Lessons from the Supreme Court ruling on the NRM rebel MPs

Tuesday November 10 2015

By William G. Naggaga

Since 2013, the National Resistance Movement has pulled all strings available to remove Theodore Ssekikubo, Mohammed Nsereko, Barnabas Tinkasimire and Wilfred Niwagaba from Parliament. It was, however, dealt a heavy blow recently when the Supreme Court finally ruled in the rebels’ favour. The four had irritated the ruling party by daring to be independent and exposing the ‘nakedness’ within NRM. For their labour they were branded indisciplined and booted out of the party. To the NRM, these were ‘bad apples’ who had to be expunged before they spread the rottenness to the rest of the ‘good apples’.

As a lesson to others who may be tempted to follow their example, the party decided to seek the expulsion of the rebels from Parliament. Then Attorney General, Mr Peter Nyombi, wrote to Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, asking her to declare their seats vacant. According to NRM, the rebels had no place in the August house since the party that sent them there had now expelled them. Nyombi used the provisions in Article 83.1 (g) of the 1995 Constitution to support his demand for their expulsion.
Under Article 83.1 (g), a Member of Parliament “shall vacate his or her seat in Parliament if that person leaves the political party for which he or she stood as a candidate for election to Parliament to join another party or remain in Parliament as an independent member”. The NRM wanted to use this provision in the Constitution to remove the rebel MPs by equating leaving with expulsion.

The Constitutional Court, to which the MPs had sought interpretation of the said Article, declined to hear the case and referred it to the High Court. Instead of going to the High Court, however, the rebel MPs wisely decided to take their case direct to the Supreme Court. They remained in Parliament, thanks to Speaker Kadaga’s refusal to accept the Attorney General’s directive for the MPs to step aside, arguing that she wanted a definitive pronouncement from the Highest Court before she could take any action.

The Supreme Court has now ruled that the Constitutional Court erred in its interpretation of “leave” the party to include expulsion from the party. The court also ruled that given the doctrine of separation of powers, the Speaker was not bound by the directives of the Attorney General.
The rebel MPs did the country an invaluable service by insisting on pursuing the matter to its logical conclusion, even though the NRM chairman at some stage in the litigation process pardoned them and invited them back to NRM. The party also wanted them to withdraw the case from the Supreme Court, a request the MPs declined. It had dawned on the party that this was a case it would not win.

The ruling by the Supreme Court is a wake-up call to all Members of Parliament, reminding them that their primary responsibility is to the people of Uganda who sent them to Parliament and not the parties on whose tickets they ‘hitched’ a ride. They are thus free to disobey any unlawful orders or instructions from the party that do not serve the best interests of the people of Uganda.
I don’t agree with those who have argued that the ruling will create indiscipline and anarchy and render the parties ungovernable and that it would make the job of the Chief Whips almost impossible. Members of Parliament will always support party positions if those positions are in the best interests of the country.

Membership in a party imposes an obligation on the legislators to support and promote the party’s philosophy, objectives and policies, all of which should be in harmony with the Constitution and the wellbeing of the people of Uganda. They are also duty-bound to correct their leaders when they deviate from these noble objectives and policies. MPs should not be herded like sheep and turned into automated voting machines. As for the Chief Whips, they should employ persuasion instead of threats.
Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador.