Parliament now irrelevant – former MP Okello-Okello

Saturday November 28 2020
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Livingstone Okello-Okello at his home in Ntinda, Kampala on Thursday, November 26, 2020.PHOTOS/ALEX ESAGALA/FILE

By AGATHER ATUHAIRE

Livingstone Okello-Okello, the former Chwa County MP, now spends his free time sitting under a tree shade at his home in Ntinda, Kampala, receiving calls from his home in Kitgum District over this issue or that.

The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) stalwart is frustrated by how his political party has turned out. After a spell of hope that followed the assumption of the party’s leadership by former diplomat Olara Otunnu in 2010, UPC came under the claws of James Akena and has been embroiled in a seemingly unending fight for leadership.

Otunnu got disenchanted with the politics of Uganda rather quickly and after five years at the helm of UPC, he announced that he would not seek a second term. That left a number of other party members to vie for the party top position, including Akena and Otunnu’s then vice, the late Joseph Bossa.

The multi-layered election exercise for the party president was still ongoing when a group that backed Akena stormed the party headquarters at Uganda House on Kampala Road and took control of affairs, installing Akena as party leader. 

Bossa took the matter to the courts of law and secured an early annulment of Akena’s ascendancy to power, but former Deputy Chief Justice Stephen Kavuma was in his element at the moment, issuing single-judge orders at the Court of Appeal.

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Okello-Okello plays with his dog at his home in Ntinda, Kampala on November 26, 2020. PHOTO/ALEX ESAGALA.

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Akena bounces back
Akena secured an order in his favour and stayed the implementation of the orders that would see him out of the party’s leadership, and he went on to control the party for five years until a panel of the Court of Appeal would – only a few months ago – ruled that Akena was illegally in office as party president and had to vacate it.

But that was not the end. Akena kept in office at Uganda House, arguing that by the time the Court of Appeal annulled his leadership, the decision was overtaken by events since the period under consideration was 2015 to 2020, and that term had already elapsed and he had already been elected for a fresh term to run from 2020 to 2025. 

Those who are continuing the legal battle that Bossa left unfinished still stick to their guns and are keen to ensure that Akena, whose hold on power at Uganda House was for an extended period protected by the police, vacates the party’s leadership.

That is just a quick review of what is happening in the political party that led Uganda at Independence in 1962, the party of Milton Obote. 

Akena – Obote’s son – made peace with President Museveni and his adversaries in the party accuse him of backing Mr Museveni’s re-election bids in 2016 and currently. 

On both occasions, UPC has not fronted a presidential candidate of its own and has not backed any other Opposition candidate.

Listening to him speak and how interested he still is in matters politics, one would imagine Okello-Okello, 77 (born February 25, 1943), would still perhaps want to engage in elective politics. But he is not encouraged by what he sees, and his party is in shambles.  

The man who represented Chwa County in Kitgum District until 2011, now whiles away the hours devising ways of resolving what he says are unending conflicts in his home area, which range from land wrangles to clan and religious clashes.

Cattle keepers from other parts of the country, he says, have worsened the land wrangles because they are willing to pay a lot of money for land, which he says has worsened land grabbing in the area.

“Land wrangles are so rampant sometimes I don’t even want to go home because of the problems I will find waiting for me. I even put my phone on silent so that I rest from people’s problems. My ears would get a problem if I picked all the phone calls.”

After the 2016 elections when these conflicts were at the peak, Okello-Okello, together with other elders from Acholi sub-region, decided to start a not-for-profit entity aimed at promoting unity in the community and encouraging the young people to participate in development activities.

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Okello-Okello reads a book in his free time at his home in Ntinda, Kampala on Thursday. Okello-Okello reads a book in his free time at his home in Ntinda, Kampala on November 26, 2020. PHOTO/ALEX ESAGALA.

It is these same problems in his war-torn home area that forced him to abandon his successful career in the civil service and join politics 25 years ago.

After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Land Economics from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, Okello-Okello started working with the Ministry of Lands, where he rose through the ranks to the prestigious positions of chief government valuer, and later Commissioner for lands.

After almost 30 years in the public service, he heeded to the “call of his people” to represent them in Parliament, having seen how he fearlessly criticised the government over the way it was handling the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-led war in the northern Uganda.

“My people saw how I would speak up for them during talks about the rebels and they urged me to go back home and contest and speak for them in Parliament,” the retired legislator says.

Okello-Okello participated in the 1996 elections, winning the seat before he was ousted by State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem in 2001. The two faced off again in 2006, and the former won and represented Chwa County again in the 8th Parliament. On their third face off in 2011, the minister was again declared winner, although Okello-Okello never accepted the results of any of the two elections that saw him out of Parliament. 

“I even told Parliament when I was leaving that there was no election in my constituency but there was an appointment,” he says.

