“These political tactics are not new, but in a democratic country, the inability or the refusal to recognize the thin line between appropriate Party discipline and downright political oppression is indicative of NRM’s willingness to bend the rules, or not play by them at all.”
The 1966 exile of Kabaka Edward Mutesa II by then Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote was a watershed political event that emanated from Mr Obote’s lopsided power grasp and obvious disdain for political dissidents. The expulsion of Kabaka Mutesa to England, following his strenuous objection to Mr Obote’s suspension of Uganda’s Constitution at the time, represented a fairly extreme version of the old politics of eliminating the opposition. Throughout Uganda’s checkered history of democratic rule, Uganda’s presidents have invariably employed this tactic of silencing dissenting voices, with Idi Amin Dada being the perfect embodiment of a Ugandan President with zero tolerance for the opposition.
While the dislike of one’s political opponents is arguably an inherent facet of democratic politics, what differentiates political adversaries is the intensity of their disdain for each other, which often translates into some sort of measurable action on the part of one or both parties in order to gain the upper hand. Indeed, politicians often go to great lengths to gin up strong public opposition to their adversaries, an effort which is a political euphemism for “I don’t like the other guy.” The underlying premise for this game is simple: to win, you have got to hit the hardest. A great example is the 2012 American presidential elections (including the Republican Primaries) where the election season was punctuated with slick, unforgettable TV ads declaring some contestants “untrustworthy” or “heartless” for any number of reasons. In Uganda, the November 2005 arrest and subsequent relentless persecution of Kizza Besigye is indicative of the aggressive adoption of this “destroy-your-opponent” politics by the National Resistance Movement leadership.
But how do you deal with dissenting voices inside your own Party, where there is a general expectation for agreement and unity on a wide range of policy issues? In an illuminating example, the Speaker of the USA House of Representatives, John Boehner, and the Republican Steering Committee recently stripped four lawmakers of spots on powerful committees for not toeing the Party line. The ousted lawmakers (Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.)) were known for occasionally bucking Party leadership and voting against Mr Boehner’s wishes. Mr Boehner’s actions were widely acknowledged to presage his desire to advance a deal with Democrats on cutting fiscal deficits, but these actions were also construed by Tea Partiers as a needless purging of fiscal conservatives. Whatever one’s interpretations of the yanking of these four conservatives from coveted committees, Uganda’s NRM leadership seemed to have drawn a lesson directly from Mr Boehner’s playbook.
Four NRM MPs—Barnabas Tinkasiimire (Buyaga West), Theodore Sekikubo (Lwemiyaga), Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa East), and Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala Central)—are in political hot water for alleged Party disloyalty and intransigence. The list of NRM accusations against these four were long, and included allegedly furthering another political party’s interests, promoting cliques by joining the Forum on Oil and Gas and denouncing Mr Museveni for cronyism, mismanagement of Uganda’s affairs and betraying NRM supporters. On Sunday, April 14, 2013, and in a clear sign of leadership’s frustration with ideological differences in the Party, these four MPs were booted out from NRM by the Party’s Central Executive Committee. The tight control that NRM leadership exerts over the political behavior of NRM members and its apparent insatiable drive to weed out any opposition places this 27-year old Party in the same league as the Apollo Milton Obote’s UPC Party of old and the military dictatorship of Idi Amin Dada, at least in this one respect. These political tactics are not new, but in a democratic country, the inability or the refusal to recognize the thin line between appropriate Party discipline and downright political oppression is indicative of NRM’s willingness to bend the rules, or not play by them at all.
These four MPs seemed unfazed by all of this. Mr Nsereko reportedly responded to his expulsion from NRM, saying, “We are determined to ensure proper democratic change and distribution of resources. Maybe our expulsion has given NRM a sigh of relief but I don’t think it will help the party build hospitals and improve service delivery to Ugandans who are the owners of this country.” His response is a subtle reminder that this political bickering inside the NRM Party is garnering attention for all the wrong reasons: there is an urgent need for the majority Party and Opposition Party to get together and find workable solutions to the problems affecting the average Ugandan. Instead of fighting over minuscule and largely irrelevant issues like dissenting voices in the NRM Party, why not channel that energy and passion toward developmental programs like finding a vaccine for malaria, eliminating poverty, improving UPE/USE, building better roads and bridges, rural electrification, etc. Instead of having Mr Amama Mbabazi give long, ho-hum press conferences on the punitive measures against “rebel” MPs, why not have him crisscross the country to generate support for the proposed Vision 2040? That is a far better use of the Vice President’s time and prowess, for it serves to ameliorate present day national political, economic and social challenges and paints a better picture of a government at work for the people.
One more thing: the elimination of a sitting MP from a Political Party in Uganda carries with it enormous consequences, including the potential for losing one’s seat in Parliament. There is now an overt effort by NRM leadership to depose these “rebel” MPs from their seats, and declare by-elections to replace them. This is absurd. The suggestion that a democratically elected Member of Parliament can be booted out from his seat because he dared to say things that Party leadership disagree with flies in the face of democratic principles and the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution. The continual persecution of these MPs only amplifies the narrative posited by the Opposition that NRM is an intolerant Party which will go to the ends of the earth to crush dissent. Punishment for misconduct, as defined and accepted by Party Members, is in order, but seeking the ouster of a Party member from his Parliamentary seat crosses the line and smacks of petty personal vendettas unbecoming of elected representatives. We hope that Speaker Kadaga and the Electoral Commission will be courageous enough to reject this misguided effort by NRM leadership, and uphold the will of the people represented by these four MPs.
UPDATE: On Thursday, May 2, 2013, the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga ruled that the four MPs expelled from the NRM Party cannot lose their seats in Parliament. She said, “I am not persuaded and I will not direct the Clerk to Parliament to declare the MPs’ seats vacant.” Her ruling was celebrated by the so-called “rebel” MPs, and hailed by many observers as constitutional. We congratulate Speaker Kadaga for her courage to uphold the Constitution, despite the political risk of ruffling NRM leadership’s feathers. Bravo, Speaker Kadaga.