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Proof that Constitutionalism is not the Way forward for Africa: Case of the Uganda Presidential Age Cap Debate


Political circumstances would be boring if played out in any other theatre, but the African political scene is never without its page-turners. After months of speculation and repeated government denial, it will be a pleasant surprise if Uganda’s Constitution remains unchanged to deny President Museveni a chance to be President for Life through the removal of the presidential age limit.

In July, a whatsapp video purporting rumored plans to amend Article 102 (b) of the Ugandan Constitution to enable President Museveni run for president in 2021 was making rounds. Article 102 (b) sets the age range for president at 35 to 75 years of age, and Museveni who will be 76 in 2021 cannot run for the presidency again - unless the constitution is amended by the MPs. Apart from the video, some ministers and MPs publicly spoke in favor of lifting the age limit to the presidency, while others have remained strongly opposed to the idea.

In another initiative, activists collected the telephone numbers of all MPs in the 10th Parliament, on whose shoulders the decision to lift the age cap could eventually rest if a Constitution amendment Bill is tabled in the House with that clause. The phone numbers were widely shared on WhatsApp with pleas for people to call their MPs and urge them not to change the Constitution. In yet another initiative, some Ugandans drafted petitions addressed to President Museveni, urging him not to change the age limit for the presidency.

Government officials and, in particular, President Yoweri Museveni, persistently denied that the state is mooting the idea of amending the Constitution to lift the presidential age limit and went ahead to clamp down on those against the idea. On July 20th, Police in Uganda arrested at least 53 people including an opposition leader (Norbert Mao, leader of the Democratic Party) alongside his supporters for demonstrating against a plan to amend the constitution and scrap the presidential age limit. The same month, two people accused of burning tyres, and T-shirts bearing the picture of President Yoweri Museveni, in protest of the proposal to amend the Constitution and remove limits were arrested by Police in Kampala. In a statement, 04 August, by the minister of ICT and national guidance and government spokesperson, Frank Tumwebaze, government directed the police and other security agencies to "firmly take action" against 'intolerant' Ugandans especially those opposed to lifting of the presidential age limit.

Clearly, these denials were merely delay tactics over a debate that has now officially gotten underway. Over 245 National Resistance Movement (the ruling NRM) MPs and NRM-leaning independents on 12 September announced that they intend to table a bill in parliament seeking to amend Article 102(b) of the Constitution. At least eight legislators from the ruling party, opposition and independents on 13 September vowed to block any attempts by their colleagues to have the 75-year presidential age limit cap lifted. Patrick Nsamba, Kassanda North MP and an NRM member stated: “My conscience tells me that this is not good for this country. I am going to pray and fast so that this resolution does not come to pass”. An Independent, Muhammad Nsereko from Kampala Central also decried this move: “We have been telling Ugandans that these NRM MPs are not trustworthy and don't say what they mean. Their intention right from the start was to remove age limits but people thought we were dreaming. Please voters, call them to ask who gave them the right to amend the constitution without your consent.” Allan Ssewanyana of Makindye West representing the Democratic Party (DP) added his voice in criticizing this move: “What they are doing is very dangerous and we are going to do something to block such a move. We shall come ready to fight. We must fight to preserve the dignity of our constitution.” These legislators are in the process of ensuring that the debate on the age limit lifting is blocked in addition to making sure speaker of parliament, Kadaga, does not preside over the matter. While the tabling of the Bill had initially been slated for Thursday, September 14, it was postponed to Thursday, September 21, because of Kadaga's absence, whom the NRM MPs prefer to handle the Bill.

Museveni has already benefitted from a change of the Constitution, when in 2005 the two five-year term cap to the presidency was removed, and sweetened somewhat by the return to multiparty politics. It is mooted that the proposal to remove the presidential age limit will come alongside another proposal to reinstate term limits, so that one may be elected president at any age, but may not rule beyond two terms. In the current planning for lifting the age limit, a team was sent to Burundi on a fact-finding mission to study what went wrong in the plan so that it is not repeated in Uganda, especially since it is anticipated that there will be resistance to the amendment. Certain sections of the police and military are likely to be enhanced, and more equipment will be procured for the purpose. Besides, the acquiescence of as many people will be obtained with key opinion leaders, especially religious leaders offered money to keep quiet about the amendment or speak in favour of it.

In an interview with NTV in 2012, he had said he would not support amending the constitution to scrap presidential age limit, saying active leaders are those below 75 years. However, in a nighttime press briefing at State House Entebbe on September 13, President Museveni said the NRM and Independent MPs who decided to set into motion the process that will ultimately free him up to run for the presidency again, were free to debate the age-limit. Asked whether he would consider running for presidency in 2021, Museveni said it is the task of medical doctors to determine that.

While President Museveni had been largely credited for restoring stability in Uganda after two dictators (Amin and Obote) known for torture, extrajudicial executions and directing the suppression of a brutal insurgency known for mutilating civilians, over the years, he has met criticism over the mounting suppression of the political opposition, widespread corruption and a poor human rights record. Despite this, he may once again have his way with this a constitutional amendment to become another President for Life.

By Hubert Kinkoh
Proof that Constitutionalism is not the Way forward for Africa: Case of the Uganda Presidential Age Cap Debate Proof that Constitutionalism is not the Way forward for Africa: Case of the Uganda Presidential Age Cap Debate Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on September 19, 2017 Rating: 5

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