When President Yoweri Museveni asked Justine Lumumba whether she was ready to resign her parliamentary seat upon being nominated secretary general (SG) of NRM, his request was genuine.
Following after, however, there has been mixed signals about the parliamentary future of the newly-appointed NRM officials – Lumumba (SG), Richard Todwong (deputy SG), Rose Namayanja Nsereko (treasurer), and Dr Kenneth Omona (deputy treasurer). In typical NRM style, complex avoidance manoeuvres are now underway.
Whereas the recent changes in the NRM party leadership are a positive process, it was no doubt originally motivated by a desire by President Museveni and his party loyalists to clip the wings of the then NRM Secretary General and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
I cannot claim that there was a formal agreement between the president and Mbabazi on how to share the spoils of the 2011 elections. But what I am sure of is that Mbabazi knew that he would be prime minister.
That is why his wife camped at the UPDF 5 Division in Acholpii and poured money in Agago to ensure that I (Latigo) did not return to the 9th Parliament as leader of Opposition to disturb her husband. Having got his prize, however, Mbabazi made the cardinal mistake of comparing himself with President Museveni by insisting on holding onto both positions of NRM secretary general and prime minister.
Worse, when asked to relinquish one of the two positions, he even questioned why he should do so when the president held many other positions, including NRM chairman. Removing the big-headed Mbabazi therefore, became a priority.
To ensure that the mistake of another senior party official holding a top government office rearing his head was ended, recent amendments of the NRM party constitution prevented key NRM office holders who are potential rivals of Museveni from ever holding any other public office.
Barring one from being MP was included because of the potential such an appointed MP would have to influence and mobilise parliamentarians who are key political actors.
In the mad rush, however, NRM did not consider the complete scenario, and the law of unintended consequences has now set in. The first reality check was the parliamentary by-election for the Amuru district woman MP seat, previously held by an NRM minister Betty Bigome that NRM lost to the opposition FDC party.
To NRM, loss of by-elections in the four constituencies to be vacated by their officials will be a terrible national psychological blow with the 2016 elections now due. A way out has to be found.
In the complex avoidance manoeuvres, conflicting statements by President Museveni and NRM deputy spokesperson Ofwono Opondo are not uncoordinated troop movements but deliberate strategic diversionary processes. Appearing on the Capital Gang recently, the president said that:“You know me I am not a lawyer, that is their business... Our interest is having full-time workers at the secretariat… The other time [when Mbabazi refused to resign one of his posts], it was like an understanding between us and the Rt Hon Mbabazi, but this one is in the law; it’s in the constitution of the NRM now.. It will be actually illegal if they continue to be in Parliament; so, the question is not whether [they will resign] but when..” (The Observer, January 5 2015).
After Museveni announced the nominations and questioned the readiness of the new SG to resign her parliamentary seat, it was Opondo who first cast doubt over the need for the four MPs to resign their seats. When the president appeared on Capital Gang, Opondo again seemingly contradicted him, saying: “Do you define an MP as a government office? To us an MP is not a government office and this we will handle as an administrative matter.”
Truth be told, Opondo and NRM now realize, as an afterthought, the political implications of debarring the four appointed MPs from holding any public office.
And this in spite of the fact that they know what “public office” is in our laws; and even inthe Wiktionary definition as being: “A position or occupation established by law or by the act of a government body, for the purpose of exercising the authority of the government in the service of the public”.
Against this reality, the challenge for NRM now is how to avoid the high risks of losing four by-elections that must be held once the MPs vacate their seats on assuming their NRM secretariat positions. With 2016 elections nearing, the psychological impact of any loss after Luweero and Amuru will be too devastating. The current manoeuvres are all about this.
First, we should expect a Cabinet reshuffle in which Lumumba, Todwong and Namayanja are dropped. The NRM will then claim that they have fulfilled their obligation under the Ugandan Constitution, and insist that the ministers remaining MPs is not tantamount to holding public office. With this, NRM will sit back and wait to battle any legal challenges.
Second, the Electoral Commission or Parliament, as custodians of the law, may take it upon themselves to declare the continued stay of the four in Parliament as unconstitutional. Their seats will then be declared vacant and by-elections called. I, however, see little likelihood of this happening. In any case, the NRM will gladly go to court to contest such a decision.
In the alternative, individuals may contest the continued stay of the four MPs in the Constitutional court. To NRM, any court process will be just what the doctor ordered. They will drag the process, including appealing to the Supreme court, just to ensure that the ministers remain in Parliament and no by-elections are held.
In fact, they could delay the process until six months to elections and then allow the four to vacate their parliamentary seats knowing that, under our laws, by-elections cannot be held within six months of a general election.
Even if NRM uses delaying tactics, however, they will still face a major political challenge. Before leaving Parliament in April 2011, I made it clear to FDC that our secretary general, Alice Alaso, as the senior-most leader, was the right person to take over my mantle as leader of Opposition in the ninth Parliament.
This was in recognition of party hierarchy and for the sake of order, good sense and regimented leadership in Parliament. Unfortunately, for reasons that I am yet to know, Dr Kizza Besigye, then FDC president and a soldier who knew too well the importance of rank and discipline, instead appointed Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, an FDC assistant treasurer, as leader of Opposition over and above party Treasurer Jack Sabiiti and Alice Alaso!
The failure of FDC and the opposition to gel in Parliament was significantly attributable to this. When Amama Mbabazi was both NRM secretary general and prime minister, convergence of the two roles in one person in Parliament made sense.
As now proposed, however, if the NRM officials remain in Parliament after resigning their ministerial portfolios, the secretary general and her deputy and the treasurer and her deputy will all be backbenchers.
What kind of party discipline should we expect when ordinary members appointed ministers will be sitting in the frontbench in Parliament when those to lead them are backbenchers? In this kind of anomaly, how will a speaker presiding handle the parliamentary protocol and party precedence in respect of a backbench secretary general commanding her party members on matters of policy and party interests?
In the party changes that NRM is going through, we all have something to learn. Even then, unfortunately, knowing our country and institutions, the NRM will still handle this matter “administratively” as they so wish, regardless. Barring some miracle, the appointed MPs will also not vacate their parliamentary seats; Museveni’s “when” will not come.
The author is FDC deputy president and was the leader of Opposition in the 8th Parliament.