For the last months of 2013 and the first weeks of 2014, all opposition eyes were on Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, president of the Forum for Democratic Change: who would he appoint as leader of opposition in Parliament? Would he give a second term to Budadiri West MP Nathan Nandala-Mafabi?
Or would he go for Alice Alaso, the party’s strongwoman from Serere district? And there were people like Reagan Okumu (Aswa), Odonga Otto (Aruu), and Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri).
In the end, he chose none of the above. And so, January 31 might be a difficult day for some of the opposition big shots to forget. It was the day Muntu announced his shock choice: Phillip Wafula Oguttu, the Bukooli Central MP, was the new leader of opposition in parliament.
Shock because Wafula Oguttu was only learning to find his way around parliament, this being his first term in the House. On the other hand, the above MPs had a lot in their favour, especially their fairly long experience in Parliament. Yet Muntu, in his first term as a party president, opted for Oguttu to lead a visibly ‘disjointed’ opposition then.
During his tenure, Mafabi who developed an acrimonious relationship with Muntu after their contest for the FDC presidency, did not see eye-to-eye with many MPs, both in the shadow cabinet and among the backbenchers.
This rift prevented a smooth working relationship, with some of the opposition ministers skipping shadow cabinet meetings, while some back-benchers had lost morale to attend the Parliament’s plenary sessions.
ENDING THE FEUD
According to a senior FDC member of Parliament who opted for anonymity, Oguttu was not appointed because he was the most visible or competent. Rather, his elevation was a “tactical move to avert an impasse that had been created out of the party president election.”
“So, since Oguttu was seen to be mature, and non-confrontational, he was appointed LOP to create harmony among members of the opposition and Parliament as whole,” the MP told us last week.
However, many onlookers were reluctant to understand what really Muntu was up to, in appointing LOP from Mafabi’s camp. His critics who knew about the stellar record Oguttu’s predecessors Ogenga Latigo and Nandala-Mafabi left in tasking government to explain its excesses, said he was their “underdog” who would not match them.
Others suggested that General Muntu being a ‘non-confrontational’ leader, wanted to get someone smooth enough to rub off the confrontational leadership style which Mafabi applied. Indeed, opposition MPs often stormed out of the Parliamentary chambers whenever a disagreement emerged between them and government side on most controversial matters then.
Oguttu himself conceded that he was an “underdog” to the extent that he first declined to accept his appointment.
“I came in as underdog who might not fit in the big shoes of Latigo and Nathan,” he said shortly after assuming his office in February last year.
However, he has since changed the tone, to downplay these assertions although he accepts his softness.
“When I came in, because of my soft nature, many people thought I was not going to do as much as my colleagues Ogenga and Nathan, but I know myself because I have done a lot of things in my soft nature and the record is clear,” Oguttu told us in his office on Friday.
Apart from the usual LOP’s duties, like coordinating opposition cabinet and opposition MPs, offering alternative policies, Oguttu made several promises, while assuming his office from Mafabi one year and two months ago.
The outstanding promise was to begin with pushing for enactment of laws which would lead to transparent elections in 2016.
“Some of the urgent and most important legislations we must address at the very beginning are constitutional and electoral reforms,” he announced, “The reforms are a matter of urgency that are needed to give a new electoral commission legitimacy and sufficient time to organise credible free and fair elections.”
Another heavy task Oguttu had to do was to foster unity among opposition legislators, after his predecessor Mafabi had taken a stern decision to fire all ministers of DP and UPC from the shadow cabinet over a disagreement with FDC during EALA elections in 2012.
Although he has up to now failed to deliver on his promise to push government into delivering electoral reforms, Oguttu feels he has managed to create a semblance of unity, on top of his gradual move to eliminate the ‘confrontational’ style of work he inherited.
“My first thing here [in office] was to make sure that we work as a team without bickering, and complaints – no undermining each other among the opposition. And I can confidently say that I have managed that,” Oguttu said. “We are a team, except one MP who shoots us from the back; they used to be two, but there is only one.”
Indeed in recent months, cases of the opposition fighting among themselves have become rarer. Oguttu mentions his other achievements as training opposition MPs leadership etiquette, facilitating benchmarking trips inland and abroad, and making inputs in various laws that have been passed over the last year, particularly the anti-money laundering law, and finance management act.
Benard Atiku, the shadow minister for youth and children affairs, agrees with his boss, saying: “he has done so far so well, because many questions have been put to the government and sometimes we have managed to prepare alternative policies since he inherited the office.”
One person who does not share Oguttu’s evaluation of himself is Beti Kamya, the former FDC MP for Lubaga North and now president of Uganda Federal Alliance.
Kamya, who served under Professor Ogenga Latigo as LOP, looks at Oguttu as a different politician who is “neither as visible nor as audible” as Latigo or Mafabi.
“He doesn’t really try to attract the attention while on the floor [of Parliament]” she added.
But Atiku discounts Kamya’s argument on audibility and visibility, because every person has got a “different tone of communication.”
General Muntu, who appointed Oguttu, last week defended his man, instead blaming any failure to articulate issues on the entire opposition in Parliament.
“….So, if 60 [opposition] MPs were not able to articulate issues, and they are looking at just one person, it’s an error because any member of Parliament is supposed to articulate issues, but not one specific person, LOP, because for me I am looking at a combined effort,” he said.
Muntu says the main reason he appointed Oguttu was to create cohesion among the opposition, which enhances performance.”
Muntu says, on top of achieving cohesion, Oguttu has successfully linked Parliament and the party which he says it is a very critical component in political party dispensation, because it would assist FDC to consolidate its support in areas where they have it.
According to a senior FDC member, Oguttu admitted his inadequacies in leadership because he was new in Parliament and not conversant with the gymnastics of the institution.
“However, his stronghold which has made him amiable to us despite his glaring weaknesses, he is a person who is ready to learn and ask for advice from those he believes are knowledgeable on the issues,” the party MP said.
To Masaka Municipality’s Mathias Mpuuga (Independent), Oguttu wasn’t “ready for the office”. Mpuuga was, however, hesitant to pass judgment on grounds that one year is too short a time to rate one’s performance.
“I think Oguttu can only do what is in his stride because I don’t know whether by the time he was appointed, he was prepared to be the LOP because I also take exception to the circumstances under which he was appointed,” said Mpuuga, who rejected Oguttu’s shadow cabinet position on grounds that the cabinet was already too big.
He says the opposition is still challenged in trying to come up with a clear program that will buttress its legislative agenda in Parliament and also cultivate a semblance of unity and offer possible programs that will make the country follow them.
Oguttu regrets that the government has not yet tabled electoral reforms in parliament, although he says the opposition have pushed the government.
“We failed, not because we didn’t push; we failed because government was stubborn and we are dealing with a rogue regime…” he said.
Mpuuga believes the next phase of his tenure would be a good test for Oguttu’s “leadership credentials.”
“We are going to be taking very serious legislation duty,” Mpuuga said. “We wait to see how he is going to rally the opposition into stamping their presence in the upcoming constitutional and electoral reforms.”