Opposition MPs slam Speaker for ‘unlawfully’ banning them

MPs during a plenary session chaired by Speaker Anita Among on November 22, 2023. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • With the boycott now into its third week, the Opposition maintain they will only return to Parliament after government responds to their concerns.

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among appeared to be on a collision course with MPs yesterday after she issued further sanctions against them for staging a boycott.

For weeks now, Opposition MPs have mounted a running protest over gross human rights abuse by State security organs, including; alleged abduction, suspected extra-judicial killings and detention without trial.

Clearly rattled by the stay-away action, Ms Among opened the Wednesday sitting with a directive that MPs must get formal clearance from her office before missing plenary sittings. She, however, did not say under what authority she was issuing the instruction.

The Speaker also ordered that whoever boycotts the plenary is effectively barred from appearing in committees, and told key accountability committees, which must be chaired by Opposition MPs, to elect stand-in leaders.

Reaction to her directives was sharp and unequivocal with some MPs, among them Busiro East representative Medard Sseggona; Bukimbiri member Eddie Kiwizera and Kira Municipality’s Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, saying Ms Among does not have such powers.

“Parliament works by resolutions and not directives. The Speaker can only refer members to the disciplinary committee for investigation if he or she feels serious breaches have occurred,” Mr Ssemujju told Daily Monitor last evening.

Responding to the question as to whether the Speaker has the authority to ban MPs who stage a boycott, Mr Sseggona responded, “no, she doesn’t; the rules don’t give her those powers”.

Mr Kwizera pointed out that “membership of committees is a preserve of party whips; it is their role to designate members through their respective political parties”. Shadow Attorney General Wilfred Niwagaba also agreed that the Speaker was acting outside her authority.  “The Speaker is the head of the institution and custodian of the Rules but there are certain matters that can only be handled by members inspite of her directives,” he said.

A week ago, Ms Among drew fire from Opposition members after seemingly invoking Article 83 of the Constitution which stipulates, among others, that a member can lose their seat for missing 15 sittings without permission from the Speaker.

The threat to expel members has gone down very badly, with the boycotting MPs staring the Speaker down. They have also invoked their inherent, and inalienable, constitutional right to peaceful protest, observing that the boycott is a legitimate form of protest.

Others referred to the fact that within the Commonwealth parliamentary family, of which Uganda’s Parliament is an active member, walk-outs and boycotts by members are accepted and legitimate practice

The member for Bukimbiri last night told Daily Monitor that “within the confines of the law, particularly Article (83) of the Constitution, a Member of Parliament may lose his or her seat if he or she is absent from 15 sittings without permission of the Speaker, but is it 15 sittings consistent or 15 times in a given period?” “The way things are, it will be difficult for the Speaker to know who has attended the House and who has not,” Mr Kwizera said, explaining that “we have an electronic system in Parliament and some members just come to clock-in and disappear from the House.”

However, on the Speaker’s travel ban, Mr Kwizera agreed “she can punish them where she has direct authority. The Speaker can use her prerogative and stop any member from travelling and she is not under any obligation to explain his or her decision.” 

Yesterday, the Speaker said “whereas we are cognisant that some members are absent from the House, I am yet to receive letters from persons who are absent from the House formally and then I either formally give permission or not depending on the circumstances”.

With the boycott now into its third week, the Opposition maintain they will only return to Parliament after government responds to their concerns.

Leader of the Opposition Mathias Mpuuga has insisted their protest is about justice for the missing or disappeared members of the National Unity Platform, persons believed to have been abducted by the security forces, and those believed to be prisoners of conscience and in detention without trial and on trumped-up charges.

Speaker Among warned that legislators who skip plenary would also not be allowed participation in the December East African parliamentary games.

“So, I am also telling the chairman of the sports club in Parliament that those who are not in the House must be out of the list, whether they are goal keepers or what. They should be gotten out of the list,” she said.  Since opposition MPs chair Parliament’s critical accountability committees, Ms Among instructed that members of these vital organs invoke Rule 203(5) of the Rules of Procedure and elect a stand-in leader.

While Speaker Among was issuing her directives, Mr Mpuuga was, according to his press secretary Mr Sadab Kitatta “attending the late [former MP] Joyce Mpanga’s funeral service at Namirembe Cathedral.” Mr Mpuuga was, therefore, unavailable for a comment.

“The LoP is a highly consultative person. If he is to communicate anything, it will be after consultations with the Shadow Cabinet and the Opposition Caucus,” Mr Kitatta said.

However, Shadow Minister for Information Joyce Bagala insisted that the Speaker’s office is fully aware of the Opposition boycott.

“Our being out of Parliament was officially communicated. The Speaker is very much aware,” Ms Bagala said.

What rules say

According to Rule 112 of the House and 113 for committees, in both there’s [the] right to be heard, Mr Kwizera said, indicating that summary action or directives by the Speaker flies in the face of the rules. Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake last evening was the speaker is out of order. “She has no authority whatsoever [to ban MPs from committees] unless she’s an absolutist,” he said.