Margaret Nantongo Zziwa, 51, is the Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). As the first female speaker of the regional parliament, she has tried to hold her own amidst challenges.
Last week, some members of EALA said they would move a censure motion against Zziwa, accusing her of, among other issues, disrespecting them and not delegating work. In an interview, Zziwa told Edris Kiggundu that the motion flies in the face of her excellent performance as speaker:
First, what really is the problem between you and the people you lead in EALA?
First and foremost, I want to say that it was unfortunate that there is such a move. But we need to be cognizant of where we are coming from. For the first time, the speakership of EALA was contested for. All other speakers have been appointed.
Previously, the countries would work out an arrangement and say this is the speaker we have proposed. This time, two people from Uganda had expressed interest in the speakership (Lydia Wanyoto and Dora Byamukama). They had expressed their interest during the second term in anticipation that they would be re-elected and come back.
When we came to the end of the term, Wanyoto was knocked out because she had served two terms. Other members were not very comfortable with the candidate who had remained (Byamukama). There was agitation that if Uganda wants to take the seat, let’s produce another candidate.
At that point had you indicated that you could throw your hat into the ring?
Well, I am a cadre of the NRM and I am a scout. I take the opportunity and the challenge when it comes. I said I was ready to offer myself to serve, to make sure the Uganda flag is not dragged in the mud. The position of the party was that since we did not have time for internal primaries, let both candidates stand. That is how I ended up standing with Byamukama.
So, do your troubles have roots in the way you were elected?
Definitely. I can tell you that my opponent [Byamukama] is the one who drafted the motion of censure. It is public knowledge. She knew very well that [since she had] been elected chairperson of the committee of Legal, Rules and Privileges [of EALA], I would be taken before her for investigation. She wanted to have a time to revenge. That is a fact.
When you were elected, did you try to extend an olive branch to her?
Yes, I did. Even the fact that she was able to be chosen as chairperson of the committee… I can tell in other instances, I have assigned her to be on various missions. She was part of the mission that went to Kenya to monitor elections and I have sent her on other missions. Indirectly and directly, I have extended an olive branch.
What has come out so far is that only two Ugandan MPs (Mukasa Mbidde and Susan Nakawuki) plus a few other members are on your side…
You know what happened when group dynamics set into motion? Some people appeal to emotion, others to ethnicity.
Critics say that you are abrasive and at times abusive while presiding over the House that you don’t respect them.
I think some people want to use the opportunity to put me in bad light. As a leader, you have to be firm. In some instances, when you come out firmly, then they want to reflect you as hard… as intimidating. When I take a position on something for a good reason, I must stand by it and must defend it.
So, if I stand up and say, “Honourable members, we agreed on this,” it does not mean that I am aggressive. Thirdly, there are times when people want to flip flop on things we have agreed upon. This does not reflect integrity on the part of the leader.
You have also been accused of not delegating work. That you want to go for all trips and attend to all duties.
No, no. There is no trip I take alone. All the trips I take, I go with a member or two or three. The members are chosen depending on the basis of the theme of the trip and their competence. In most cases, I go when I have been invited as a speaker.
I go with a person who is in that area of competence. At times I consider gender, [or] country of MP. I have a matrix which I started compiling to help know how to distribute trips among members. I can defend every selection I have made. I don’t make this as an individual I have the clerk who is a technical person who guides me. I have also delegated members so many times to represent me.
Have you sat down with some of the MPs to try to explain your side of the story or to find out where they think you have gone wrong?
I have talked to some of them intimately, quietly and – fortunately or unfortunately – some of them feel rather embarrassed when we talk one-to-one. They actually know that I have not done anything wrong. Some wanted to start imputing that when we held [a conference] of the Global Parliamentarian on Habitat (GPH), which is a forum for parliamentarians where EALA is a member, that I abused office.
It was a very successful conference which attracted more than 280 delegates from across Africa. We held it at the headquarters and definitely there were some expenditures. I am not the accounting officer. I don’t give money. I don’t handle cash.
They wanted to impute that I misappropriated money. We even went to President Museveni and he asked: “What is this GPH?” We explained. Museveni said that even Rebecca Kadaga hosted the IPU here without consulting him or the treasury. He said this was fine because in her right as a leader, she has the power to act on behalf of Uganda.
