Asuman Basalirwa, president of the opposition JEEMA party, has rigorously defended his close relationship with Anita Among, the NRM-leaning Speaker of Parliament.
The Bugiri Municipality MP said in an extensive interview that any lawmaker who is not friends with the speaker cannot deliver on his or her mandate as a people’s representative. Read the transcript below written by Muhammad Kakembo.
There is talk that you are very close to the speaker Anita Among.
But I have always been close to speakers. I was close to Rebecca Kadaga [former speaker]. I defied all odds and supported her candidacy. But my closeness to speakers is formal. A member of parliament who does not enjoy a normal relationship with the speaker has a problem.
But your closeness to the speaker is unsettling to some people outside parliament
In the 10th parliament, Kadaga would either send me or Latif Ssebaggala to represent her. I represented her at functions both locally and internationally. I have represented Anita Among. I have represented [deputy speaker Thomas] Tayebwa. The only person I did not represent was the late Jacob Oulanyah. Basaliwa is at the centre of anything to do with Muslims in this parliament.
But Basalirwa, an opposition politician, does not see any problem with being too close to NRM speakers of parliament.
It cannot be a concern. Remember, I am alone here; so, it is my duty to create alliances and caucus here.
But collectively you belong to the opposition.
That is true but when National Unity Platform (NUP) calls a meeting; do I attend, yes? When FDC, DP or UPC call a caucus do I attend, yes? So, if I am not in the NRM caucus if I am not in the NUP caucus or FDC, who do I talk to? When you are alone in an institution like parliament, building alliances becomes inevitable. But these alliances are formal, principled, and in the public domain.
But publicly, people say after Mao, Basalirwa is the next person to join NRM.
That has been the talk since 1998. Those who say that have no understanding of what Jeema is. Ours is an ideological party. Tell me one Jeema person who has crossed to the NRM.
But these comments are made by Jeema people...
If you want to know who Basalirwa is, ask the founder members of Jeema. They mentored us. Speak to Hussein Kyanjo, Immam Kasozi, and Alex Ojok. They know where we came from. Jeema does not do abstract things. For every decision we take, we seek consensus.
I laugh at people. They think Basalirwa makes unilateral decisions. The challenge we have in Uganda is that we do not have ideological parties. We have an ideological mission as a party. We are not confrontational. We are an arbiter. Morality is a core value in our party. When you see people abusing each other, you know they lack an ideological structure.
You talked about alliances; NRM chairman Yoweri Museveni said he had no problem with a Jeema candidate being elected as EALA MP. Are you working with Museveni now?
One advantage I have is that I have been around for some time. I was a founding member of Inter Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD). Everybody found me there but along the way, the organization was hijacked. Museveni spent the first 10 years of IPOD fighting it, but Jeema is still discussing whether to abandon what we started.
Now we relate with NRM through the IPOD framework and there is a memorandum of understanding, which is a public document. There is the National Consultative Forum, which is a creation of the law; those are the two fora where we meet NRM. It is only those who are ideologically weak who fear [they might] be swallowed. But you swallow Jeema how? Let us wait and see who will go to NRM next.
IPOD does not look viable anymore because the bigger opposition parties; FDC and NUP have walked away.
We have been benefiting immensely from DGF support. We got computers and furniture. Our women, youths, and policy analysts were trained. We benefited from IPOD. Now that a major funder has pulled out, we need to decide internally whether it is still relevant to be there.
You were there for benefits only?
They were not personal benefits. When the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) trained our policy analysts, we got the opportunity to develop our policy agenda. The support has not been limited to only us; it has been extended to FDC, DP, UPC, and NRM.
We must look at the objectives of IPOD to see if they are noble. In Uganda, we lack a culture of dialogue. Look at the opposition, each time we have an election, we try to come together; do we succeed?
NUP and FDC have said Museveni is using IPOD to sanitize what they call a military dictatorship. Do you agree with that reasoning?
