MISSING UGANDANS: How will plenary absenteeism affect protesting Opposition MPs?

Because of the continued strike and absence of opposition MPs in plenary, the Speaker moved to stop the striking MPs from attending committee sittings and official travels abroad until they change their minds.

For the last two weeks, political talk shows and opinions in the media have been discussing the decision by the Speaker of Parliament Anita Annet Among to remove opposition Members of Parliament from the August House because of their continued strike against the sustained human rights abuse in the country including the failure by government and security agencies to account for missing Ugandans, many presumed to be under military detention.

Even with the opposition MPs already missing six sittings, the Leader of Opposition (LOP) in Parliament Mathias Mpuuga still holds his guns leading his team into a continuous boycott of plenary sittings until the government accounts for 18 missing Ugandans.

Because of the continued strike and absence of opposition MPs in plenary, the Speaker moved to stop the striking MPs from attending committee sittings and official travels abroad until they change their minds.

In fact, on 27th November 2023, Bamunanika County Robert Ssekitoleko became the first victim of the Speaker’s directive calling for the exclusion of MPs who are boycotting plenary to attend committee sitting when the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee chair, West Budama County North East MP Fox Odoi evicted him from the meeting.

With the government adamant about addressing the grievances of the MPs, and the Speaker coming hard on the striking MPs, how far with the strike can the opposition MPs go? It is noted that if an MP misses 15 consecutive plenary sittings, the legislator loses their seat in Parliament and a byelection is held for the constituency to elect a new MP.

The Kipoi precedence

In the history of Uganda’s parliament, one MP has lost his seat under this rule, Tony Kipoi. At the time, in 2014, Kipoi was representing Bubulo West when he missed the maximum 15 consecutive plenary sittings. He missed the sittings because he had been arrested and detained in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over several alleged criminal offenses.

The process to remove an MP from Parliament  

The Parliament is given the mandate to boot out any legislator under Article 83 (1) (d) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda. Setting a rigorous process to be followed to successfully remove an MP from his or her seat, Parliament enlisted everything under Rule 112 of the Rules of Procedure.

The rules provide that for a legislator to be out of the House and the Committee meetings, he or she must seek leave of absence in writing to the Speaker who shall also either grant or reject the request in writing depending on the justification in the request.

Rule 112 (5) also provides that the Whip of a political party to which the MP intending to be away subscribes can also inform the Speaker of his or her absence and the circumstances leading to that.

After the Speaker learns of the continued absence of a legislator without permission, he or she shall issue a warning to the member and this warning is read out during a sitting of Parliament.

In the 10th Parliament, then Speaker Rebecca Kadaga issued such a warning during a plenary sitting to the former Youth MP for Eastern region, Isma Mafabi whom she accused of disappearing from Parliament without leave of absence for a long time.

Mafabi would later apologize to the Speaker and continued to attend plenary until his term ended in May 2021.

Following the Speaker’s warning to the member, if he or she persistently becomes absent from the sittings of the House, such conduct shall be referred by the Speaker to the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline.

Such a member is entitled to be heard and may be represented by a lawyer while giving a defense before the Committee.

According to Rule 112(10), if the Committee finds the allegation referred to it against a Member proved, and the report of the Committee is tabled and debated in Parliament, the Member shall, based on that finding, lose his or her seat.

As a result of the decision of the House, the Clerk to Parliament then writes to the Electoral Commission indicating that there is a vacant seat so that by-elections are organized in the particular constituency for a new legislator to be elected.

A strict and overzealous Anita Among 

Since her return from maternity leave, Speaker Among has wielded a political axe in her efforts to force back the opposition MPs to the House. She announced on November 14, that the counting of 15 sittings had started and last week, she re-emphasized her earlier demand by listing more stringent measures.

The new measures include ordering the boycotting legislators out of the House Committees because they are an extension of the plenary, canceling their foreign trips, ordering that those planning to participate in the December East African Parliamentary games be dropped from the list, among others.

What MPs are saying 

As the House continues to sit, legislate, and pass Bills in the absence of the protesting opposition MPs, those on the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) side have ganged up against their opposing counterparts saying what is being done is “political activism.”

The ruling side’s lawmakers derive their anger from MPuuga’s November 24 utterances in which he described the Speaker’s latest demands as diversionary, saying his side will not engage in a verbal exchange with the Speaker who is meant to be an arbitrator between the two warring sides.

“All those threats are a diversionary and fortunately for us, we are very clear-headed in what we are doing. No constituency elected any MP on account of being an athlete or footballer.

So those small diversions as political leaders in parliament, we understand them, but we can’t be diverted. Ours is a humble call to the Speaker as a neutral arbiter to follow up on her order to the executive,” said Mpuuga.

Mpuuga said that there is no amount of comparison or juxtaposition one can make of the allowance MPs get out of travel per diem, with the lives of the people who have been killed or gone missing hence asking the Speaker to live to the expectations of neutrality that is required of her office during this fiasco.

“We aren’t going to be invited in an exchange with the Speaker. It isn’t safe for us to engage in a sparring match with the Speaker who is supposed to be a referee in this matter. As a neutral referee, our expectation of the Speaker is to demand the Executive to come and answer. Otherwise, any other matters beyond these responses are peripheral,” remarked Mpuuga.

Last Thursday, Busia Municipality’s Geoffrey Macho, an independent but NRM-leaning lawmaker, described the continued boycott by Opposition MPs from plenary sitting as political activism and alleged that they were afraid of retaliation from leading opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) leader Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine and his followers if they returned to the House.

“Politics has changed from multi-party democracy to activism and that is a very big problem in Uganda and other African countries. It beats my understanding that leaders, instead of using the power given to them by their people, they use the powers given to them by somebody called a principal because he is heading a political party,” said Macho.

Ignored by government 

Government Chief Whip, Denis Obua informed the House that there is no further response expected from the Executive since Constitutionally established entities like the Uganda Human Rights Commission and Parliament have exhaustively investigated the matters of killings, kidnaps, and forced disappearances of Ugandans as alleged by the Opposition.

“To the best of the understanding of the government, we have done our part. We would like to join you in using all the mechanisms within the Rules to compel our colleagues to come to the House. The truth is, they left this House on their own, and now they want to be aided by ourselves to bring them back [so] that we explain, we are going to politely decline. For how long are they going to stretch us? Everything has a limit,” asked Obua.

Peter Ogwang, the Minister of State for Sports wondered when Mathias Mpuuga turned into an activist, claiming that he had been a diplomat who wouldn’t resort to walking out of Parliament in case of any disagreement.

He suggested that the current stance by Mpuuga may be aimed at keeping his position as Leader of Opposition beyond the two and a half years as has been the case in previous Parliaments.

“I want to implore Mpuuga, I have a lot of respect for you, I don’t know where you have got that activism from, you are a diplomat, if it is pressure, please live to who you are. If you (Speaker) don’t stand firm, it is like this institution has become a national theatre.

We all want to accept that there is activism at play and we can’t stop activism at play. I am happy they aren’t in the House and we must continue with our business because now we are dealing with the reason why they sent us to Parliament, said Ogwang.

Speaker Among is expected to Chair the House for the third week in a row whereby the counting of the missed sittings would reach the ten-day mark by Thursday afternoon. This means, that if there is any action to be taken against any absentee legislator, it has to be before the House breaks up for Christmas break.

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