In 2010, Maracha MP ALEX AADROA ONZIMA joined the ruling National Resistance Movement, after he was booted out of FDC.
He lost in the NRM primaries and won his seat as an independent. Onzima is now minister of state for local government, who has sharply criticized the recent creation of more administrative units. Sulaiman Kakaire spoke to Onzima about his stance.
When you joined government, you said this was one way of serving your people; looking back on your time in cabinet, are things the way you expected them to be?
Let me tell you, I have a banner, which is a public banner I use in my constituency and those are the things which any government anywhere in the world should do, if we are to entrench what I call practical nationalism and patriotism.
One, for any government in the world, including the government of Uganda, to always strive to narrow the bridge [gap] between the majority most disadvantaged citizens and the minority most privileged citizens.
Two, a responsible national government should instill in her citizens, hope in their future by providing sustainable quality medical services, quality formal education, food security and a secure political environment. Quality medical services and quality formal education, if not free, should affordable by bottom peasants, widows, the most vulnerable including orphans, sustainably.
I was educated by my mother who is a widow and that mother of mine who, by the grace of God, is still alive, used to grow cassava and [make] local brew; a local brew in Lugbara we kwete.
When I finished P7 and I was admitted in one of the prestigious national schools at that time, St. Joseph’s collage Ombaci; when I received my admission to go for senior one, they asked for Shs 360 for the whole term. I was told to go without a mattress.
First of all, in a class, a stream of 40 students, you would see the entire spectrum of the whole country. We had westerners in that class, we had easterners and I remember we had a Muganda and then the majority then were from Lango, Acholi and the entire West Nile.
We had these schools spread all over; of course, we had Mwiri, St Peters College Tororo, Nabumali, Teso College Aloet, Nyakasura and many others. You know the quality of education was high and distributed all over the country.
You could be in West Nile and go to Mwiri. You would finish your primary and pass even better than students who are in Kampala; the same was at O-level and A-level then you would see children of peasants doing better in those up-country schools than children of ministers, president, then they all converge at Makerere doing professional courses [like] medicine, engineering, law and so on and so forth.
So, it didn’t matter whether you were from a poor family provided that that home is blessed with a brilliant child; it is that child who will go through this quality formal education, get employed and then goes back to transform that grass-thatched home into a permanent structure. That is what I would see a government doing in Uganda, Congo, everywhere.
Today the situation has changed. It is only people who have the money, and a lot of it, who can educate their children. All these other schools have been run down, they are grounded.
My other argument is yes, we need tarmac roads, we need electricity but these are basic factors of production. So, those you can rate electricity or tarmac roads the same as quality formal education or medical services.
Therefore, this electricity must come to our door steps when the citizens are healthy and have some money in their pockets to make the best use of these factors of production.
Now, as a minister, how are we performing on these?
Of course that one there, we have a lot of work to do. Can you imagine that people who are doing some small businesses, some small shops in the village, their children are not going for primary education in West Nile… [But] to schools here in Kampala and where you have to pay close to a million [shillings] per term.
One of my daughters was a student at Gayaza High School, which is a government school, then the elder sister was at Uganda Martyrs Namugongo which is a church- founded school, I was paying more money in Gayaza which is a government school than Namugongo which is a private school.
Is this a sign of disappointment?
What is your view? You can ask that question and answer yourself! I think you are old enough to give an answer.
You sound disappointed!
Well, as a country, I think we have to correct this big anomaly. It is the responsibility of government to correct that. I am also disappointed with the citizens of Uganda; it seems there is a lot who don’t know what they want. Because, you know people who love their country, they always keep governments on their toes.
They want correct things to be done all the time in the interest of the country. I see it in Kenya, though sometimes they do it in crude manner. I see it in Tanzania, of course. I like the way they do their things. So, government there is there to serve the citizens and the citizens should do everything possible to ensure that government does not go astray.
Some times when you follow the debate in parliament, even in cabinet, you see, like on this issue of municipalities… You see, like I have a town council now, Maracha town council; because now I feel I am not going to survive winning the next elections, then I say Maracha should be divided into two, or let Maracha town council be elevated to a municipality, just to create space for me. This is selfishness.
Ugandans – whether in parliament or cabinet, whether people outside there, the media – we should say ‘no, this is not correct’. We should stand firm and say it is not correct.
