Reagan Okumu, 45, is the MP for Aswa in Amuru district in northern Uganda, which is still shaking off the legacy of the brutal LRA insurgency.
Okumu has been in Parliament, since 1996, and has spent two months as a member of the Parliamentary Commission, where he chairs the sub-committee on administration. In this interview with Deo Walusimbi, Okumu discusses his new roles as a commissioner, his long experience in Parliament, and the LRA’s insurgency in the north. Excerpts:
What do you make of your role as chairperson of administration at Parliament’s top administrative organ?
Since I became a commissioner, I am finding myself trying to adjust from being a politician in the Parliament of Uganda, to someone who is playing some sober administrative role to make sure that the institution of Parliament delivers, the future of its independence, ability to perform, and most importantly the infrastructure within Parliament like office space are all achieved.
To me, it’s a learning experience, but overall, I have confidence that we shall deliver.
What has been your most challenging moment so far?
My first challenge was the sneaking of pigs into the parliamentary precincts. I found myself in a difficult situation because MPs were being checked from the gate which became a serious issue, in absence of the speaker and the deputy speaker.
So, we as back-bencher commissioners, had to take administrative redress to address it, making sure that we do not compromise security, but also uphold the dignity of MPs. And to some extent, we managed to do it because MPs are no longer being checked from the gate.
So, it’s some of these strange things we find ourselves in because instead of being complainants, we are now the managers of the situations as they emerge. As you walk in, you get complaints from staff on how things are not good here and there, and the issues of deployment, promotions, etc.
Does Parliament have a work plan on which it bases its activities?
We have now managed to pass that plan and it’s the most important to me, because all departments of Parliament will now do all their programmes like budgeting, basing on available plan.
It is a huge dream of how Parliament can deliver its services to Ugandans, how it can become a pro-people parliament interacting with the population, how it can be able to have its infrastructure in place. We even envisage having a radio station and a TV of Parliament that can broadcast our debates to the population, and there is also a move towards establishing an institute for parliamentary studies.
What aspirations do you have as an individual within the next two and half years as a commissioner?
I look [at] it as an institution that should be able to reach out to the population by making sure that MPs are able to function at the constituencies as it is in other countries because they are facilitated with constituency offices, with staff…
But we have the doctrine of separation of powers…
That irony can’t work, because you can’t have separation of powers where one arm of government is lame and the other one is over-facilitated. When you look at the Executive [and] the Judiciary, they are well established, grounded up to the grassroots.
But when you look at the institution of Parliament, the facilitation seems to be looking at individual MPs, we want to move away and institutionalise it so that at the end of the day, we have institutionalised offices of Parliament in the districts which will remain constituency offices with parliamentary staff.
When you go to Kenya, the attorney general is not the lawyer for Parliament he is for only executive, but here in Uganda the attorney general is the lawyer for Parliament, which can’t be.
So, would you wish to move an amendment to get a separate lawyer for Parliament?
That is why we want full autonomy so that Parliament can function as an arm of state that is able and equal to other arms of the state so that our speaker’s hands are not tied.
As we speak today, there is a bully who is the chief executive [President Museveni] who always wants to bully everybody and that is unfair because this institution should be autonomous and g.
Have you embarked on the process of drafting that amendment as the commission?
There are a lot of things that are going to come on board and there will be a lot of proposals and we should get autonomy. It is important that Parliament gets its independence [just like] the Judiciary.
The Executive remains as it is, but as a partner in governance, not a bully as it is now. We are [also] looking at an amendment of the Parliamentary Administrative Act, to make sure that we strengthen where we have some weaknesses, because some of the weaknesses that entrench the Executive are in the Constitution.
Would your amendments in the offing come concurrently with those being propagated by the Executive?
Of course there is going to be a lot of proposals by government for constitutional amendment, and this process will have two stages. Either at a cabinet level government will open it up for the public hearing to get people’s views and take them back to cabinet, or bring it to Parliament and open it to public hearing.
And that is where, as the commission, we intend to have our proposals.
Do you agree that MPs are among the few highly-paid elites with no tangible output, and don’t you think that your proposal to extend Parliament to the grassroots will overstretch taxpayers?
There is propaganda being conducted especially by the Executive because they want Parliament weak. How much does the Executive spend on public expenditure alone? What is the relevance of RDCs GISOs, DISOs, VISOs, PISOs, etc? All these are public expenses, but we don’t see the results. But the beneficiary is the chief executive because it sustains him in power.
We have presidential aisors, but [some] have never even met the president [or] written any paper then the bloated cabinet of over 80 ministers what are they doing?
And as a person who has been in this Parliament, I would say that there are some improvements in facilitating MPs, to an extent that they no longer go to State House to look for funds to travel abroad as it was in the sixth Parliament because Museveni would say, ‘Amelia get something for MPs to travel’, which is not the case today.
