Speaker Anita Among’s First 300 Days: MPs Ruled by Iron Fist
(COPIED FROM OBSERVER NEWSPAPER)
Anita Among’s first 300 days, or 10 months, as speaker of parliament have been stalked by two things: controversy over outlandish decisions and edgy public fights with members of parliament.
So far, the speaker has had three bruising public fights. First, Francis Zaake, the Mityana municipality MP, spoke unflatteringly about her. Angry, the speaker wielded her power ruthlessly. Zaake was hurled before the parliamentary disciplinary committee.
He was charged, convicted, and later ousted from his prized slot on the parliamentary commission. He has since run to court for redress. Perhaps, the most damning fight has been with Persis Namuganza, the minister of state for Housing, who was censured on January 23, 2023. She claims the censure was sponsored by the speaker.
She claims parliament is led by an ironclad administration, which intimidates MPs. She claims that many MPs are afraid of the speakers of parliament. The most recent fight to spill into public view pits Speaker Among against Joel Ssenyonyi, the chairman of the oversight parliamentary committee, Cosase, whose very public inquiry into the operations of Uganda Airlines, shined a very bright and unwelcome spotlight on the current managing director, Jennifer Bamuturaki.
In this article, we trace the origins of the fights and examine how tarnishing they have been to the image of the speaker and the institution of parliament. As controversies and fights escalate, there is mounting concern that the scandals could sap parliament’s ability to deal with salient issues affecting the country.
AMONG’S RISE TO THE TOP
After losing two elections to represent the eastern district of Bukedea in the seventh and eighth parliaments, the former Forum for Democratic Change stalwart, Anita Among, ran as an independent candidate and won the 2016 elections.
In 2020, Among joined the ruling National Resistance Movement- NRM. In the 2021 general election, Among, returned to parliament unopposed on the NRM ticket. In May 2021, she was elected deputy speaker of parliament and later speaker on March 25, 2022, replacing the late Jacob Oulanyah, the former speaker of the parliament, who died in Seattle, USA.
After climbing to the top, parliament has since passed 19 of the 62 bills lined up for passage in the second session of 2022, which kicked off in July.
The bills included the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022; the Labour Unions (Amendment) Bill; the Kampala Capital City Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2021; the Public Health (Amendment) Bill, 2022; the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill, 2022; the Uganda Human Organ Donation and Transplant Bill, 2022; and the Uganda National Kiswahili Council Bill.
Others are the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Bill (EEC); the Veterinary Practitioners Bill; and the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill, 2022. The 11th Parliament held 59 sessions and passed 28 resolutions, which included acquiring 150,000 shares in Roko Construction Company and the resolution to borrow Shs 1.7 trillion from Standard Chartered bank.
However, the tremendous legislative performances have been blighted by the speaker’s public fights with several lawmakers, including Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake, Minister of State for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development, Princess Persis Namuganza, and Nakawa West constituency MP, Joel Besekezi Ssenyonyi. Sources say, there are several unmentioned fights going on silently.
The Observer has learned that several MPs are in panic mode. They are always careful to avoid speaking to the media or in public for fear of annoying the speakers.
During a plenary sitting to salute MPs who took part in the East African Legislative Assembly Games in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2021, Anita Among said Zaake did exceptionally well, winning a gold medal for parliament. She said Zaake accomplished the feat despite reports that he was tortured and suffered a broken leg.
The speaker’s remarks angered Zaake. He took to social media to express his dismay. During a February 2022 parliamentary session chaired by Speaker Among, Gulu City West MP Ojara Martin Mapenduzi proposed a censure motion against Zaake.
He accused Zaake of insulting and demeaning the person of Speaker Anita Among. Ojara said Zaake’s insults did not only denigrate the integrity of parliament but also breached the code of conduct of MPs. Among referred the matter to the committee on Rules, Privileges, and Discipline. In his testimony before the committee, Zaake tried to distance himself from the incendiary social media comments. He said they were attributed to him without any technical proof that they were posted by him.
