Opposition legislators on a sit-down strike in February 2022 after a walkout from parliament protesting torture. Photo: The Independent.

In the wake of multiple  accounts of torture, while in State custody, by survivors including the dissident author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, Opposition Members of Parliament led by the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Mathias Mpuuga saw it fit to censure the Security Minister, Hon. Jim Muhwezi. Specifically, Hon. Mpuuga cited the Minister’s inaction despite widespread reports of torture, some of which were tabled by Hon. Mpuuga in the Minister’s presence. Ultimately, the motion to censure the Minister failed as it lacked the requisite support from the rest of the House.

Rule 109(3) of the Rules of Procedure of Parliament, provides for a list entitled SIGNATURES IN SUPPORT OF THE CENSURE MOTION AGAINST HON…MINISTER OF…IN THE REPUBLIC OF UGANDA. The Members of Parliament that sign on this list express support for the motion and once at least one third of the Members have signed on this list, the Sergeant at Arms forwards the list to the Clerk to Parliament who subsequently transmits it to the Speaker of the House.

The motion to censure the Security Minister, Hon. Jim Muhwezi for his inaction in response to widespread reports of torture implicating government security agents, garnered less than the required 176 signatures. The Government Chief Whip, Hon. Thomas Tayebwa took to Twitter to announce that the motion had only received 88 signatures, none from the NRM ruling party and he thanked the NRM Parliamentary caucus for this show of unity in support of the Minister, who is a historical NRM cadre.

Curiously, the Chief Whip mentioned that 20 opposition MPs refused to sign. He welcomed evidence of dissent in opposition ranks though he was silent about how this dissent was tolerated. Hon. Tayebwa’s public response is telling, given that in the 9th Parliament he lamented about how dissent was not tolerated within the NRM. 

In an interview, concerning complaints by MPs that party caucuses did not tolerate dissent, for the Our Parliament radio show, Hon. Tayebwa, who spoke as Ruhinda North MP in the 9th Parliament revealed how intolerance for dissent particularly in the ruling party was evident. 

If me as an MP I can’t speak what of the common person? I have immunity on the floor of Parliament but I am afraid of the repercussions. Today someone asked me, “after what you said yesterday haven’t you received calls?’ And this was a fellow Member of Parliament asking, trying to know if there were any repercussions. Look who sent me here?! The people of Ruhinda North!”

The NRM party enjoys an outright majority in the 11th Parliament so the success of the motion to censure the Security Minister relied on dissent from a sizable number of NRM MPs; it is therefore critical to ask whether such dissent is possible within NRM ranks. Particularly, in light of growing public demand for accountability for rights abuses and the government’s inaction in this regard. 

It is for this reason that Hon. Tayebwa’s comments from 2016 are relevant as they reveal to what extent dissent is possible in NRM ranks, in the event that such dissent promotes accountability for rights abuses. The quote below offers added insight into how Hon. Tayebwa viewed the manner in which the NRM caucus precluded dissent.

“You are talking like this but when you reach Entebbe they will tell you to stop talking and you will stop. Meaning the people already know you can’t hold an independent view. Even if you are strong, the view of the leaders of the party will prevail. We need to change that because we are going to be very weak ambassadors of the party, the party will have us as its MPs but who can’t sway public opinion.”

For a contrasting perspective which is critical in any new story, we interviewed the Opposition Whip in the 10th Parliament, Hon. Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda. Hon. Nganda argues that intolerance for dissent stems from the leadership of the party.

“It is not that the caucus is gagging them, the problem in NRM is that their Chairman gags them. They fear to point him out and blame the caucus instead. Caucus means all of you sit and generate a decision, how can you say you're gagged? Then you will say Parliament gagged us because that is also how we make decisions in Parliament: you sit and make a decision, and it becomes a decision of Parliament whether you [personally] agree to it or not. So, nobody can say they are gagged by a caucus; you are either gagged by the leadership of your caucus or the leadership of your party.”

One of the considerations for how sources for the Our Parliament radio show are chosen, is on the basis of authority on the issue at hand. To this end, it was necessary to interview the NRM Caucus spokesperson in the 9th Parliament, Hon. Hamson Obua, who explained to our Journalist Gabriel Iguma, how the NRM Caucus dealt with dissent.

Iguma’s question: “Are there examples of occasions where the caucus disagreed with the position of the party chairman and President of the country?

A recent case was the clash between the President as party Chairman and Members of the NRM regarding the appointment of Ministers. He summoned a caucus meeting at State House Entebbe where he was appealing to Members of his political family to support the appointment of the Vice President and that of the Prime Minister and also an appeal was made to the Members of the Appointments Committee of Parliament to approve nominees for Ministers. In that meeting a very heated debate ensued where Members questioned, one, the number of ex officio Members of Parliament appointed by the President. And two, the appointment of Members of the opposition into the cabinet. Because, Members were arguing that we are in a multi-party political dispensation, where the winner takes it all and the NRM won almost everywhere and at every level,” Hon. Obua responded.

Evidently, during the 10th Parliament there were concerns expressed by party members of a growing intolerance for dissent within the NRM. These concerns have resurfaced in the 11th Parliament, following the failure of the censure motion against Hon. Muhwezi. This was due to the fact that not a single NRM MP voted in support of the motion. As such, it is now increasingly likely that no duty bearer will be held accountable for documented rights abuses.

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