MPs are now being given fuel allowance to go to their constituencies, but the amount of money (Shs 103m) that was given to MPs to buy a car is a peanut compared to what RDCs spend on transport because it’s the state to service their vehicles.
Some of us had proposed that they should have bought us a vehicle, put on a government number plate, we use it for five years, then park it and go, but because they knew they were the ones to fuel and service it, they opted for a token which can’t buy a new vehicle and many MPs’ [vehicles] have been grounded because of the poor roads.
But I heard Museveni saying that this Parliament is getting a lot of money, which to me, was cheap popularity, because he is actually paid beyond what is due if you look at his budget. But the people of Uganda should critically look at the size of public administration. We need MPs to be better facilitated, but reduce the numbers of MPs, and I would agree with that because the current [number of] 386 is too bloated the same [applies] to the number of ministers because we need only about 20 ministers.
Does the commission have any deliberate effort to work on the shrinking MPs’ integrity levels?
I don’t think there is a shrinking level of integrity of MPs, but I think that is a subject of the population because it’s incumbent on every Ugandan that if they are not satisfied with their MP, there is a chance every after five years to vote him out.
But I must also tell you that whoever comes in Parliament is a reflection of our society, and Ugandans have sent their best [to] Parliament. But for those who undermine their integrity, we shall do something about them at an institutional level using our rules of procedure, which we are expected to live up to.
What do you make of the new system of appointing the commissioners instead of subjecting them to a vote as it was in the past?
I personally think that not only commissioners, but also committee chairpersons shouldn’t be a matter of parties, but a matter [of] an institution of Parliament. And they should compete and the entire Parliament should vote so, I think we should go back to the old system to avoid the external forces into Parliament.
As one of the longest- serving MPs, how do you compare the ninth Parliament with the previous ones?
These Parliaments have had different challenges according to different regime tendencies. Museveni’s regime tendency in the sixth Parliament is not the same as in the ninth Parliament, for example.
In the sixth Parliament, his tendency was to the extent that he still had this myth of north, east and south divide. He used to attack the north. He used to talk about Obote, which shaped politics in Parliament, but today, the likes of the Obotes who were swines in those days, have become heroes.
But also, the regional issues keep on shifting from time to time, because there was time when we had issues with Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and sometimes it is difficult to judge. But I must say that the sixth Parliament was the most courageous because they took on the mantle of the conflict in northern Uganda and investigated the war against many odds because nobody wanted to talk about it.
It initiated the establishment of the Parliamentary Commission, which gave Parliament autonomy against the wish of Museveni because he wanted it to stay a small department of government they could use. And the sixth Parliament was able to question a lot of things like corruption, things including the construction of the Bujagali dam.
But, the ninth Parliament has also done its part, like it had many ministers fall, though the regime character today is different, because it doesn’t want to give MPs time to speak, because of caucusing. That is why there are ‘rebel MPs’ because of the more gagging.
Do you want to suggest that President Museveni has changed to become intolerant?
I have not just learnt, but I have taken keen interest to study Museveni because I have been opposed to him for a long time. So, you cannot tell me that he has just become intolerant, he has never been tolerant. He is a man who shifts goal posts.
If the goal post is okay with him, he will leave it if it doesn’t, he will change [it]. And he has remained the same, with the same objective -retain and stay in power. But those who have not studied him will say that the man has changed, but his mission is to remain in power by keeping on shifting the goal post at whatever stage, and he has done that successfully for all these years.
You sound as if you gave up on opposing a non-moving Museveni which can to a certain extent, justify some people’s observation that you have gone silent unlike in the past when you were so vocal.
If you were to ask me, I was vocal on what? Now if you are to ask me, silent on what? That must be verified before you say that somebody is vocal. Now if I was vocal because the government was killing people in northern Uganda, do you still want me to still say that they are killing people when they have stopped?
If I was vocal on the stolen PRDP funds and government says things are like this and donors have withdrawn their money do you still want me to still beat the same drum? I would become irrelevant.
But, also it depends on the stage where you are, because I am now in the commission of Parliament, my drums will be different from those I beat when I was in committees of Parliament where I talked of corruption. But how do you want me to be vocal on behalf of the shadow foreign affairs minister when I am not the one? So, platforms change which is good because I have tested all, including the ordinary backbencher’s.
But, I can assure you, I am more resilient than I was before, I am more strengthened than I was before, I am more powerful today, than I was some few years ago even in terms of fighting Museveni. If he feared me many years ago, then he must become more fearful today because I have become ger in areas where I was weak.
Do you agree with the deputy speaker on the quality of MPs’ debate?
To be honest with you, I agree with what the deputy speaker said, that the quality of debate has depreciated. But we should ask ourselves, why? Is it the quality of people or debate?
