MATHIAS MPUUGA, the new leader of opposition in parliament and member of parliament for Nyendo Mukungwe in Masaka city, has demanded that government explains how all the money approved by parliament for Covid-19 health emergencies was spent.
Interviewed by Muhammad Kakembo on Saturday, June 19, a day after President Museveni ordered a second strict 42-day lockdown to slow the unprecedented march of the coronavirus, Mpuuga said much as the lockdown was justified on medical grounds but government ought to have solutions for the people before it condemns them to staying at home. Excerpts:
Why did your party, National Unity Platform, NUP, choose you as leader of opposition, and not any other of its 57 MPs?
It was one of those things that take you by surprise because we don’t have a deficit in NUP of able men and women. If the basis was experience, there are many people with experience like myself or even better. If it was about age, at 45 years, I’m one of those who are considered old because we have so many young people in our rank and file.
I don’t want to read into the considerations of the party but they believed that I can do the frontline leadership at this stage. But I also don’t want to downplay my experience because leadership is not foreign to me.
This position requires someone who has a fair appreciation of where NUP is coming from and where it is going but also a fair appreciation of the challenges of the day both in parliament and outside. In the assessment of my colleagues, I fitted the billing.
You are leading an organization with many supporters who believe they won the election and not NRM and they shouldn’t be in the opposition. How are you going to handle those expectations?
Certainly, that background is well understood, the expectations are as high as the frustrations. We are playing second fiddle yet we worked our gloves off to occupy the first position in this country, probably I would be prime minister or something different.
Secondly, whereas my people and myself are suffering the indignity of being denied our victory, we know how much we worked and even the regime is aware they lost the election. We have a fair understanding of what it took for us to be in this position.
We have a good understanding of what it will take for us to be announced victors. We also have a fair understanding of the numerous roadblocks that might or continue to stand in our way.
Does taking up the opposition leadership mean accepting Museveni’s presidency?
If you are a simplistic politician, it may seem like acceptance but if you are a strategic politician, it is simply a stopover. That election from the word go was supposed to be one of those numerous activities we must undertake. One of those shocks we must withstand for the final appellation. So, we are not resting because we are occupying this position.
What is there to make us comfortable here? It’s a weekend and I’m here trying to think through the so many challenges facing us and our party and the country. This to me motivates me to think better about the prospects. If we look back to see what we endured to occupy this stopover, then certainly you can’t have your eyes off the ultimate place we want to occupy.
You have been in the opposition before and failed to win the ultimate prize. Does it make you rethink the path you should take to remove President Museveni?
Where we are now has not been the work of NUP, which was birthed six months ago or thereabout. This job has been additive; it has been the handiwork of so many citizens in groups; so, it’s their job. If you looked at this as partly educative of how we should approach Museveni, my take is that we now have a full understanding of what we are dealing with.
Which is why before we were talking about less than 50 opposition MPs and now we are talking about 100-plus. For me, it’s work in progress; we are not dealing with a democracy. We are trying to undo an autocracy. We are trying to undo an armed junta. We are trying to remove a dictator who wants to rule for life. We are not competing with NRM but with General Museveni who is bent on retaining power at all costs.
There is a divide in your membership. People like you are civil and others believe Museveni should be confronted aggressively... How do you balance both expectations?
That doesn’t in anyway unsettle me. If I take a picture with General Museveni, the country knows we are different. In fact, that picture is very beautiful to give the country a view of light and darkness. The two must be contrasted.
Secondly, the NUP brand is the perfect mirror of this country; the country of the poor and the haves. So, I don’t see it as a constraint. In fact, that is what makes NUP tick. We have a perfect appreciation of the two worlds. You find some of us bedecked in suits and ties and then the impoverished sitting on the same table trying to find solutions to their bedeviled life.
But in addition, the whole idea of parties is a concept of the elite, the English speakers, those who will address the country in riddles. But with NUP, you speak to the two worlds and you will be properly understood and nobody will say they never got the point.
You are starting this job with a bruised opposition after the acrimonious speaker election...
First of all, there was no crisis during the election of the speaker. The alleged stampede was in the mind of those disagreeing with their spirit. We have never held a meeting and disagreed. The fact that we never met meant that we had not yet formed a consensus.
It came at the background of a highly divisive election and, therefore, efforts to try to move towards the center before the election couldn’t materialize. So, for anybody to imagine that because we never met then that meant we cannot make progress is wrong.
