Big Interview: Speaker Among treats parliament like a personal chiefdom

Big Interview
Big Interview: Speaker Among treats parliament like a personal chiefdom
Lawyer George Musisi

As the year 2023 comes to an end, numerous political analysts have been comparing the current Parliament to its predecessors, with many, including those interviewed by the Nile Post, describing it as the worst in the history of Uganda. In a conversation with Muhamadi Matovu, lawyer counsel George Musisi noted that the present Parliament has been marked by trivial matters, and the speaker herself, Anita Annet Among, has not met the expectation of Ugandans.

 

Excerpts below

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Who is George Musisi?

Counsel George Musisi is a legal practitioner, a Christian. I work with PACE advocates, mainly dealing in human rights litigation, constitutional litigation, and criminal law.

 

What are your thoughts on the current state of human rights in the country?

The current state of human rights in the country, as mentioned by Minister of Justice Norbert Mao, is at one of its lowest points since the implementation of the 1995 Constitution. This downward trend began around 2018-2019, when a significant increase in violations became apparent. While human rights violations were not uncommon before, we are now witnessing a scale of violations where the government either fails to provide explanations or appears to accept them.

Instances of torture, abductions by state agents followed by release without charges, and the detention of individuals in unapproved facilities have been observed. The issue of missing persons persists, as does the challenge of accessing justice. Many people struggle to navigate the legal system when seeking justice, particularly in cases related to land disputes. Timely remedies are vital, but access to justice remains a problem.

Although the judiciary has made efforts to address the issue by appointing more judges and opening additional courts throughout the country, the impact has been limited. Other agencies, such as the police and legal aid services, need to improve their recruitment and support systems to complement the judiciary's efforts. Consequently, courts continue to be overwhelmed with backlogged cases, hindering the timely delivery of remedies. This backlog is a prevailing issue nationwide.

In addition to the courts, there are institutions in place to protect people's rights, such as the Human Rights Commission. However, these institutions have not effectively held the government accountable for the violations that have occurred. Despite the challenges they face, the courts have made attempts to address the issues, but the Human Rights Commission has not fully fulfilled its responsibility to hold the government accountable for these violations.

 

Countries like the United States have sanctioned some individuals over alleged human rights violations. Do you think these sanctions would help reduce the rates of these violations in Uganda?

Of course, sanctioning is soft power telling you indirectly that what you are doing is wrong. Even when our officials say that they don't need to go there, the sanctions also cover their immediate families.

I know that they love going there and because it is not an ordinary Ugandan which is most affected, and yes, that's what we have always been calling for, that instead of sending sanctions which affect an ordinary person like cutting off aid, and you cut off medical aid to ordinary Ugandans, target the people you want, such that if sanctions are personal or the general public.

I always think that they should always be widened to all human rights abuses, to people beating up journalists, to people who torture others, to people who hold others incommunicado. We have seen it in the past, Gen Kale Kayihura and his people were sanctioned in the past. So I think it is a good move.

 

On the issue of the missing person that made the opposition MPs boycott Parliament for like a month, in your view, do you think the government has handled this issue well?

No, the government has not done enough, and it has not handled it well. Even Parliament itself had not handled it well because some of these people have been missing for over three years, some two years, some one year. When it comes to human rights violation, Parliament should take a stronger stand to send a deterrent message that these things should never happen again.

When it comes to human rights violations, people should be speaking with one voice because human violations have no political colour. So I don't think that the government has given a satisfactory answer because, in any case, whether it is one person missing or two, the government has a duty to account for every Ugandan.

The government has a duty to explain, not to speculate if so and so is missing, and they have to investigate. So I think the government has failed in its duty to account.

 

Do we have the necessary institutions and framework to address the issue of the missing persons in the country?

We have the laws in place to address the issue of missing persons. However, the problem lies in the lack of will to enforce them. There have been indications that state agencies were involved in some of these disappearances, as acknowledged by the police spokesperson and the Prime Minister. The necessary legal framework and capacity exist, but there is a lack of willingness to hold those responsible accountable and provide answers.

 

Some MPs are not happy with the National Unity Platform leader Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine over his remarks regarding the homosexuality Act with BBC. What do you make of his remarks?

The issue of homosexuality is a sensitive topic in Uganda, and many people hold strong opinions about it. It is often challenging to have a logical debate on the subject due to the prevailing homophobia in our society. Leaders like Kyagulanyi must strike a delicate balance between Western powers' expectations and the sentiments of the Ugandan people who oppose homosexuality.

We should differentiate between opposition to a bad law and support for homosexuality. Criticizing the law does not necessarily mean endorsing homosexuality. There are constitutional challenges to the law that are yet to be resolved in court. While some people adamantly oppose homosexuality, it is important to note that our penal code already criminalizes it. The focus should be on punishing those who promote or coerce others into engaging in homosexuality, rather than penalizing individuals based on their sexual orientation.

 

Justice Forum has called on Bobi Wine to apologize regarding the same matter. What are your thoughts on this?

It is unclear whom Bobi Wine was specifically referring to when he made his remarks, as he did not mention any names. Asuman Basalirwa was the mover of the law, but it received support from other NUP MPs as well. It is possible that he was referring to the entire group that voted for it. However, it is essential not to lose sight of the broader issue. It is true that some opposition members also have connections with the ruling party.