One is that it must be the quality of people it must be the quality of leaders because when you have leaders who know what leadership is all about, it is a different matter [compared to] when you have leaders who do not. Some people are leaders and they think leadership is about following others. So, they will definitely wait for somebody to tell them what to do and they will do that. But there are some leaders who know what to do.
Between you and President Museveni, who wasn’t straight in resolving the LRA insurgency peacefully?
To be honest, I don’t want to claim any political support out of it because I know my people will always support me not because of my roles in resolving the LRA insurgency but because of my quality of leadership.
For us, we did our part I don’t want to be judgmental in which percentage we played, but the fact remains that President Museveni did not want this war to end for a number of reasons.
What were these reasons?
He kept this war as a divide-and-rule policy approach to this country he kept this war to impoverish the people of northern Uganda he kept this war to get easy American banking for Sudan because he knew the Americans could not support him as a g man in the region fighting against Bashir [Omar] and many others.
One really wonders why for all those years LRA existed the lame excuse that people were supporting LRA was nonsense and I one time told the president that his excuse was nonsense. That means that if you are saying that people are supporting LRA, then you are the one killing them, because even if you are supporting a mad man, he cannot kill you.
The fact is that LRA were turning their guns on the local people, Museveni failed to protect the lives and properties of people in northern Uganda, and at the same time he failed to end the war for over 20 years. I thank the International community, Americans and Western European countries who put their foot down.
The other group is the South Sudanese led by John Garang (RIP), because he had promised us that if their peace talks were successful, their next agenda was peace in northern Uganda unfortunately, he died, but fortunately, his wishes remained and they were taken over by government under Riek Machar, and peace talks were held under his leadership.
Without the South Sudanese, who were criticized, I doubt whether this war could have come to an end. But most importantly, I thank the people of Uganda who shunned the propaganda of the government that the people in the north were fighting themselves.
But why did you object to UPDF’s Operation Iron Fist, which flashed Kony out of DR Congo and South Sudan?
Did operation Iron Fist flash out Kony or Kony abandoned operation Iron Fist in South Sudan and crossed to Uganda? The latter is the truth because the UPDF agreed with us that they [UPDF] were going for a rescue mission in South Sudan, but it was never a rescue mission.
Two, they told us they were going to brief us on every stage in a conflict and that LRA would never come back to the north, but when UPDF launched the operation in 2002 around February, LRA was back in north in June, causing a lot of mayhem.
So, we disagreed with the objective of [ the] operation because it was a failure, and I still maintain that Operation Iron Fist failed. That is why we had to start another dialogue of another peace talk in 2002, with Archbishop Odama going to the bushes and meeting the LRA. If the operation had succeeded, we were going to have peace talks in South Sudan, not in northern Uganda.
Should UPDF stop being proud of the operation?
UPDF played their role, but they were betrayed by their commanders. UPDF knew that what they were doing could not bring the war to an end and many of the commanders made statements, saying that there were political issues that needed to be handled by politicians.
The gun will never bring peace all over the world it’s always the politics that bring peace. So, UPDF as an institution did their part, but they were betrayed by their leadership.
Can you be specific on this kind of leadership that betrayed UPDF?
When you have leaders whose perception about war is about killing… and I want to be frank: I have Museveni’s recordings saying that we shall kill, massacre, butcher them. Where on earth would you hear a politician saying like that because all these people being killed are Ugandans and you are the president?
That is why in principles of war, you must disable and capture a fighter, but if your principle is on murder, kill, butcher, that is the kind of betrayal I am taking about and he should polish it as a politician and be mindful of the political role.
Where did your efforts to compile the atrocities committed by both UPDF and LRA since 1986 stop?
Who told you we don’t have it? My first book is going to be published shortly it will have all those atrocities and I can tell it is 50 per cent50 per cent
How many people were killed then?
So many, because if you put between 1986 and 1993, over 80 per cent of the people who were killed were killed by government forces, then if you put from 1993 onwards, over 90 per cent of the population was killed by LRA. So, if you sample all those, you find out that LRA almost killed 50 per cent and government forces 50 per cent and we have all the names of all the dead by time and place.
Let those who dare say no wait for it and let them tell us so and so was not killed on this date by government force, or so was not killed on this date by LRA. And we want national truth and reconciliation because revenge will never take this country anywhere, but reconciliation shouldn’t be misunderstood to be political support for Museveni.
I am bringing my book in that spirit because we want people to say we committed atrocities, but we are sorry and let us continue, and Museveni has an opportunity to accept the pillar and then build the monuments where people will remember their dead, because he is part of the problem. If he fails, the next president will take over, but nothing is going to be swept under the carpet.
Finally, it has been said that you went to the bush under alongside your uncle: what propelled you?
For your information, I have never fought in the bush, I have never been a rebel, but I am trained, and I was not trained by rebels, I was trained by government. So, there is always a misconception. And if I was to be a rebel, my nature of rebellion would have taken a different turn, considering my politics.
Source : The Observer