That house [parliament] I was told it was meant to house 80 MPs, but now we are going to 500. I am told America has 550 members of Congress. America is the biggest economy; I don’t know what number we are of 191 countries in the world, but I think we are nowhere in the middle, but at the bottom. People are just there; we want more municipalities, more counties, more what, simply because of these political liabilities, piling a lot of pressure on the president to create political space for them.
Why should you, a minister, an MP, pile pressure on the president, so that you get political space, in order to survive the next elections? And why should we yield to such selfish demands? You create your own political popularity, influence, like Alex Onzima who can win whether he supports Museveni or Kizza Besigye. Because for me I don’t need to ride on a political party or an individual to win an election.
I would even, I don’t know whether it will happen in this country that West Nile should have one MP and I would love to become that one MP representing the entire West Nile in [parliament].
Of course, I made a submission when we were creating municipalities and I remember I said that of the 17 districts we had at independence, I said Sebei was a district, then West Nile, Madi that was also a district…, I said these original district headquarters can they be included and become municipalities, whether their population is small or not.
So, you see a man from West Nile talking about Sebei and West Nile; this is how every MP should behave. A man from Ankole should be talking about Karamoja; a person from Busoga should be talking about Bunyoro, a Mukiga should be talking about Lango, a person from Bukedi should be talking about Buganda. But now even a senior person in cabinet is talking about his sub-county; so, we have a problem.
Are you disappointed that Museveni has failed to prevail over these demands?
No. I am talking about the entire government. Government has three arms, you see how people debate in parliament; they are talking about their parishes…
But parliament receives what comes from the executive….
But were the people who made that Constitution foolish to say whatever the president wants, go to parliament? If Museveni wants to appoint Onzima a minister, with approval of that house [parliament]. Museveni can do this, [but] that parliament can say no.
Just like on the issue of municipalities, counties and districts, Museveni can say this as an individual and it is up with that parliament to say, we agree with the president here [or] we don’t agree, please just wait.
Even that parliament can make what Museveni doesn’t want to become law. It has powers to make law even without the president assenting to it. When they speak with one voice, the 2/3, then things can work. So, you cannot exonerate that parliament.
You sound like the opposition, Amama Mbabazi and Civil Society Organisations. Do you agree with Amama?
He has also said this is a tired government, tired system…..
But for how long was Amama there, and what did he say when he was there? You know this [is]where politicians go wrong. As of now, I am a minister of state for local governments, I must express what my conscience tells me in the interest of the country.
But when you are a minister or vice president, the Bukenya’s and so on, when you are there, you don’t speak in the interest of the country. And when Museveni says ‘no I want to make a change here’; then you get out of that place, then you begin talking the way you talk, you are being dishonest.
What did Amama say when he was a prime minister, when he was a powerful minister? What did Bukenya say when he was a vice-president? Was the situation different then and it has only changed when he is out of cabinet? If it is the same, I will not go by his arguments, because to me they are irrelevant; it is premised on dishonesty.
But you are saying the same thing?
Yes, but am talking when I am in this office [minister]; you see the difference?
Do you say these things in cabinet?
I speak my mind.
Cabinet comes out with positions you dislike; does it not mean you have lost the battle in cabinet?
That is how people like Amama, Miria Matembe left; they lost the battle in cabinet?
[Laughter], isn’t Amama the same person who spearheaded the Public Order Management Bill? And it is that law now catching up with him?
But even if you opposed something, you are bound by collective responsibility for the final decision.
Yes, but I will have gone on record.
I have checked the Hansard, and Mbabazi’s views on the public order law seem to be the same then as now.
Sure? Well that is between you and him but what I have said is what I know of the Amama Mbabazi you are talking about. You see, for a country to progress, it is not only about the executive, in my view; it is about the three arms of government. It is the entire spectrum.
First of all, these people working in the three arms of government must demonstrate that truly they have the country at heart. I don’t know whether Ugandans are blind but our Constitution says all power belongs to the people. So, if you put a wrong person as a leader knowingly or unknowingly the blame goes back to you [as people].
That is why the voters should always be on the lookout, how much of their manifesto have they fulfilled?
Then civil society organisations, what is their role? How much do they have the country at heart? Trade unions, these cultural leaders, religious leaders. I am told there is a forum for Catholic bishops, protestant bishops, Uganda Muslim Supreme Council; then there is a forum that brings all of them together [The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda], what are they doing about this? Because that is the last fallback position if the politicians fail the country. It should be these forums to stand firm and speak with one voice; but what are they doing?
