After allegations of vote rigging in the February polls, Uganda’s President of 30 years—Yoweri Museveni—has adopted a placating tone, promising that this term “hakuna michezo” (no games, no playing around).
The rhetoric is certainly ambitious. Three years ago, Uganda launched Vision 2040, which projects that the country will reach lower middle income status by 2032 and upper middle income status by 2040. Now that timeframe has shrunk remarkably; President Museveni’s new wish is for Uganda to reach middle income status by 2020.
But despite the promises, politics is once again getting in the way. With the presidential elections only just concluded, attention has already shifted to the next round. The main preoccupation is how to ensure Museveni’s name stays on the ballot.
In 2005, Uganda’s Parliament amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, thereby freeing President Museveni to contest for a third term. Museveni is now set to run up against a second constitutional hurdle. By the 2021 general elections, he will have exceeded the age limit of 75 years.
The leadership of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) now appear to be testing the waters, gauging the response to a fresh constitutional amendment. In July, the NRM District Conference in Kywankwanzi passed a resolution urging Members of Parliament to move a motion lifting presidential age limits. Museveni later met with a group of MPs supportive of the reforms during an NRM party retreat before convening another meeting with district leaders shortly thereafter.
In late August, an NRM MPs went ahead and tabled a private member’s bill in Parliament, calling for, among other issues, the removal of constitutional age limits for judges. However, observers judged that the real focus of the bill had little to do with age limits for judges. Once parliament initiates a debate on a particular constitutional amendment, members are free to recommend additional change, for instance to eliminate presidential age limits. The MP responsible for tabling the bill, Kafeero Ssekitoleko, is seen as close to the First Family. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how else he might come to benefit from a new security detail apparently linked to the Special Forces Command, a military unit headed by Museveni’s son.
If the bill was in fact introduced to test the waters, it revealed that the time is not yet ripe for an amendment. It divided ministers when discussed in Cabinet and was opposed by both NRM and opposition MPs in Parliament. On 14 September, the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, threw it out, declaring it was not for MPs to start playing with the constitution.
While many believe Parliament will eventually pass an amendment, more political spade work is still needed.
Above all else, elimination presidential age limits will be expensive. While the NRM may seem hegemonic and Museveni like the linchpin of the party, this should not distract from the often tense bargaining needed to retain the status quo. And Museveni’s number one tool for maintaining loyalty is money.
A key strategic focus for Museveni’s largesse is Parliament, whose members are ultimately responsible for waving through any constitutional amendments. Whereas MPs received Shs5m to remove presidential term limits in 2005, the price will be considerably higher this time around.
Already he has acquiesced to rising levels of parliamentary patronage. Over the past several parliamentary sessions, the legislature’s budget has more than quadrupled. The cost seems increasingly difficult to justify, not least when key sectors such as agriculture—which employs an estimated 40 percent of Uganda’s workforce—are only barely keeping pace (see Fig 1).
Public opinion is certainly at odds with this increase in spending. Earlier this month, activists from a group going by the name Jobless Youth released piglets outside of Parliament, painted with party colours and labelled with the names of MPs singled out as amongst the worst offenders. This action was spurred notably by news of MPs using public funds to finance seemingly unnecessary trips as well as luxuries such as iPads (Shs 2bn/USD 590k) and cars (Shs 84bn/USD 24m).
The Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, continues to defend Parliament’s spending, returning to what is becoming a recurring theme, namely that Parliament should get the same perks as the President: “If the public wants MPs to buy vehicles for themselves, let us first see President Museveni driving his personal vehicle […].” Kadaga has displayed an independent streak in the past—opposing measures backed by Museveni—and is believed to harbour presidential ambitions of her own. Given her latest move to scrap Ssekitoleko’s private member’s bill, she is an important figure for the President to win over.
In addition to Parliament’s more routine spending, rumours abound that the President—notably through his brother Salim Saleh—is distributing money to certain MPs in Parliament responsible for mobilising cliques to back government measures. These include Ssekitoleko as well as Muhammed Nsereko and Barnabas Tinkasiimire, both ‘rebel’ MPS previously expelled from the NRM but now seemingly back in the government’s good books.
Earlier this week, Museveni cast the net a bit wider. He invited all surviving Members of Parliament—past and present—to an awards ceremony where each was given a medal and a generous “transport refund.” Museveni also issued a vague promise to the 1,162 legislators present, indicating that, “On the issue of the welfare of former MPs, we have been thinking about how to solve this issue. […] We are going to sit down and discuss.”
What about “hakuna michezo”?
Despite Museveni’s promises to knuckle down, Uganda’s economy is moving at a lacklustre pace.
The latest blow came with the World Bank’s decision to suspend new lending due to “outstanding performance issues in the portfolio, including delays in project effectiveness, weaknesses in safeguards monitoring and enforcement, and low disbursement.”
The lending freeze is stoking fears of more domestic borrowing, which would drive up already high interest rates and lower credit growth.
Sadly, Uganda’s middle income dream is looking very distant indeed. Meanwhile in the political arena, the games never stopped.