BUKENYA: Parliamentary fistfights and the height of inoracy

Friday October 6 2017

Ugandan lawmakers fight in the Parliament in

Ugandan lawmakers fight in the Parliament in Kampala on September 26, 2017 over the presidential age limit amendment bill. Some were opposed to the debate on the proposal to change the constitution to extend the president’s rule. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I said in Accra, Ghana, in 1995, that if people cannot talk over matters, they will fight over them.

My presentation, ‘Avenues of Discourse’, was on the crucial importance of oracy, the skill of efficient oral communication, in every aspect of our lives.

I do not know if anyone took me seriously. But now the frequency, intensity and irrationality of apparently politics-related violence, even at our doorsteps, demands serious reflection, and action.   

We writers are, however, used to being Cassandras.

Cassandra was the glamorous princess, a daughter of King Priam of Troy, who was gifted/cursed with the power of prophecy.

The light deity Apollo had endowed her with an infallible vision of future events, but when she turned down his amorous advances, he added the rider that no one would ever believe her predictions.

So it appears that oracist-oracle Austin Bukenya predicted that a time may come when we find ourselves fighting and recklessly wrecking our bodies and properties, if we do not learn how to talk matters over. No one seems to have taken him seriously. But the voice should keep crying out in the wilderness.

“Ashakum” we say in Kiswahili when we find ourselves compelled to mention the unmentionable. Certainly what transpired last week in Kampala, the little wood of the impalas, demands an “ashakum” if it is to be mentioned. Parliament House, in whose gallery I first sat in 1962 on a school study visit, lies right at the heart of the city.

It is, indeed, an august (venerable) house, both in structure and in the business transacted therein. Or so it was until mayhem and chaos erupted there last week.

I need not narrate in detail what transpired in the “august” House, since it was relayed live all over the world. The obscenity of MPs jumping on to the Despatch Desk, where matters are tabled for debate, and threatening their colleagues with microphone stands, the slugging matches where the “Honourables”, as they call them here, traded blow for blow, accusations of lawmakers smuggling firearms into the Chamber — it is all too painful to even mention, let alone narrate.

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) responded to all this by banning all live transmissions from Parliament, leaving one wondering if the fault lay with the media or with the barbaric “Honourables”. But that appears to be the nature of these things.

I was once introduced as a “writer” to a very important personage in one of the past Kenyan regimes, who was, however, notorious for his unruly behaviour. Instead of saying “hello”, the big man went for me, in the name of all “writers” (which meant “journalists” to him), who spread rumours and lies about important people.

It was obvious the man was drunk, since we were at a party where drinks were flowing freely. I was strongly tempted to tell him point blank that maybe if these important people tried to remain sober, in public at least, the writers would have nothing to “malign” them about. But common sense and self-preservation prevailed and I held my peace. After all, he was a much bigger man than I. 

But back to the parliamentary fracas, what most astonished me is that it all started with a mere number: 75. That signifies the upper age-limit, in years, at which a candidate may stand for the office of President. It is stipulated in Article 102(b) of the 1995 Constitution. That is clear enough.

But, for reasons best known to themselves, many members of the NRM ruling party are now saying that the Constitution should be amended to remove that clause and allow people to run for the office at any age. The response of the Opposition to this proposal has been strikingly hard-line and confrontational, condensed in the Kiganda imperative slogan: Togikwatako (don’t touch it), meaning the Constitution.

The battle lines were drawn, but few had expected that it would be other than what it was supposed to be, a parliamentary one, where each side would speak for its position. After all, Parliament is from French “parler”, to speak. But alas, the strategy of some MPs was to try and prevent any talk about the matter, thus leading to the disruptive behaviour that culminated in the ugly scenes witnessed in the House.

The matter has since escalated, with a chunk of members being suspended from Parliament, and the rest of the Opposition legislators boycotting the sessions, where the motion is being “debated”. Grenades have been thrown at the houses of at least three MPs, including that of the popular musician, Bobi Wine (aka Robert Kyagulanyi). Other MPs have been chased away from public gatherings, like funerals, where the crowds differed with them about the age-limit issue.

Most sadly, a group of primary school children was recently attacked and whipped by a rowdy mob, apparently because they were wearing red head-dresses as part of their ceremonial uniforms. Red has been adopted as the colour of those opposed to removal of the age-limit. You might have seen some of the parliamentary “warriors” sporting red bandannas and tarbushes during the fight. The innocent children were on their way to entertain guests at a police gala at Nkumba University near Entebbe.

A little glimmer of hope in this sad tale is that the National Elders Forum has come up to get the opposing sides to discuss matters like the grownups that they are supposed to be. Among the elders involved I noted a few of my acquaintances, like Dr Maggie Kigozi, former Director of the country’s Investment Authority, the eminent Tanzano-Ugandan educationist Daisy Buruku (née Sykes) and retired Chief Judge and poet, Justice James Ogoola. Also included is my friend Stephen Akabway, a former chairman of the Electoral Commission and, later, the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Justice Ogoola, Ms Buruku and Mzee Akabway were, like me, contemporaries of President Museveni in Dar es Salaam. Anyway, mind the colour of your clothes when you visit Kampala in these strange times.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]