Museveni does not need IPOD to rig elections or stay in power neither does he need IPOD to compromise the opposition. The Beti Kamyas and Beatrice Anywars did not go to NRM through IPOD. Any political party that is not ideological will be swallowed by Museveni with or without IPOD. Museveni said the other day that he does not care about his legacy.
Such a person does not need IPOD to sanitize his long leadership. Therefore, if we want to build strong political institutions, then we must tell people why they belong to political parties. We in Jeema have weathered political storms. There was a time when I was pressured in Bugiri to join FDC.
There was a time when the only politicians were known to be from DP or UYD. During the last election, we were pressured to join NUP but we resisted; we said we are Jeema. So, if you want to understand what it means to be a principled and ideological party, then you can only learn from Jeema.
We disagree with you publicly and in principle. But because I am opposition so I should not talk to the speaker who is NRM? Then how will I raise matters of national impor- tance? I represent community interests. So, how will I champion community interests if I am saying no no, no, I cannot talk to the speaker? As leaders, we must take charge.
This is your first full term as a member of parliament. What can you report so far?
This term has come with many responsibilities; I am the vice chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee; I am the chairperson of the Parliamentary Muslim Caucus. I am the chairperson of the Parliamentary Sports Club.
So, I am trying to balance all these responsibilities. I must find time for committee work, plenary, the constituency, and my party. These responsibilities have affected my normal schedule. Where I used to give two days, now I can hardly give five hours.
Some responsibilities involve a lot of travelling. For example, I may be away from mid-November to mid-December doing sports-related activities. So, many schedules have been affected but I am trying to get the time and do everything.
Some party members say they don’t see you...
The secretary-general does the day-to-day party activities, according to the Constitution of Jeema. The concern would be where the secretary-general is. The party constitution is structured in such a way that even if the president were around 24 hours, he or she cannot do the work of the secretary-general. Number two, we have four vice presidents with delegated responsibilities. We are not NRM where the power and authority are concentrated in an individual.
But before you became MP, your members used to see you. Now they say you take months without stepping at the party headquarters...
Incidentally, I used to be at the party headquarters yet sometimes I was not doing party work. Anybody who knows me would tell you that I would do legal work from that place. I would do personal work from that place.
There is a football pitch in a place called Kisenyi where I would play football every day. So, I would play football and then dress up from the party headquarters.
They say when they call you on phone, you do not pick up...
It depends on what I am doing. When you have tight schedules, you cannot pick up calls. It is all in the interest of my members to see their party president shining. I have been ranked the 12th most- performing MP in the last session. Aren’t they proud of that? If we lose Basalirwa, the national politician, then that party will suffer.
You are the vice chairperson of PAC, which used to be one of the most vibrant parliamentary committees. But we hear nothing from that committee these days; what happened?
Journalists are not attending our committee business. How will you know whether we are active or not? Secondly, do you know when we received the Auditor General’s report?
PAC acts when the Auditor General submits a report. Until the re-port is submitted, PAC will be redundant. When the report was submitted, we started working. We have finished with the ministry of Health; we authored a report which was adopted unanimously by the house.
We are now with the Education ministry. One thing I have realized is that the media picks interest in certain sectors. I tell you; we unearthed many things in the health sector but you choose what to focus on.
But don’t you think you need to interest the media in what you are doing?
The Auditor General’s report is a public document; why don’t you read it and tell people what it says? We have done our part. We dug into the report and if you are not reporting about it, that cannot be our problem. We are not editors to assign reporters.
We hear talk that Basalirwa is one of the pillars of the 11th parliament
Just say I am intelligent; it is as simple as that. And right from the 10th parliament, I was active because we [the opposition] do not cheat the public. You will find me at parliament when I am supposed to be there.
The speaker finds me in parliament seated and she or he first leaves before I leave. When I am in the House, I make researched contributions. If you go to the parliamentary library, I have a seat there. We read and research and that makes us relevant.