They have come out in different forums….
Very strongly and consistently? I don’t know that.
From your assertions, do you think Uganda needs a new democratic path?
Ah no no.. I think I have given you really my heart about that, whether it makes sense to you. So, for us to have a progressive country, we need to have citizens who truly nationalists and truly patriotic. Minus that, whom do you blame? We must play our roles as such.
From yesterday’s submissions in parliament, you seem to contradict cabinet position and this is contrary to Article 117 on collective responsibility.
You see, only the other day, when Minister Muruli Mukasa came up with an amendment of those Women, disabled and youth councils, he just wanted to amend one clause, but he didn’t have a certificate of financial implications; was he not sent back?
Then only last week, the minister of local government was on the floor of parliament, seeking leave to withdraw the motion on the creation of districts; reason? No money [Thursday last week]. Then the same minister comes back, that now we shall have these districts in phases [laughter].
This was informed by a special cabinet retreat…
I didn’t attend that cabinet; because initially they told me that it sits here in this Chinese building, the president’s office. I went there, I think it was 17 minutes to 2pm, only to be told that the venue had changed to Entebbe. So, I was late. I just came back to office. So, I don’t know what was discussed there.
So, the minister comes back, but this is a motion which carries a bigger financial implication. Now in the executive we have two arms; the political and the technical arm. Now we have a person whose title is permanent secretary ministry of finance and secretary to the treasury that is the person who controls the resource envelope of the country.
Now [this] man wrote a letter to my permanent secretary on the creation of districts, he only cleared 4 districts for next year; he didn’t [commit] himself on the other 21 districts; he said there was no money.
This letter was written on 18th, August, 2015. This letter was copied to the speaker, the prime minister, ministers of finance, justice and constitutional affairs, minister of local government, chairperson EC, PPS to the president and others.
The man says no money; now these people in the same house, after saying ‘Muruli Mukasa you can’t proceed unless you come with a certificate of financial implications’, come around and say ‘it is okay for us to proceed without a certificate of financial implications issued by ministry of finance’.
The same PS of finance says no money for municipalities but national legislators went against the letter of the PS and created 19 municipalities. So, I was simply conveying the massage from the PS because the law says you can’t proceed on such a matter without a certificate of financial implications. It wasn’t Onzima, it is the law; but people didn’t want it to be heard and these are people who claim they are national leaders. Do they have the country at heart?
So, you are not bound by collective responsibility?
That collective responsibility is not a law, so I have not gone against any law. The law says, you can’t proceed unless you have a certificate of financial implications.
What is your view about the creation of new constituencies?
I told you people are piling unnecessary political pressures on Museveni for political survival. Didn’t you get that? Even that Maracha of mine that was created, I didn’t ask for it, nobody consulted me I just found it there.
That is why for me I was nowhere in parliament before the plenary to vote on something which I don’t support. First of all, it was done in bad faith; they thought if you gerrymander Maracha this way, Onzima would not come back to parliament.
Who was doing that?
Those NRMs in Maracha who are more NRM than President Museveni. There was that delegation from Maracha, I raised the issue and nobody listened to me.
But these are the same things Onzima was saying in the opposition and they are the same things he is saying in cabinet?
Yes, that proves to you a man who is not an opportunist. He stands for the country; it doesn’t matter whether he is in the opposition, NRM or outside both. That is his position is in the honest interest of the country.
These are the people we should look for, who should be leaders in this country, not Amama Mbabazi or Bukenya what did they say when they were on the other side [cabinet]. Why didn’t they say what they are talking now, when they were on the other side of the coin?
They have decided not to serve the interest which you are serving now.
I am serving the country.
But under the leadership of Museveni.
There must be a leadership, there cannot be a vacuum. I am serving the country, and this is my stand.
As you blame Amama and his colleagues who have left government, are you putting the same blame on Museveni?
I am talking about any person; even in the opposition, do think you all those people are genuine? Not everybody on NRM side is genuine; neither is everybody on the opposition genuine. People have their own selfish interests.
Is it true that in cabinet there are ministers who are pro Mbabazi and some who are pro-Museveni?
Talk to the ministers themselves. That is not for me to talk about.
What is your last word?
Well, I love a country where the citizens themselves together with political, religious and cultural leaders, civil society all exhibit what is truly patriotic and nationalistic, having the country at heart, not tribes, not religions, nor political parties.
TRANSCRIPT: EDWARD SSEKIKA