The most cruel and noticeable abductions of Ugandans by ominous gun-toting plainclothes men have occurred in the last couple of months and have triggered a flood of new public emotions and accusations.
Last week, Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake stood on the floor of parliament and loudly tried to shine a bright light on the endless abductions. The deputy speaker of parliament, Thomas Tayebwa, quickly asked him to sit down.
Zaake refused to sit down. That prompted an enraged deputy speaker to suspend the plenary sitting and recommend disciplinary action for Zaake. The speaker referred Zaake to the parliamentary Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline. In an interview with The Observer, Zaake stated that he would not be intimidated by anyone. He stated that no one will prevent him from raising issues of national concern on the floor or in parliament.
We saw you make a scene in parliament over the abduction of Ugandans. Why did you decide to take that path?
I wanted to do something about what is going on in the country. We have had this issue for quite some time now. It comes up in the House, and it’s talked about in the calmest way by my leader in parliament (the leader of the opposition), and nothing happens.
I think it has been more lamentation, and I thought to myself, how can we move away from lamentation and act in the language the government understands? When I thought about it on Monday (last week), I sat down with my assistant and thought about what we could do. We looked through the rules of procedure and, indeed, there were provisions that allowed us to put up a fight.
You mean what you did is provided for in the rules of procedure?
The people who wrote these rules were very insightful. There are rules that allow a member to do more than just talk, especially if the government refuses to listen to matters of public interest.
So, the rules allow me to interrupt parliamentary business if there is any matter of public interest. So that it’s addressed by parliament. We decided to bring a procedural matter to suspend business on that day and the days ahead until that matter is addressed.
When Tayebwa told me to sit down to guide me, I knew he wanted to just stop me from making my point. In the past, we have had MPs like Hon Ibrahim Ssemujju raise the same matter. It was discussed, and that’s it. For me, I said it was not going to be business as usual. I said nothing would proceed until we found a permanent solution to the challenge of abductions.
You have been described as undisciplined. Are you afraid of the consequences?
I came ready for everything and anything. I knew they would either call the sergeant at arms or the Special Forces Command (SFC) soldiers. The SFC protects speakers because they are afraid of being kidnapped or killed. I also thought maybe the UPDF MPs would box me like one senior officer did in the past.
I also anticipated I would be referred to the rules committee. So, I knew these were their options, and I was ready for them. That’s why I just laughed when they referred me to the rules committee. I will go and face them.
It will also give me a chance to speak about the issues I presented in the House. I have already won because my issue is being discussed by the country. I know the concerned people are now under pressure to explain what is going on. We want our people back, alive or dead, so that they are given a decent burial.
You were fired as a Parliamentary Commissioner the last time you appeared before the Rules, Discipline and Privileges Committee. Don’t you worry about what else they can do?
I’m a victim of so many bad things; I’m a victim of torture and abduction, and I’m supposed to be dead by now. They have done the worst to me. So, at this point, there is no way I can be worried or scared.
I cannot be worried about what those people may do to me. I know I’m dealing with a dictator; I’m dealing with rebels. I know that whenever I expose them, they can do worse things to me.
The worst has happened to me, and I don’t think there is anything that can scare me. I’m not one of the cowards in that parliament. As our president (Robert Kyagulanyi) said, the parliament is another front we can use to fight Mr Museveni.
What I did was exactly what I was supposed to do, and I don’t care about the repercussions. The last time I was in that committee, I lost my position as a commissioner, but I want to tell you that I really don’t care about positions. Yes, the position comes with fame, cars, money, and a lot of per diem; a lot of care for my family and relatives, but that is not important. What is important are the lives of the people and their plight.
But some say you go to extremes in trying to make your point...
With the state of lawlessness in our country, they can’t expect me to behave normally. They don’t follow the law outside parliament, and in parliament they want us to follow the law; that’s impossible. We can’t behave normally in an abnormal situation.
That’s why I keep calling on my fellow leaders to behave like the oppressor. The oppressor cannot decide how we should respond to his oppression. I think the way I behave should be the same way each sane MP behaves in relation to how our people are being treated.
In times of lawlessness, you can’t talk about policy and laws when the ones we make are not followed. I have gone through this; I know how it feels when a family member is abducted. My dad has experienced it, my wife has experienced it, and my mom has experienced it, and up until this time, she has never recovered from it.
I’m the right person to lead the effort to make sure that we revert to the law. I’m going to insist and persist that this happens; and if it doesn’t, I will keep doing what I did last week, and they should expect more of it.
When you speak to many of your party supporters, they seem disenchanted with parliament...
It’s true. Our people are losing confidence in that parliament because it has not lived up to their expectations. That’s why you hear people calling for the abolition of parliament. I hear others say that the legislature is useless.
That’s why a few of us are telling disgruntled Ugandans that the parliament is another front in the fight to expose the dictatorship. We are trying to wake up other members. We keep reminding them why they were sent to parliament. So, it’s imperative that we use that parliament to fight for our people until the rule of law is restored, abductions stop, and extra-judicial killings stop.
How do you balance being a good member of parliament who respects decorum but also speaks about the plight of his people?
Who is a good member of parliament? I think a good member of parliament focuses on the interests of his or her people. I think that’s exactly what I’m doing. The decorum you are talking about shouldn’t supersede the lives of Ugandans.
I’m sure when you dance to the tunes of the presiding officers; visit them in their offices, come on, some matters will not wait for me to come to your office. If you feel the matter is very important, give it time to be heard.
Instead of suspending the House for almost 30 minutes, why don’t you use those minutes to discuss the issue I have raised? Each MP must be assertive, and that shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean not being good. Many people applauded me because they felt represented.
That’s why they feel it’s the presiding officer who should appear before that disciplinary committee. A good MP speaks. He or she doesn’t wait for trips or salaries or move around the country doing a lot of nothing.
While speaking in your support, Robert Kyagulanyi stated that policy is not the most important issue right now but, rather, Ugandans’ lives. Do you agree with that assessment?
My president is very right. There is no way you can come up with a good policy for dead people or those who are abducted. It’s high time my fellow MPs and the presiding officers cared more about the lives of Ugandans.
If your life is being threatened, you can’t enjoy the good roads, and the good businesses will not help people being tortured. That’s why, according to our current law, even if the government has the gravest of cases against you, the moment it’s proven that you have been tortured, that case collapses.
That’s why our rules also tell us that when there is an issue of public concern, all the other issues are put on hold. There are those who say Zaake is doing what he’s doing because he wants to be the leader of the opposition.
Let me tell you, being a commissioner of parliament is a more comfortable and precious job than being the leader of the opposition in parliament (LoP). But I was given a choice by the kangaroo committee.
I was asked to apologize to the speaker and retain my position. I refused. My interest is not the position but in deliberating on the issues that affect my people who don’t have a voice. That’s what I care about. I didn’t come to parliament to earn money or become a business dealer. Many MPs are there for salaries, the per diem, but that is not my focus. I have tried to do that, and I will try to do the same.
There are just a handful of MPs who stood with you when you stood up. You are a lone ranger...
Whenever you are doing the right thing, be sure you will stand alone. But let me say this also; I’m inspiring a lot of other young MPs to do the same things I’m doing.
I’m also inspiring other young people to do the right thing even when they are left to stand alone. But I also want to add that there are a few of my colleagues who stood up with me, and I believe next time it will be massive.