“I hope you understand when I say that I believe these proceedings are not intended to establish the truth. Their purpose is to knot the rope with which the mob, after lynching me, will hang me to fit the narrative that I committed suicide,” he told the committee.
He said he was found guilty before the matter came up on the floor of Parliament.
“On February 11, my security detail, to which I am entitled as a commissioner of Parliament, was unceremoniously withdrawn without any explanation. That was my first punishment, Mr. Chairperson,” he said.
“Mr. Chairperson and colleagues, I was already a member of parliament, and on all occasions I have been tortured by national security officers. On three of those occasions, I was tortured by members of the Special Forces Command (SFC), the military outfit that guards Mr Yoweri Museveni and some leaders of parliament,” he said.
“If you were the victim of this repeated torture, as I am, you would understand how hurt and furious I felt watching my speaker make a mockery of the life-threatening torture I have repeatedly suffered without justice. This is someone with whom I sit in parliamentary commission meetings. She has an opportunity to see from close range the deep, multiple scars of torture I have on my body that even my otherwise dark skin complexion cannot hide,” Zaake said.
“I constantly get cruel remarks from government officials and security spokespersons asserting that I faked the torture. The last person I expected such cruelty from was the speaker of Parliament because she is a wife, a mother, and the head of an institution that should be doing everything possible to rehabilitate me instead of victimizing me further,” he said.
Committee Chairman Abdu Katuntu said Zaake did not protect the integrity of Parliament. His conduct, he said, instead brought the entire Parliament and its leadership into disrepute. Katuntu said Zaake’s comment undermined the dignity and integrity of the Office of the Speaker.
Zaake’s comment, he said, lowered the esteem of the institution of Parliament in the eyes of the citizens, who ought to look up to their leaders. Later, Mapenduzi moved a motion to immediately remove Zaake from the commission. Busia Municipality MP, Geoffrey Macho, seconded the motion.
He said the removal of Zaake as a commissioner would bring sanity. He was ousted from the parliamentary commission after the adaptation of the report of the Committee on Rules, Discipline, and Privileges presented by Abdu Katuntu. According to the parliament website, out of the 161 participating MPs, 155 voted to oust Zaake, while four voted against.
Through his lawyers, led by the Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, Zaake petitioned the court, challenging his removal from the Parliamentary Commission. He contended that the parliament had no quorum. Two-thirds of the 529 MPs had to take part in the voting exercise.
A panel of judges led by Catherine Bamugemereire, Christopher Izama Madrama, Stephen Musota, Muzamiru Mutangula Kibeedi, and Irene Mulyagonja is yet to deliver judgment.
In December 2022, Agago North MP John Amos Okot moved a censure motion against Namuganza after she declined to apologize to Speaker Anita Among and MPs. According to the parliament website, the ad hoc committee recommended in its report that Namuganza step aside for falsifying a presidential directive that led the Uganda Land Commission to allocate parts of the Naguru- Nakawa estate land to a section of investors.
Namuganza is reported to have said that parliament had no powers to censure her. Namuganza said her censure was primarily sponsored by Anita Among. She also turned down a cabinet proposal for dialogue with the speaker. She framed her censure as a witch hunt by the speaker. In the end, the censure turned into a personal fight between the families of Namuganza and Among.
The Naguru land saga was cast aside. Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa set up a select committee to scrutinize Namuganza’s case and establish whether there’s any merit in the censure motion against her. On January 23, 2023, the seven-member committee led by Mwine Mpaka presented its report.
Mpaka said Namuganza did not appear before the select committee for a fair hearing despite several attempts. She was duly served, he said.
“Namuganza failed in her duty at all times to conduct herself in a manner that will maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of parliament. Namuganza should have challenged the composition of the ad hoc committee that investigated her involvement in the Nakawa-Naguru land allocation through proper channels,” Mpaka said.
