Asuman Basalirwa: From defiant Opposition activist to a lobbyist?

Bugiri Municipality MP Asuman Basalirwa (centre) attends Speaker Anita Among’s (right) birthday party in Kampala in November 2022. PHOTO/ COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Before he arrived in Parliament five years ago, the youthful Asuman Basalirwa had been identified as a paragon of Opposition defiance politics, but having taken a seat in the House, the Bugiri Municipality legislator seems to have toned down his fire.

Asuman Basalirwa’s first shot at Parliament was in 2006, but it was Abdul Balingira Nakendo of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) who took the day, cruising to victory in Bukholi North, Bugiri District.
Nakendo’s happiness was short-lived as his victory was cancelled after all courts – High Court, Court of Appeal, and Supreme Court – agreed with Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) stalwart Patrick Mwondha that Nakendo’s academic papers were forged.
The by-election organised in 2008 gave him another chance to come to Kampala as an MP but still, NRM’s Stephen Baka Mugabi, who came in as Nakendo’s substitute, foiled those plans. 
Mugabi defeated him in the 2011 elections and he lost to Gaster Mugoya, who stood on the NRM ticket after the party had dumped Mugabi.

Though Basalirwa had started his political career by winning the Makerere University’s guild presidency, this string of electoral losses had ensured his name was synonymous with losing, as Makerere’s victory was by then a faint memory.  
Questions were posed if Basalirwa would ever translate his oratory and political skills that had seen him gain traction with the urban populace into electoral victory in rural Bugiri.   
Despite losing at the ballot, and sometimes miserably, Basalirwa’s credibility within the Opposition ranks was on the upward spiral. 
In 2010, when he was 33 years old, Basalirwa was appointed Justice Forum, or Jeema’s president, replacing former presidential candidate Mayanja Kibirige, thus joining other party leaders like UPC’s Olara Otunnu and Democratic Party’s (DP) Norbert Mao, for whom the Makerere guild leadership provided a stepping stone to the national stage.

Basalirwa, a lawyer, was a key cog in Opposition activism: If he wasn’t in the streets defying security forces, he was always available to rescue Opposition activists who had been jailed. By 2013, Basalirwa, whose models included Opposition doyen Kizza Besigye, former Makindye West MP Hussein Kyanjo, and former South African president Nelson Mandela, epitomised his belief in activism and defiance. 
After the 2016 general election, the People Power Movement which would later morph into National Unity Platform (NUP) led by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, got him out of the blocks.
In 2017, Kyagulanyi won the Kyadondo East parliamentary elections and sensed an opportunity to influence the politics of this country as the 2021 elections were getting closer. Government had carved Bugiri Municipality from Bukholi North and this presented Basalirwa another chance to come to Parliament.

This time they had made his work easy as the rural parts that had given him a headache, as they were NRM strongholds, had remained in Bukholi North. Kyagulanyi’s movement that was spotting the red berets and red overalls embraced Basalirwa on the account that it was time for the young generation to takeover.

L-R: Jeema leader Asuman Basalirwa, NUP leader Robert Kyagulanyi, Kampala Lord Mayor Elias Lukwago and former FDC president Kizza Besigye during the launch of the United Forces of Change in 2020. PHOTO/ COURTESY

Propelled by the People Power Movement energy and enabled by smaller constituency that has 28 polling stations and a total of 16,222 registered voters, Basalirwa easily defeated NRM’s Francis Oketcho with a difference of 3,267 votes.
Basalirwa also easily won re-election in 2021 having forged an alliance with NUP. The belief was that with Basalirwa’s political skills, the Opposition which is outnumbered in Parliament by NRM would be able to put up a fight in Parliament, but as he serves his first full term there is a sense of disappointment within the Opposition ranks on how he has gone about his work.

“I can’t answer for him. It’s best you ask the Leader of Opposition [in Parliament] because he can evaluate the work of MPs,” says David Lewis Rubongoya, NUP’s secretary general, when asked about his impressions of the Bugiri Municipality MP. 
Though Rubongoya didn’t want to comment about Basalirwa’s close relationship with Speaker of  Parliament Anita Among and Moses Magogo, her partner, it has left many within Opposition ranks wondering what has become of this former Opposition activist.
Basalirwa’s face was prominent when Among was celebrating her birthday last year. Among is the Woman MP for Bukedea District, and in addition to being president of the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (Fufa), Magogo is also the MP for Budiope East, Busoga sub-region – the same sub-region Basalirwa emerges.
In January, Basalirwa together with a motley crew of MPs, accompanied Among as she traversed Teso sub-region, holding a number of fundraising ceremonies.
In his defence, Basalirwa in a phone interview said he wasn’t doing anything that’s unusual.

“In Teso, there was fundraising of honourable Peter Ogwang [State minister for Sports]. Honourable Ogwang is a member of the parliamentary sports club where I’m chairman. In fact, we play on the same team. We have been everywhere, not only in Teso,” Basalirwa said.  
On being close to Magogo, who belongs to the NRM, Basalirwa’s explanation is simple: “Honourable Magogo was born in Bugiri and is a relative of mine. So, you don’t want me to associate with him yet he is a relative and also a fellow Muslim? We play with Magogo football.”
The decision by Basalirwa to hobnob with Among and Magogo could have split his party with some members supporting the move while others oppose it.

