The caning of Charles Sumner or what is known as the Brooks–Sumner Affair is one of the oldest recorded parliamentary brawls in history.
The incident occurred on May 22, 1856, in the US Senate when Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, with a walking cane in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier in which he fiercely criticised slaveholders including a relative of Brooks.
The beating nearly killed Sumner and it drew a sharply polarised response from the American public on the subject of the expansion of slavery in the US. It has since been considered symbolic of the “breakdown of reasoned discourse that eventually led to the American Civil War of April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865.
By the time he was done, the cane Brooks used for the attack had shattered. He nevertheless pocketed its gold handle as he made his way only to write later bragging that: “Every lick went where I intended… for about the first five of six licks he [Sumner] offered to make flight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf,” he wrote.
Parliamentary fights, like the incidents of Tuesday and Wednesday in Parliament of Uganda, have become so common that someone saw it fit to open up a whole website (parliamentfights.wordpress.com) dedicated to documenting legislators going bare knuckles across the world.
On social media and other online platforms, videos are manipulated to suit certain tastes, while other people concentrate on analysing the incidents and offering opinions. It is also big business for entrepreneurs.
The UK Guardian newspaper’s Jonathan Jones termed parliamentary fighting as “one of the world’s strangest bloodsports” but why are physical fights common in parliaments around the world? Why are legislators no longer content with verbal fights?
If the 1856, if the US experience is to go by, then one can easily deduce the fights by “Honourables” as a sign of what is yet to come.
It is a view shared by Masaka Municipality MP, Mathias Mpuuga, one of the Opposition MPs suspended by House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga on September 27 shortly before the most violent brawl in Uganda’s parliamentary history ensued.
The fights, he says, are a defence against greed for power by the incumbent against commands of the constitution and wishes of people.
He says Mr Museveni “exploited the likes of Igara West County MP Raphael Magyezi, and the timidity of the speaker and the [NRM] caucus”.
“I have traversed this country from Zombo to Kisoro but I am afraid the desperation is reaching fever peak. I cannot say I know what Ugandans will do next but the fact that our DNA has a history of violence and rebellion, the violence about change has been started in Parliament. Don’t be shocked if it refines through because that is our history and essentially like all fools, our leaders don’t learn from our history,” he says.
Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa tags the fights to frustration by Opposition Mps in the face of an overwhelming majority by the ruling NRM. With no chance of winning anything that can be put to vote in the House and the 2021 elections in sight, she says the MPs involved in the fights are playing to the gallery.
“When they saw us really determined, we were attending, and not retaliating, I think that disorganised them and the other thing I think some constituencies enjoy fighting and people are now talking about 2021 so some of them wanted cameras to capture them because they are saying they are fighting for democracy...” she says. By fighting, she argues, some MPs are a mirror image of the people they represent that she says are defiant to authority.
“A certain population has deteriorated to believing in defiance. We are seeing MPs behaving the way a certain population does in observing the rule of law. I mean people don’t respect the police. What we have been seeing outside is what has been carried inside by a few members of parliament. They think they can become popular by doing that.”
An analysis of countries where the fights have occurred also shows a distinctive similarity. Whether developed or not, the fights have occurred in parliaments with a controversial legislation but no dialogue in sight or where there is a contestation of a country’s top leadership or ruling class.
Whether in Ukraine, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, Bolivia Somalia, Kenya the differences that push legislators to fight are about the personal decisions taken on national matters or political differences that are seemingly irreconcilable. In countries like Ukraine, legislators beating up each no longer headlines.
Developing some form of consensus where the minority’s views in the House will be heard and everyone’s contribution valued, seems the foreseeable way to avoid confrontations in Uganda’s parliament but with an overwhelming majority and a haste to legislate their agenda, the ruling party is likely not to take that route. The option is to coerce the Opposition into some form of order by use of police, the military and other militias as happened last week.
Disagreements. In countries where the fights have happened there are distinctive similarity. Whether developed or not, the fights have occurred in parliaments with a controversial legislation but with no dialogue in sight. Whether in Ukraine, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, Bolivia, Somalia or Kenya the differences that push legislators to fight are about personal decisions taken on national matters or political differences. In Ukraine, legislators beating up each no longer makes news.
Way forward. Developing some form of consensus where the minority’s views are be heard and everyone’s contribution valued, seems the foreseeable way to avoid confrontations in Uganda’s parliament but with an overwhelming majority and a haste to legislate their agenda, the ruling party is likely not to take that route. The option is to coerce the Opposition into some form of order by use of police, the military and other militias as happened last week.