But even if we wanted to keep apart, I think the question would be who benefits from the split within the opposition and which opposition party would love to keep far away from each other. I contend that we are each other’s protector and we shall defend each other’s territory because we live in the same territory and each of us has a key to the gate.
The individual players could have disagreements but institutionally, there is no tacit agreement that we keep that way. Eventually when we form the shadow cabinet; I’m looking at a situation where we are able to paint the opposition as it sounds.
Some say you never showed leadership as the leading opposition party in trying to bring the opposition together...
My party leadership was already in communication with other parties and the election of the speaker didn’t bear on these parties. I don’t want to speak about the fact that our comrades knew that we are the leading opposition party but were in a hurry to sponsor candidates without consulting us.
I don’t want to go in that debate but we are smart enough to read into that. You sponsor a speaker and deputy speaker and you say, well they will come. I think that was in bad faith.
Do you have an issue that can bring the opposition together like it is in Buganda where irrespective of people’s feeling, the Kabaka brings them together?
I think the comparison with Buganda doesn’t arise because the aspirations of the people of Buganda are one and the same and the custodian of the people is the Kabaka.
Political parties have their different platforms and they would rather achieve them differently. Where they have not met to discuss similar agenda, I’m hesitant to impute a common objective. Ask me about the objectives of NUP, I will be comfortable to answer them.
During the election of local government speakers and in some places where your party has overwhelming majorities, we saw NUP losing the position of speaker and deputy speaker. And allegations of bribery were flying around. What message does that send to the people?
I didn’t read so much fear in those outcomes. For me, it was a very perfect timing. NUP doesn’t produce her own children that it grows to become candidates. We draw these candidates from communities. One of the challenges we faced was choosing candidates at every level.
Some of the people we landed on were not probably oriented into our ethos and when they were elected, they thought it was harvest time. We shall not cover up for their actions.
For those who were corrupt, those who were bought, they are simply an empty lot and I have no defense for them. We shall simply expose them to the people who voted for them. If you are on a party ticket, and you believe it’s a food platter, that’s a problem. The voters should slaughter you for that.
Does that make your work harder as the leadership when people go against the reason you exist in the first place?
No, that can only come from people who have no understanding of what it takes to form an organization. Forming is one, deployment is another issue. Being able to move on a single informed platform is different.
My sense is that in some instances some of these people were either intimidated or blackmailed. But by and large, I don’t want to read into the future of NUP.
What do you make of the president’s cabinet list?
I’m reluctant to speak about Gen Museveni’s cabinet. It’s a cabinet of his aspiration and I pray that I would be around to judge them. For the last 35 years you still think these people will deliver; the jury is out.
Museveni chose the opposition’s Joyce Ssebugwawo as a minister. How does this affect the people’s trust in the opposition?
The mistake one can make is to imagine that the opposition is about its leaders. The opposition is beyond that. The leaders are supposed to be the voices of the opposition. But the opposition for me is the aspiration of our people that are not served and those aspirations will stand beyond the individuals that purport to be advancing them.
I’m very sure that the people who sell out know that people are watching them. People will never stop demanding for better governance or the rule of law just because the lunch-seeking individual politician has crossed over. For Gen Museveni, you can blame him for his politics but that is his brand.
How does that fallout affect the struggle for change?
Certainly it creates a foul working environment that doesn’t facilitate openness because you don’t know who is doing what. You are not sure whether your neighbor is the next recruit.
It’s quite disturbing that if you want to go and work for Gen Museveni, simply walk over and say I have moved on. When I made the choice to leave DP, I called a press conference and said I have left DP and gave the reasons.
What do you make of the second lockdown that was decreed by the president?
The lockdown on medical grounds is justified to curb the scary spread of the disease. But the way it is structured and the nature of the actions that were announced is questionable. When you lock up the country for 42 days, you need to think through which sectors are going to be affected and offer attendant solutions for each sector.
When the president made the announcement, he had no solution apart from locking down. People locked at home will die of hunger before they catch the virus. I will not be shocked if in the next five days, people come out to demand for food. Vaccines arrived in the country; who are we going to vaccinate?
The 10th parliament voted for billions of shillings for the government to procure equipment for the emergency. As I speak, health workers don’t have personal protect equipment, PPEs, and they are being exposed.
Where is the money that we passed? I thought the government should be explaining to the country what we have in the store? The blanket lockdown cannot offer a solution to our case because people’s welfare is very important.