He says in all the elections, he was always contesting against the State because President Museveni was uneasy with his criticism and didn’t want him to remain in the House. 

He gave it another shot in 2016, but this time in Kitgum Municipality, where he lost to his mentee and former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) member, Beatrice Anywar.

He says although it is time for him to rest from the stress that comes with working in Mr Museveni’s system, he cannot afford to sit and fold his hands when his people continue to suffer.

“I would have loved to rest now,” he says, adding: “Very soon I will be 78 and I don’t have the energy to deal with Museveni’s stress. But the stress is even worse when you are not doing anything about it.”

He says he would have loved to return to politics again and have a platform to raise and resolve the issues affecting his community, but that the current system is very discouraging.

 “The politics in this country has become so messy and I don’t think it is worth my time.” 

His faith in the system is even less now that the Electoral Commission has imposed a lot of restriction on the candidates in the guise to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the recently gazette electoral regulations, candidates are not allowed to physically interact with more than 200 voters. They are encouraged to campaign on radios, television and other digital platforms.

Okello-Okello says this will make it even harder for new comers and is aimed at ring-fencing positions for the incumbents.

But that is not the only discouragement. Even in Parliament, he says it is hard to accomplish anything with the way it is set up.

“An MP is only given three minutes to speak,” he says. “What can you say in three minutes?” he asks. “Parliament has become so irrelevant that it shouldn’t even be called a Parliament anymore. Mr Museveni is after numbers so that he can change the Constitution, which he has turned into a working document, at will.”

He criticises the President’s leadership, saying he has designed a system to benefit only himself at the expense of the people. He says Mr Museveni deliberately killed the system to impoverish Ugandans and reward the rich individuals who had contributed financially to their fight to obtain power.

He cites the healthcare system, which he says has no personnel, no drugs and no beds for the patients. 

He says he experienced this breakdown first hand when he recently wanted to take his brother to Lacor Hospital in Gulu and had to hire the hospital’s ambulance. One, he says, has to part with Shs800,000 for the ambulance of a government hospital to transport a patient from Kitgum to Kampala.

He says the only sector that is thriving under Mr Museveni is the road sector, which he also says is for their [those in power] benefit and mobility but not the ordinary Ugandan. 

In a book, The Bits and Pieces, Okello-Okello has a chapter that describes Mr Museveni’s government. The chapter is titled “Maximum government, minimum governance.” It explains the bloated public administration, the various security agencies and countless ministers whose role is not felt by the population.

“Look, for example, at the size of our Parliament,” he says, adding: “It is unnecessarily too big. We are over-represented in terms of figures yet not represented in actual sense. When you go to the villages, people don’t feel the government at all. The government is never there to solve their problems. That’s why they are now taking the law into their own hands,” he says.

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Okello-Okello makes a point on the floor of Parliament during the time he represented Chwa County.PHOTO/FILE.

On current affairs
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Okello-Okello is not surprised that things have turned out the way they have under Mr Museveni. He had first seen the President during his university days in Nairobi when they would take the same bus when the former was at the University of Dar es Salam.

He was always struck by how Mr Museveni would sit by himself and ignore the other students who would be discussing the politics of the time.
That, he says, made him worry when he [Mr Museveni] became President.

His worry was that such a loner would take all matters into his own hands without consulting or listening to anyone.    

But he hopes Mr Museveni will listen to someone and prepare for a peaceful transition soon before things end disastrously. 

“The country is walking along a very thin thread,” he says. “Museveni is not immortal. He will not be the last president of this country. I am now more worried about the future of this country than ever before.”
His worry is that there might not be a way out. 

He says elections will not bring about the peaceful change Ugandans desire. If it were up to him, the Opposition would not even participate in the elections whose only purpose, according to him, is to escort Mr Museveni to power. 

“Elections are not the medicine to our suffering,” he says.
He faults the elite for abandoning politics instead of providing the required leadership.

That is his greatest regret. Not being able to mentor and influence enough people to see things differently.

On Museveni: In a book, The Bits and Pieces, Okello-Okello has a chapter that describes Mr Museveni’s government.

The chapter is titled “Maximum government, minimum governance.” It explains the bloated public administration, the various security agencies and countless ministers whose role is not felt by the population.

On Parliament: An MP is only given three minutes to speak. What can you say in three minutes? Parliament has become so irrelevant that it shouldn’t even be called a Parliament anymore.

Mr Museveni is after numbers so that he can change the Constitution, which he has turned into a working document, at will,” Livingstone Okello-Okello.

Wayforward...What he would change
If he had a chance to return to politics and power, he says he would make politics less attractive financially. Money, he says, has made everybody go into politics for the wrong reasons.

He would also reduce the emoluments of MPs and reduce the size of Parliament and change the policy of affirmative action to benefit women for one term.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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