He said her conduct brought Parliament and its members into disrepute and breached the rules of procedure of Parliament. The select committee pinned Namuganza for breaching the standards of behaviour and conduct expected of an MP as prescribed in the code of conduct of MPs prescribed in the rules of procedure.
Agago North MP John Amos Okot moved a motion to censure Namuganza. The motion was seconded by Bukanga County MP Nathan Byanyima, Barnabas Tinkasiimire, and other legislators. Byanyima said Namuganza is uncultured.
“A hallmark of civilization involves respect for authority, processes, and institutions. Namuganza has no regard for her voters, no regard for the president who appointed her, no respect for parliament, and absolutely no regard for processes,” Fox Odoi said. Parliament, chaired by Deputy Speaker Tayebwa, passed a motion of censure against Namuganza. About 348 MPs voted in favour of the motion, five voted against it, and three abstained.
In accordance with Article 118(2) of the Constitution, when a minister is censured by parliament, “the President shall, unless a Minister resigns his or her office, take appropriate action in the matter.”
Last month, another feud erupted between Speaker Anita Among and Nakawa West MP Joel Ssenyonyi. She also accused Ssenyonyi and his committee of failing to produce timely reports, which she said was also an indictment on the House.
“Joel, you have not done what I expected of you; you have been a little lazy. Out of 107 auditor general reports, the committee has only considered four entities. I don’t want to say shame on us, the parliament, but shame on you, Cosase, because we have invested a lot of money in the committee, and I am going to ask for a value for money audit on Pac- Cosase,” she said.
She also accused Cosase members of leaking the Uganda Airlines probe report.
“There was a leak of a report. A report, which is a property of parliament, cannot leak, and we continue debating it. We are going to adopt the auditor general’s report and recommendations on Uganda Airlines. We are going to investigate who leaked that report,” she said.
Ssenyonyi retaliated through his social media handles. “When we finished the report on Uganda Airlines, we submitted it to the speaker’s office; she was the first recipient, but she has decided to sit on it to protect the thieves. Maybe the person who should be investigated is the Speaker of Parliament, Anita Among. Maybe she’s the one who leaked it?” Ssenyonyi said.
“You said you would investigate the leakage of the report, but you never did because you were bluffing. Also, without referring to any law/rule, you have set a ridiculous precedent, that whenever some mafias don’t want a report tabled, they will make sure it leaks,” he said on Twitter.
He said Anita Among’s Cosase inquired into one institution, the Bank of Uganda, for over six months. According to records at Parliament, in the last five years, Cosase inquired into only nine Auditor General Reports. The reports include; BOU, KCCA, REA, NITA, NCS, NAADS, UEDCL, UCC, and the Parliamentary Commission. Out of the five years, Anita was vice chairperson of Cosase for three years.
Ssenyonyi said in one year, Cosase, which he heads, has produced five reports, which include CAA, Uganda Railways, the Land Commission, UNRA, and Uganda Airlines, and this year they are going to investigate more entities.
“When you compare nine reports in five years to five reports produced in one year, everyone now knows who is lazy and full of shame!” he said.
In another post on Twitter, Ssenyonyi said; “I am told Speaker Anita Among called some of my committee members to her office and asked them to start a censure motion against me for indiscipline and disobeying the Speaker’s orders. During the Uganda Airlines inquiry, she wrote to me, guiding me to lock the media out.”
Ssenyonyi said it is not the first time the speaker has meddled in the activities of the committee. He said while Cosace investigated Uganda Railways Corporation (URC), Solomon Kirunda, a parliament lawyer who works closely with the speaker, reached out and asked him to meet the managing director of URC.
“I told Solomon I wouldn’t meet him because we were investigating him and that he should meet the entire committee. I refused to meet the MD because I was sure he wanted to compromise me. Weeks after the Cosace report on URC was released, the MD and the board were fired due to gross mismanagement and accountability issues in our report. They bought locomotives for Shs 48 billion outside procurement guidelines, yet the locomotives were defective,” Ssenyonyi said.