“The best way one can be a good legislator is by being in good books with the Speaker,” said Jeema’s spokesperson Abdunoor Kyamundu. “If you want to present a Bill or something that really matters, you have to first go and talk to the Speaker who will put it on the order paper. If you don’t have a good relationship with the Speaker, then how will your issues come up on the order paper?” 
Siraje Kifampa, a member of Jeema’s national executive committee, wasn’t in agreement with Kyamundu’s position.
“As the party, we don’t condone honourable Basalirwa’s decision to party with Among and also move with Magogo. We have told him time and again to be careful but he has continued to do as he wishes,” Kifampa says. 

While Basalirwa thinks nothing of his frequent appearances in the company of Among and Magogo on different functions and parties, the optics aren’t quite right, more so at a time when the Speaker has fallen out with a number of NUP MPs.
By last year, Among had fallen out  with Francis Zaake, the Mityana Municipality MP. Among then accused Zaake of firing off a tweet that seemingly scorned her. Zaake was later ousted from the Parliamentary Commission after Parliament adopted the report of the Committee on Rules, Discipline, and Privileges presented by Abdu Katuntu, the Bugweri County MP.

Among has also clashed with NUP spokesperson Joel Ssenyonyi over the presentation of the report on the management of Uganda Airlines. 
Ssenyonyi, the Nakawa West MP, who heads the Public Accounts – Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) that investigated Uganda Airlines, accused Among of refusing to put the issue on the order paper.

“I’m told Speaker Anita Among called some of my committee members to her office and asked them to start a censure motion against me for indiscipline and disobeying the Speaker’s orders. During the Uganda Airlines inquiry, she wrote to me, guiding me to lock the media out,” Ssenyonyi wrote on his verified Twitter handle.
Among, on the other hand, said she couldn’t put the report on the order paper because Ssenyonyi or his committee members had leaked it.
“There was a leak of a report. A report, which is a property of Parliament, cannot leak and we continue debating it. We are going to adopt the Auditor General’s report and recommendations on Uganda Airlines. We are going to investigate who leaked that report,” the Speaker said.

She went ahead to accuse Ssenyonyi, who is making his debut in Parliament, of being lazy. “Joel, you have not done what I expected of you; you have been a little lazy. Out of 107 Auditor General reports, the committee has only considered four entities. I don’t want to say shame on us, the Parliament, but shame on you, Cosase, because we have invested a lot of money in the committee, and I am going to ask for a value-for-money audit on PAC [Public Accounts Committee]-Cosase,” Among said. 
Asked what he makes of his idea of fraternising with the Speaker who is at loggerheads with his allies, Basalirwa’s said: “What is the position of the Opposition on that? That we don’t associate with the Speaker?” 
“Because it’s not a matter that has been discussed in the Shadow Cabinet or the Opposition caucus where I’m a member. It has not come up because you would say you are defying either the official position or you are defying the Shadow Cabinet,” Basalirwa said.

Bobi Wine (left) of the People Power Movement joins Jeema’s Asuman Basalirwa (2nd left) on the campaign trail in Bugiri in 2018. PHOTO/ FILE

He added: “You ask the LoP [Leader of Opposition] if we have a position of shying away from the Speaker because of clashes with individual MPs then you will accuse me of defying the position of the official Opposition.”
It’s not the first time Basalirwa is accused of being close to the incumbent Speaker. In the 10th Parliament, he was close to Rebecca Kadaga and even when Opposition stalwart Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda declared his intentions to stand for the speakership in the 11th Parliament, Basalirwa didn’t support him.
In fact, he stood on the floor of Parliament and declared “I’m team Kadaga” as the Kamuli Woman MP was getting ready to face off with the late Jacob Oulanyah who emerged as the winner and died shortly.

Basalirwa doesn’t see any contradiction here. “Let me (tell) you my brother [this writer]: Kyanjo taught me one thing and that’s by the way our philosophy as Jeema. Which Speaker hasn’t (he) been close to? Tell me. I have had a working relationship with Kadaga. I have had a working relationship with Oulanyah. Any way it’s by the nature of the work we do,” Basalirwa says. “For example, I’m chairperson of Muslim Parliamentary Caucus, everything that goes to the Office of the Speaker and it’s Muslim-related, I’m the contact person. So, what do I do?”

Morphed from activist
Yet hawk-eyed observers insist that Basalirwa has morphed from the activist that he was before he joined Parliament. Basalirwa the firebrand participated in the 2011 walk-to-work protests and would sometimes punch the air with clasped fists, targeting an imaginary foe in a show of his defiance. 
Yet when the Opposition led by Besigye launched the red card campaign which was aimed at rallying Ugandans to pile more pressure on the ruling NRM, Jeema premises were used to host its activities but Basalirwa, the party’s supremo, never appeared.
There are two theories that have been advanced as to why he never appeared. The first is that Basalirwa was pressured by his NUP allies not to attend the activities as they were being championed by the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
The second theory that Basalirwa is advancing is that he was trying to show that institutions work within his party. 

“The problem with you [this writer] the NRM has spoilt you. You think I’m Jeema and Jeema is me. If I was against the red card movement why did I allow them to be there?” Basalirwa says, further explaining that he was a no-show on red card activities as he wanted to expose Jeema’s secretary general Muhammed Kateregga to the limelight as he was warming up to stand in the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala ) elections.