KAMPALA – Uganda has begun scrapping the last constitutional restriction preventing President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 31 years, from remaining in office for life.
Analysts fear it could lead to unrest in a country that has never witnessed a peaceful handover of power since independence in 1962. Discontent with the president has been fuelled by a stuttering economy and a crackdown on dissent and protests.
The initiative to amend the article banning anyone over 75 from running for president has triggered unprecedented fighting in parliament on two consecutive days. It has also led to widespread protests for more than a week that have been brutally suppressed by the police.
MPs on Wednesday approved a petition to allow a private members bill that would amend the relevant article of the constitution. Mr Museveni, 73, a former rebel leader, will be 77 in 2021, the year of the next presidential election.
The amendment is expected to pass because Mr Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement and independents who support him make up well over the two-thirds of MPs required to change the constitution.
Recently, the leaders of Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all altered laws or used the courts to enable them to stay in office longer than allowed by the constitution.
Public opinion appears to be against scrapping the age limit. A survey by Afrobaromter, a pan-African non-partisan organisation, found that three-quarters of respondents opposed the move.
Mr Museveni’s supporters said the move was nothing to do with the president but merely seeking to end “unfair discrimination”, according to Evelyn Anite, the privatisation and investment minister.
“There’s no upper limit for a person to vote,” she said. “So the argument is if I have the right to vote I should have the right to be voted for.”
But critics argue the initiative is all about perpetuating Mr Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian rule. It comes as the economy has shrunk in US dollar terms for the past two years, according to the World Bank, and services such as health and education are failing many Ugandans.
“It’s a matter that’s being done in bad faith to promote the interests of one man,” said Felix Okot-Ogong, one of a handful of NRM legislators opposing the move. “In 2005 we amended the constitution to get rid of term limits so President Museveni could stay in office. This amendment is coming just to promote his interests, too. The country is turning into a monarchy.”
Many analysts say that although Mr Museveni’s support slipped in the 2016 election to 60.6 per cent from 68.4 per cent in 2011, he maintains a tight enough grip on the security forces, electoral commission and judiciary to win several more elections.
While the authorities have cracked down on protests against the constitutional amendment, demonstrations by supporters of the change have been allowed.
After fighting broke out in parliament on Tuesday during an opposition filibuster against the motion, the government banned TV stations from broadcasting Wednesday’s parliamentary session live, a move denounced by open governance activists.
Last Thursday the police raided ActionAid Uganda and the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, two civil society groups that have been campaigning to retain the presidential age limit.
“If term limits were the handbrake on President Museveni’s authoritarianism, the age limit is the footbrake,” said Arthur Larok, the country director of ActionAid Uganda. “If we destroy it the country will slide into anarchy because the last effective check on his power will have gone.”
Mr Museveni has remained silent on the subject, trying to distance himself from the debate.
Don Wanyama, his spokesman, said: “The president has his agenda and that’s what he’s pursuing. Others can focus on what they deem to be crucial but he doesn’t’ necessarily have to join them.”
However, in 1986 Mr Museveni said: “The problem of Africa, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Museveni on age
1986 “The problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
2012 “I think after the age of 75 there is some scientific idea there that maybe the vigour is not as much as before . . . I think if you want very active leaders it is good to have ones below the age of 75.”
2016 “We can’t be in the middle of a forest and want the old man to go. This is not right. We must concentrate on development. My time will come and I will go. I don’t fear going but we must first see where we go.”
2017 “I think you should ask the medical doctors. I should not interfere with their work. You should get a medical report about the fitness of someone past 75 years: on whether that person is physically fit to lead or not?”
From the 2016 update to his autobiography Sowing the Mustard Seed: There are now people of presidential calibre ad capacity who can take over when I retire, and I shall be among the first to back them.