Is the president on your side?
He has sat with us as members of Uganda and sat with us as members of the commission. He has been able to aise us as a leader, an elder. Some members just thought that they should disregard his aice under the guise of separation of powers. At times you start asking whether we are sensitive or appreciative of some of these things.
We are in EAC as willing partners. I am not here because I am the best. I am here because at that moment I was the one available who could ably carry Uganda’s flag.
Your husband [Capt Francis Babu] has been dragged into the saga. Some members claim that he interferes in their work and tries to intimidate them.
I think that is not fair. There is no decision I have taken when my husband is the one telling me. My husband has been in Arusha twice since I was elected. The first one was when we were being elected. He came as a member of the family. Maybe his crime at that time was to insist that the NRM CEC had not selected Hon Byamukama [as party flag bearer for the EALA speakership] because that was the rumour in Arusha.
He told them since he is a member of CEC, no such decision had been made. My husband stood firm. The second time he came to Arusha was to fill some forms because as a speaker, my husband and children have entitlements. Somebody thinking that it is my husband telling me what to do, and that I am not capable of doing what I am doing, is despicable. My public record at everywhere I have worked (in KCC and in Parliament speaks for itself).
How do you think the impasse can be ended?
It is through dialogue. Let’s come to our senses. I am sorry – maybe because we come from different backgrounds – when I make some of these statements people misunderstand you. When I say, let’s come to our senses, someone may think I am insulting them. Let’s look at the bigger picture of the EAC. When EALA fails, it is not Zziwa that has failed but EALA.
Are you confident that, in the end, you are going to prevail?
The winning got over. I won when I was elected speaker of EALA. Some people started saying, in broad daylight, that I will not manage. But I have done a lot in the two and a half years as speaker.
What have you achieved?
There have been a number of legislations passed. The one-stop border control bill, the vehicle control bill, the customs management control act. In addition, as EALA, we do have six sittings. This was not easy. I had to lobby from one minister to another. I was able to negotiate so that members’ emoluments are improved upon. I have been able to come up with a strategic plan for the East African Community. This is the one that is going to actualise our mandate in terms of reaching out to the population.
Do you think that EALA needs to be given a free hand on the way it does its work?
We are part of the governance of the EAC. We can pass a law but cannot implement. We pass a law so that it is implemented. You can say we are completely detached. You can bring a law and government does not have money to implement it.
Doesn’t this affect the morale and energy of the members?
You have to appreciate that our composition [as EALA] also has council of ministers and the secretary general. In that respect you can’t attain total separation. The pace of political integration seems to have slowed down even when there was effort to fast- track it.
The concept of fast-tracking was put on hold because one of the partner states said it likes, to go serially as has been stipulated in the treaty. Let’s first go customs union, let’s go common market, monetary union and ultimately political union. There was this school of thought which was saying that in order to implement others, we need to form a political union like the United States of America (USA) did. They first formed a political unit and then started integrating economically. In our case, Tanzania said no.
Lately, Tanzania appears to have been left out in some of the projects undertaken by EAC. We have witnessed the emergence of the so- called coalition of the willing (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda). Won’t this affect the spirit of integration?
This terminology [coalition of the willing] has been created by you the media. In November 2012, there was a second infrastructural summit in Nairobi. It sat down and earmarked the areas where various countries are going to work on different infrastructural projects to complement the integration. At the summit the northern corridor which takes care of Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya to Mombasa was earmarked.
This does not mean that Tanzania has been left out. I am not the right person to answer but I can say the process of verification is still ongoing. The general secretary led a team to South Sudan in July. They have compiled report which we shall look at. This is a matter of the summit.
What challenges have you encountered as speaker?
The squabbles have affected us. They affect the smooth running of the assembly because some people don’t want to work. There is always this issue of resources they can never be enough. There are strategic areas that need resources like publicising the activities of the EAC. However, they are not insurmountable.
Your final word?
I want to thank East Africans for the support they have given to me as speaker to EALA. Secondly, I want to thank Ugandans for standing tall in many of the times when I had the challenges. I want to acknowledge and assure them that there are these storms but I am quite confident in God’s name that they will subside. Let’s learn to tolerate each other even if we may have our differences.
Source : The Observer