Inside the battle for workers’ union

Left to right: Mr Moses Mauku, the incoming Notu treasurer general; Mr Peter Werikhe, the outgoing secretary general, and Mr Stephen Mugole, the acting chairman general during the meeting that impeached Mr Usher Wilson Owere in Kampala on November 15 while inset is impeached Notu chairperson general, Usher Wilson Owere. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The impeached Notu chairperson has accused his political foes of plotting to eject him and instal puppets in order to prevent finance-related and maladministration scrutiny.

This afternoon, at about 2:30pm, top labour union leaders are expected to assemble at the main boardroom of the Gender and Labour ministry in Kampala to discuss a raft of governance issues afflicting operations of workers’ associations in the country.

On one side of the gleaming hardwood table will be the line ministers and permanent secretary, or their assignees, while already sparring leaders of various workers’ groups and their national umbrella body, Notu, will sit on the other side.

Notu, the popular acronym by which the National Organisation of Trade Unions in Uganda is known, comprises 34 affiliates, each with own executives and all of them individually represented on the nationally body.

Officials of two dozens of these unions attended an extraordinary meeting on November 16 and afterwards announced that they had ousted Mr Usher Wilson Owere, their national chairman general of 14 years.

Allegations peddled against him, which he denies, include incompetence, intrigue and dictatorship as well as imposing policies on members, and unlawfully holding out both as titular head and spokesperson of all workers.

“Those people [who engineered Owere’s removal from office] are positioning themselves to capture workers’ organisations for their self-interest,” Mr Owere said last night, “I am calling up all workers of Uganda to be very alert and we shall not allow detractors to disorganise workers’ organisations and derail their cause.”

Organisers of today’s meeting anticipate tempers will likely flare, considering the acrimonious fall-out from the purported removal of Mr Owere, who insists he is in-charge because, in his words, the general council that purported to expel him was convened illegally and in violation of a court order stopping it.

In turn, he accuses his political foes, among them outgoing Notu General Secretary Peter Werikhe, elected last year to represent Bubulow West in the 11th Parliament, of plotting to eject him and instal puppets in order to prevent finance-related and maladministration scrutiny.

We could not independently ascertain veracity of the allegations levelled by one side against the other, which each denies.

Our investigations, however, revealed that seeds of wrangles among Notu executives, and between the secretariat and some affiliates, matured partly because the last meeting of its highest organ, the general council, was convened in December 2019.

From then to-date, concerns about policy and governance have not found expression at a platform where they can be democratically resolved. That council is supposed to six every six months, but for unexplained reasons hasn’t, leading to piled up grievances eating away the soul of workers whose labour powers the growth and development of the country.

In addition, there are varied versions of Notu constitution in ways different officials pick the kind whose provisions favour them in the event of dispute, meaning disagreements have gained new lease of life through legal pathways.

For instance, Notu constitution bars its executives from engaging in partisan politics and in the case of general secretary, the officer bearer is not to hold another full-time office. 

However, Mr Werikhe in contravention of the rules stayed put as general secretary even after being sworn in as Bubulo West lawmaker, leading to an internal revolt to push him out.

In an interview for this article, he told this publication last evening that he was being targeted and “crucified” unfairly.

“The constitution applies to everyone. Page 28 of the schedule three of the constitution of Notu says any leader of the national centre shall not be a member of political party or any partisan office. He or she shall relinquish his or her position in the national centre. Isn’t Owere a national leader? Did you know that he contested for the Member of Parliament for Workers post? All these leaders including [ex-minister] Charles Bakkabulindi should have resigned? Did they resign? Why are they only crucifying me?” he said.

We were unable to reach Mr Bakkabulindi for explanation on why he never resigned.

Today’s meeting at Gender and Labour ministry is, to among, other things seek clarifications on change of officers of labour unions and holding of union meetings and deliberate on way forward, according to agenda contained in the invitation letter that Mr Apollo Onzoma signed on behalf of PS Aggrey Kibenge.

The matters up for discussion and decision are not new. One Wednesday, on May 18, Notu executives and representatives of affiliate unions gathered for two days at Maria Flo Hotel in Masaka City, some 130 kilometres west of Kampala.

Their focus: resolve the unions’ intractable problems.  And there were a myriad, among them, power fights, alleged misuse of finances and lack of accountability, usurpation of the powers of union officials and committee/organs and, in the case of the latter, failure to organise relevant meetings.

As a result, comradeship and solidarity which glue members and power unions had withered to an extent that rivalry and divisions among bickering officials replaced Notu’s motto of unity.

Participants wrangled over whether to keep the Masaka meeting a workshop or adjust it as a general council, in which case it would pass binding policy decisions. Following rancorous debate, it was stayed as a workshop despite those present being the same members to constitute a general council.

With much talk and little action, sources that attended the meeting told this newspaper that they formed a nine-member committee led by Mr Robert Wanzusi, who otherwise heads the National Union of Infrastructural, Civil Works and Wood Workers (NUICWWW), to investigate the disease killing the workers’ bodies.