“Madam Speaker, please stop interfering with our work, allow us to do our job. We can’t be effective if you keep trying to drive the committee like this and insisting that I privately meet those we are investigating,” he said.
In response to the Ssenyonyi fiasco, Chris Obore, the parliament’s director of communication and public affairs, stated that there are several mechanisms in place to handle grievances. For committee work, there is a Forum of Committee Chairpersons. For individual MPs, there is a government Chief Whip for the NRM and Opposition Whip and Leader of the Opposition. Independents have their own forum too.
“Any issues can be handled through those mechanisms. There is constant engagement between the speaker and those forums. That is how it runs. Going to the media without trying any of the above internal mechanisms has more to do with how an individual understands institutional management,” Obore said.
Sarah Bireete, a lawyer and human rights activist, said there is a big leadership problem at Parliament. “Parliament is a temple of democracy. It is supposed to represent the people’s views, wishes, and aspirations as they are captured in Article I of the Constitution in its functioning as it checks the excesses of the executive.”
She said the leadership is barely a year old, “but if you look at the track record of the leadership, they seem to be interested in personal petty fights as compared to the constitutional mandate as stated in Article 79 of the Constitution.”
“Most of that time is wasted on personal issues of the speaker, who seems to be quarrelsome, interested in picking petty fights with anyone who doesn’t agree with her. It’s a pity that the institution of parliament has been reduced to petty issues like the censure of Zaake and Namuganza, and that they are now focusing on Cosase Chairman Joel Ssenyonyi. It is extremely embarrassing,” she said.
She said the current leadership does not really have what it takes in terms of stature and magnanimity to lead a legislative assembly in an emerging democracy like Uganda. “The processes for the removal of the speaker are complicated, but I think many citizens are looking in that direction.”
An MP who declined to be named told The Observer that the top leadership at Parliament lacks leadership skills.
“The speaker took up the position before the right time. She had not learned some of the things at Parliament. The Zaake issue should have been resolved through dialogue, an apology, and letting things go. The speaker could do that, but instead she decided to show her power,” he said.
Sheema Municipality MP Dickson Kateshumbwa said it is unfortunate that the speaker and members of parliament are exchanging words publicly.
“That is the nature of the politics some of our people play. They play the politics of the gallery. They want to create the impression that they are working. The speaker is not fighting anyone and cannot fight her members. If there is any issue, I think dialogue should always be chosen first to amicably resolve differences,” he said.
Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda said Namuganza’s troubles didn’t start with her disagreements with Speaker Among. They began with the Nakawa-Naguru land. She has had a problem with everybody she has worked with; she had a problem with former Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, Minister Betty Amongi, Busoga parliamentary caucus, and others.
“She refused to apologize when the parliament asked her to. I told her that you are a very difficult person to defend. You defend her, but she is busy provoking more conflicts. She is the problem,” he said.
He said the issue of Ssenyonyi should have been handled administratively.
“I thought that it was a small matter, and I don’t know why it has escalated. I had disagreements with Kadaga, and people didn’t know until I competed against her in the speakership race. I said things I had kept a lid on for a very long time.
He added: “For Zaake, I pleaded to have him forgiven. I fixed an appointment with the speaker, Among, and I met her with the leader of opposition Mathias Mpuuga, at her home. She told us that the issue of Zaake had escalated, and she couldn’t do much because the matter was going to be decided by NRM. She said she asked Zaake to apologise on the same platform he used to attack her, and he refused,”
“Ssenyonyi should never have escalated this. The moment it escalates, it must generate a winner and a loser. I hope we still have time to have a conversation about it. I don’t agree that there is a leadership problem at parliament because we are all leaders and participate in making it better,” he said.
“My only problem with Among and Thomas Tayebwa, is that they think they have a personal responsibility to protect President Yoweri Museveni, his family, and the NRM. They shut you down when you speak out about NRM, but these administrative issues should be dealt with tactically,” he said.