of saying I have gone to work because there is a cooperation agreement with DP whose party organs never convened,” he said.
“Like I have always said, Mao qualifies for that job like some of us but the difference is, I choose who to work with. He chose to work with Museveni. Museveni is the minister of justice and he chose a puppet he will use to do his work.” Sseggona said.
“Mao demonstrated that he is shameless; he will be used on the issues of bail and land, etc. You remember the term limits thing, Museveni used Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi (RIP) who was opposition politician and president of Conservative Party (CP). The moment you choose to work with Museveni, you have to dance to his tunes,” he said.
“Museveni has scored, be rest assured that Mao will peddle the issue of Mailo land because he is a Ganda hater and shameless. We shall be there to fight for our constitutional rights just like we have done in the previous bills,” he said.
WHY MAO JUMPED
A source within the Democratic Party said that the Mao-led party has been in clandestine talks with the NRM government for the last two years.
“The document [Cooperation Agreement] making rounds on WhatsApp is just a public relations document that the two principals chose to share. Led by Mao, DP people went to Museveni requesting for 19 cabinet positions, a request the president flatly refused. Museveni told them it would be like handing over the entire cabinet to DP. He instead offered two positions in cabinet and the remaining appointments would be made within the commissions and embassies abroad.”
Asked why Mao agreed to work with Museveni, he said, “Mao faced individual, family, medical and financial challenges, which could have pushed him into signing this agreement with Museveni. The space in the opposition had shrunk. The rise of Bobi Wine and the return of Dr Kiiza Besigye on the political scene pushed him into joining Museveni. Mao found himself on the peripheries. He even lost to Museveni on home ground Northern Uganda during the 2021 general elections. He has been worried about his medical condition. Over time, he came to realize that those he was opposing (NRM) were much more concerned about his health than those he was opposing the NRM with.”
“Coopting Mao into cabinet fits within Museveni’s present and long-term strategy. Since he has lost Buganda, he now wants to consolidate the North and the West to consolidate his hold on power. Mao is the last vestige of opposition in Northern Uganda and with him in the cabinet, he could deliver more.”
Though pessimistic about the possibility of national unity and transition, the source said that Mao could allow the establishment of laws that could encourage transition.
“Mao has been recruited with other young NRM loyalists like Hamson Obua (government chief whip) and Beatrice Akiror (economic monitoring). These two have risen through the ranks from district levels in Lira and Pader respectively. The transition could be happening. The national reconciliation and transition must have a legal anchor. I think that is why he was deployed in the Justice, Law and Order Sector. He shall deliver the national dialogue, reconciliation and transitional justice in the country.”