Other members included Ms Susan Alum, Mr Ezra Kanyana, Ms Rose Kakonge, Mr David Kamusaala, Mr Emmanuel Bigirimana, Ms Jenepher Nassali, Mr Charles Walakira and Mr Sam Masaba.

Their brief was singular: establish what had gone wrong with Notu and its governance. However, in its 38-page report dated June 8, the ad hoc committee reported that it ran into headwinds, including funding denial and stalled administrative clearance, which delayed start of their inquiries.

They pointed an accusing finger at Mr Werikhe, the outgoing Notu general secretary and head of the secretariat, who yesterday dismissed the Wanzusi-led committee as illegal and improperly-constitute and whose work was inconsequential.

The findings in that report, which the authors conceded were “not binding”, have not been tabled for discussion because the secretariat has reportedly stalled convening such a meeting.

Asked yesterday about his adverse mentions by the ad hoc committee, Mr Werikhe said “there was no committee … that was a workshop and you don’t go to the workshop and come up with a resolution and discuss it …”

“They [Wanzusi team) have to wait for another workshop to present their report if they feel so. A workshop report is presented in a workshop meeting and a board meeting is supposed to be presented in a board meeting,” he said.

In broad-stroke findings, the report shows that members flagged the leadership of Notu as the “major problem” alongside failures to plan and to act in time to given challenges.

To them, Notu was unable to advance workers’ causes when needed on different fronts. It also posted a less-than-satisfactory performance on its eight core functions, among them, formulating policy relating to the proper management of labour unions and the general welfare of employees, coordinating and supervising the activities of the federation in order to ensure that undertakings entered on behalf of its affiliated labour unions are duly honoured.

Members also voiced concern about the failure to convene meetings of various Notu organs and committee Participants such as General Council and Annual Delegates’ Conference to discuss pertinent issues.

The Executive Board was accused of usurping the roles of Notu and “… the Board was being used to create a false form of compliance to the constitution”.

“This way supervision and policy formulation in Notu was curtailed, thereby, creating room for exploitation of the situation in the interest of the few and at the expense of the common good,” the report reads in part.

The Wanzusi committee noted that stakeholders that they interviewed voiced concerns about Notu’s “failure or deliberate refusal to supply them with a certified copy of the constitution, thereby, generating confusion in governance of the centre given the multiplicity of different versions of the Notu constitution in circulation”.

In the report, the committee added: “The constitution is manipulated to undermine proper governance; every time an organ meeting is called, the secretariat engaged into unfair pre-meeting mobilisation to build positions that must be adopted by the organ meeting called, which practice is normally based on deception, intrigue and blackmail. They explained that Notu constitution was changed prior to registration to, among others, remove the powers of the chairman general and that Notu was in a state of capture and … being used against its own people and the cause it was established to advance.”

The report also accuses Workers’ MPs of morphing larger than the electorate and seeking to unduly influence, and in some cases, undermine operations of labour organisations.

Trade unions said they had suffered “serious setbacks” in organising and representing members due to employers’ denial of access to workers for trade union officials, and intimidation, harassment and victimisation by employers of employee subscribing to labour unions.

The committee also faulted the government for failing to respect labour rights and hesitating to enhance salaries of workers on the basis that it would adversely affect investors.

According to multiple sources, the Masaka meeting constituted the Wanzusi ad hoc committee to study the problems of Notu and affiliate members, interface with relevant stakeholders on the strategies of resolving the problems, propose ways to bolster Notu and its affiliate members, and report with blueprint on the way forward.

Mr Richard Bigirwa, whom the November 16 impugned general council elected as incoming Notu secretary general, in response to accusations that he was in cahoots with Mr Werikhe, some workers’ legislators and a minister, retorted:
“He (Owere) just wants to run away because the reality is that he has failed to manage Notu affairs. We have had three councils and he has failed to manage them and just adjourns them. The unions are losing a lot of resources and our employers are getting tired of our requests for meetings and we cannot continue like this.

A person who cannot even make a decision, who cannot chair the organisation, the council cannot continue with him,” he said by telephone.

The changes caused by the November 16 meeting, according to insiders, would place two key positions --- of chairman general and treasurer general --- with powers to co-sign off Notu’s money in the hands of sibling; Mr Stephen Mugole and Mr Moses Mauku.

Mr Mauku said they were duly elected through proper procedure and no law in Uganda bars qualifying brothers from occupying any office.

“Let the people blaming us blame the general council that elected the two brothers … The brothers did not elect themselves, they did not propose their names. Some members of the council proposed the names, other seconded the names and they were elected unanimously.”

Some of the problems in Notu
• Power fights
• Alleged misuse of finances 
• Lack of accountability
• Usurpation of the powers of union officials and committee/organs 
• Failure to organise relevant meetings.
 


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