DP’s Mao will work as Museveni minister fighting human rights abuse amidst cries of betrayal by fellow opposition leaders

Uganda’s new Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Norbert Mao, last week outlined to Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, a seven-point blueprint to tackle allegations of rights violations and impunity by State actors.

This is a first point of action for the minister who was appointed last month following a signing of a memorandum of understanding between him and the ruling NRM party chairman and President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. Mao is the reigning chairman of the oldest party in Uganda, the Democratic Party. 

Issues of human rights abuse, reports of torture and intimidation as well as reported abductions by alleged state operators, remains a major issue for the government to tackle. Several opposition politicians have occasionally come out to allege illegal detention and state instigated torture. 

In June, President Museveni received a report on human rights violations from the international organization Human Rights Watch. The President pledged to look into the allegations noting that abuse and torture have no place and will not be tolerated in Uganda. Prior to this, Mr Museveni has come out to strongly condemn torture, promising punitive action against any security operatives involved in the same. The Commander in Chief of the armed forces in Uganda has argued that evidence collected through acts of torture was inadmissible before the courts and as such is counter-productive for operatives to use torture and abductions as a way to handle suspected criminals. 

In a submission to Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights chaired by Mr Fox Odoi, the minister endorsed a raft of proposals by lawmakers invested in ending impunity and rights violations. Mr Mao last week specifically committed to “encourage” President Museveni, his appointing authority, on issues of human rights.

 “It is our duty to insist on the Constitution he [President Museveni] signed in 1995 and which he swore to protect. I urge all Ugandans to condemn human rights abuses,” he said.

The minister, promised to engage all government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to protect rights of citizens and comply with court decisions. He outlined plans for a review of the Constitution, which he said would help close the gaps currently being exploited to inflict pain on Ugandans. Mao also undertook to pursue release of political detainees. 

Mao’s first action as minister points to what may be interpreted as government’s commitment to work with opposition politicians on matters of national concern. 

Upon his appointment, fellow Opposition leaders lambasted Mao, calling him a traitor that has reneged on their fight to unseat President Museveni and his NRM party. Mao however remained steadfast in his move, stating that it was time to work for all Ugandans rather than for individual interests. 

The appointment of Mao helps Mr Museveni to concretize his relationship with the people of northern Uganda where for the first time in three decades the NRM enjoyed massive support in the last election. One year after forming his government, the Speaker of Parliament Jacob L’Okori Oulanyah passed on, leaving a huge vacuum in the north. Oulanyah was lauded for being a peace maker and unifier who brought the entire north under one umbrella of social-economic transformation, a key pillar of the NRM party. 

The demise of Oulanyah left in government the Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny Dollo, as the foremost player from the north. Having party Secretary General Richard Todwong and a number of ministers including First Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali and Okello Oryem in the Foreign Affairs docket, among others from the North, was complementary but of necessity was the appointment of a key leader like Mao who would possibly fill the void left by Oulanyah, a close friend of Mao’s. 

Along with Mao, the President moved Junior Sports Minister Hamson Obua to become government Chief Whip, also a key position in parliament, the President further appointed Beatrice Akori, the Woman MP for Agago District in northern Uganda as State Minister for economic monitoring, further sealing his relationship in the north. 

Past understandings

While many argue that the relationship between Museveni and Mao will collapse sooner rather than later, pundits point to the more than 30-year-old working relationship between Museveni and General Moses Ali who was a rebel leader in the early years of the NRM government. Gen Ali was arrested and spent several years in jail before his outfit the Uganda National Rescue Front was integrated into the national army and several of his fighters are serving officers to date. 

Mr Museveni also appointed Betty Amongi, the wife of Opposition party Uganda People Congress president Jimmy Akena as a minister. Amongi has served for more than 10 years under the NRM despite her leaning to the UPC. Her husband is the son of former President Apollo Milton Obote, against whom Museveni’s rebel group the National Resistance Army launched a guerilla war in the 1970s. 

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