In Uganda, opposition leaders face immense pressure, as the government often employs tactics to disrupt their activities and sow mistrust within their ranks. Dr. Kizza Besigye, for instance, has experienced this firsthand, with individuals switching allegiances overnight. Opposition leaders must decide on the best strategy, whether it involves engagement, confrontation, or a combination of both, considering the government's efforts to undermine their operations. Effective multipartism is yet to be fully realized, as political parties struggle to function optimally and mobilize their members. In my view, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to political strategy. Each leader must make decisions based on their assessment of the political landscape and the interests of their constituents. However, it is important for leaders to maintain transparency and accountability to their supporters.

 

There has been an ongoing discussion about whether Mathias Mpuuga will come back or not. Do you think he has performed well as the leader of the opposition?

I think he has performed well. Whether to come back or not depends on the tasks that were assigned by his appointing authority, the leadership of NUP. When you appoint someone, there are expectations you have of them.

So, whether he has performed well, that is for the leadership to answer. Any leader of the opposition will face a lot of challenges, and it doesn't have to be Mpuuga alone because most of the challenges he is facing are not personal to him. He is leading not only the NUP but also other opposition parties.

His office is facilitated by the government. Some people view the parks, cars, bodyguards, and big offices as signs of selling out to the government. However, they are there by virtue of the office they hold.

 

Do you believe that his recent activism, leading opposition MPs to boycott plenaries, might increase the likelihood of him returning as the leader of the opposition, considering the alleged misunderstanding between him and his boss?

 

Well, first of all, he led a very successful boycott because it managed to put the issue of human rights violations back on the forefront of Parliament's business. I think he handled it quite well but for me, I think he shouldn't be judged solely on the basis of what he has done in the past month. I believe he should be judged based on the entire leadership he has provided during his entire tenure.

 

There have been many attempts to remove President Museveni from power by the opposition, but all these attempts seem not to be working.

Removing any entrenched government like this one is a struggle and a process. Even in history, the Roman Empire, one of the biggest dictatorships, survived for thousands of years. Every effort contributes to the cause. The efforts of Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere contributed to Besigye's success, and the late Haji Nasser Ntege Ssebagala also contributed to Besigye's success. Hon Kyagulanyi has gained from Besigye's success over time. It is a continuous process. The Uganda that Besigye found in 2001 is not the same Uganda Kyagulanyi found in 2021.

First of all, you are working with a population that is so despondent. You are leading a population that has almost accepted bad governance.

Don't you think that Ugandans are tired of empty promises made by the opposition of taking them to the promised land?

Whose duty is it? It's not Besigye or Kyagulanyi's duty to remove Museveni. We all face the brunt of bad governance. Let's consider local authorities, municipalities, or KCCA. How many people in the suburbs of Kampala have very bad roads, but they can't even hold their local leaders accountable for the state of those roads?

They will just buy bigger cars, and if there is insecurity, they will buy more dogs. We are dealing with a population that is not very civically active in terms of engaging in politics.

As a citizen, what have you done? It starts with you assuming that Kyagulanyi or Besigye have a bigger duty to remove a dictatorship. Do they have a stronger right in this country than yourself? Some of the problems the leaders face stem from the population's lack of civic activity. When Besigye calls for a demonstration and faces opposition or roadblocks, people blame Besigye. They question why he brings a demonstration when they have work.

So, I think it's part of the problem why they have failed. The population has taken a backseat when it comes to politics. The population itself is a letdown to the leaders. Additionally, we have a problem of leadership across the board, not just in the opposition.

 

Kyagulanyi has been calling upon external forces to cut donations from coming to Uganda as one way of weakening President Museveni. Do you think this move will work?

Sanctions have been proven to work over time. However, my preference is for targeted sanctions, specifically personal ones. General sanctions have the potential to affect the general population. If it's a blanket economic sanction, withdrawing all aid, I think it is not okay. It's better to have targeted sanctions that focus on individuals who abuse funds and continue to use taxpayer's money for personal trips and healthcare abroad. Targeted sanctions can also focus on the movement of money.

 

As the year comes to a close, what is your evaluation of the current parliament?

I think it has been very trivial, even the speaker herself. The other time she was giving a report of their projections of the bills they were supposed to pass, they didn't pass half of the projected bills, but we have seen them gathering on very trivial matters.

We saw them on the censure of Hon Persis Namuganza; we didn't think it was possible. It was a personal battle because she had apparently abused the speaker, and we saw Parliament sitting even on a Monday morning to send a message.

So, I think it has not lived up to the expectations of Ugandans despite the amount of money that is spent on it. And I think that it can do better.

I don't think it will do better because most of the institutions in Uganda have been trivialized. They have been personalized. Hon Rebecca Kadaga (Former Speaker) is one who started personalizing Parliament, building it in her image. Now we have seen it has been perfected by Hon Anita Among that if you annoy me, you will not talk. The other day she was saying you will not go for trips, treating Parliament like a personal chiefdom, and that was started by honorable Kadaga.

I remember her fighting with different individuals. We have seen Hon Among fighting with Zaake; even the court made not-so-nice comments about her. Parliament had to descend on Hon Namuganza as a mob to send a message to the Speaker that we are fighting with you.

You saw her telling the deputy attorney general that you will not come back here as long as I am a speaker. I think that doesn't work well in the spirit of parliamentary democracy because Parliament should be a place where people talk freely. If people talk because they have the fear of the speaker or they want to please the speaker, then it's diluted.

 

Do you think unity among the opposition is still possible?

I don't think we shall see full opposition unity under the NRM government because like I mentioned, I don't think that NRM believes in the multi-party system. I don't think so. Or President Museveni. I don't think he believes in the multi-party system. He is in it for convenience. So if he doesn't believe in it, I don't think he can let it work, ideally the way it is supposed to work.

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