By Sadab Kitatta Kaaya
At 2:57pm, President Museveni, dressed in military uniform, arrived at Serena International Conference Centre for the budget reading.
The president’s dress code, though not unusual, was a shocker to many who attended this diplomatic and non-military event.
“He has never done it; I think this is the first time since [the promulgation of] the 1995 Constitution. Maybe he has been attending some function earlier and he came straight here,” said Justine Kasule Lumumba, the NRM secretary general.
President Museveni retired from the army in 1995 to fully participate in politics ostensibly out of respect for a constitutional prohibition that barred military officers from participating in partisan politics. Museveni has occasionally worn military uniform, especially when presiding over military-related events.
“He shouldn’t forget that he is a civilian president and coming to address parliament in military attire reminds the country of the past history. He is taking us back to 1986,” said Joshua Anywarach, the Padyere MP.
“We know he is the commander-in-chief but he is not coming to address military men.”
To some MPs, the president chose to turn up in military uniform in anticipation of some hostility from MPs who were not happy with government’s spending priorities.
“Whenever he is confronted with a tough challenge, he usually picks out that [military] attire so that he can threaten and intimidate. He is well aware of the questions we raised [during debate on the budget] and I think he has come here to threaten MPs, to reassert himself,” Makindye East MP Ibrahim Kasozi said.
Winfred Kiiza, the leader of opposition in parliament, said a uniformed Museveni reawakened bad memories of last year’s clashes in her home district of Kasese that killed scores.
“This is unbecoming for a national leader to come for an important function like this one in a military fatigue. It is as if he is going to fight or address his military council,” the Kasese Woman MP said.
However, Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko said: “It is foolhardy to say that it is wrong since UPDF MPs are allowed to attend parliament in military uniform.”
After the welcome rituals that included the guard of honour, Museveni, with the first lady and Education minister, Janet Kataaha, alongside the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, walked into the conference centre to a rousing welcome from NRM MPs.
Uganda Prisons brass band played a revolutionary song from the NRA bush war days. In his budget speech, Matia Kasaija, the minister of finance, said government needs to ruthlessly deal with corrupt government officials if Uganda is to achieve the much-desired middle-income status by 2020.
Reading the national budget for the third time, Kasaija came expecting hostility from opposition MPs. Matters weren’t helped as the podium was placed near opposition lawmakers. However, Kasaija put on his best charm to disarm them.
But when they began to challenge his figures, the Buyanja MP sought the speaker’s protection. Kadaga, instead, urged him to concentrate on the bud- get speech.
In his speech, the president said he dressed in military uniform because he supports Ugandan made products.
“I am glad the speaker allowed me to dress the way I am,” Museveni said as he ordered his aides to bring to the fore, textiles and shoes produced by Ugandan youths supported under his presidential budget.
“The [military] uniform I am putting on is all Ugandan made except for the ballet [cap], and this hat was designed by me because being a bush man, I know the dangers of being in the bush and this hat guards you against mosquito bites on the ears, etc,” Museveni said.
At some point, he screened a video of his visit to workshops of beneficiaries of his presidential initiative on skilling the girl child project. The president also had to con- tend with heckles from opposition lawmakers who, for the second time in as many days, took issue with his longevity in power.
“Criticizing me for being in government for so long is being jealousy. Yes I have been around for 31 years…I will go but it will be the Constitution and the people of Uganda to decide when I will, not you,” Museveni told opposition MPs.
Kadaga tried to restrain the MPs but the president said he was enjoying the exchange “because they want to test my brain to see whether it is sharp.”
“If we were to follow the logic of these people [opposition], we wouldn’t be here. They don’t know that life is full of struggles, their pessimistic approach cannot work,” Museveni said.
“Don’t be influenced by the panickism of these people, look at the potential that we have,” Museveni said.
At the end of the day’s sitting, Kadaga threatened to take action against the rowdy opposition MPs.
“We have visitors from the region and they are in shock that you can heckle a head of state. The other day, the speaker of Somalia told me he was surprised that you heckled the president,” Kadaga said.