NRM MPs last week unveiled a private member’s bill aimed at removing presidential age limits from the Constitution.
Already in power for over 30 years, President Museveni will be 77 by the 2021 elections, making him too old to run for re-election, the constitutional limit being 75.
The age limit question has dominated political debate in Uganda sine the 2016 elections, with NRM leaders considering various options for how and when (not whether) to amend the constitution.
With the private member’s bill now due to be tabled in Parliament, the battle lines have finally been drawn. MPs—and the security forces—are now moving into position.
What is in the bill
Article 102(b) of the 1995 Constitution currently states that a presidential candidate must be between the ages of 35 and 75 to contest.
The private member’s bill proposes to replace this with the simple provision that any registered voter can run for the presidency.
Some proponents of the bill have argued that scrapping the lower as well as upper age limit is a progressive move, creating room for Uganda’s youth to aspire to the presidency as well. On those grounds, various youth groups, such as Kick Age Limits out of the Constitution, are being mobilised to help popularise the amendment.
The bill also proposes several additional amendments, including one to increase the amount of time permitted when filing presidential election petitions and extending the deadline by which the Supreme Court must reach a decision.
Supporters of the bill point to these proposed changes as evidence that they are not only concerned with the age limit, and Museveni’s so-called “life presidency”. Rather, they claim to be responding in good faith to Supreme Court’s recommendations following Mbabazi’s petition of the 2016 presidential results.
Mixing regressive amendments with seemingly more forward-looking ones is a long-standing NRM strategy, as in 2005, the decision to scrap presidential term limits was softened by the move to reintroduce multiparty politics.
The Bill, prepared in secret, was revealed at an informal gathering of NRM MPs, at least one of whom rose in protest after learning what the meeting was about.
The group backing the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill included both backbench MPs and several Cabinet ministers.
A small number of NRM MPs have since denounced the legislation and proposed an alternative private motion urging government to constitute a Constitutional Review Commission.
The Cabinet, however, went ahead and endorsed the original private member’s bill. An overwhelming 287 NRM MPs then voted to support the legislation at a formal party caucus meeting. Only six MPs dissented
In total, the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill is estimated to command the support of over 300 MPs in Parliament, which to pass needs the backing of two-thirds of the House or 298 MPs.
Why a private member’s bill
The Ugandan Parliament has a long history of passing controversial and highly significant private member’s bills.
The current move is nevertheless noteworthy.
Previous legislation, such as the Administration of Parliament Bill (1997) and Budget Bill (2000), both of which aimed to strengthen the legislature, met with strong opposition from Government.
Not all past private member’s bills had “progressive” aims. But until the age limit issue came up, they were not generally used as a tool by the executive to push its agenda.
The decision of NRM leaders to opt now for a private member’s bill is indicative of two related trends.
First, the constitutional review process has become increasingly piecemeal and informal.
The 1995 Constitution was adopted following several years of nation-wide consultations, a careful drafting process by a constitutional commission, and 18 months of debate by the elected Constituent Assembly. The new Constitution was then held up as evidence that Uganda had turned a page in its troubled history, that it was moving towards a consolidated democracy.
Since then, the Constitution has been gradually weakened, most notably with the 2005 scrapping of presidential term limits. All constitutional amendments up to now nevertheless came from Government and followed some pretence of a constitutional review process.
This time, though, Ministers were frank in stating that their chief concern was to push through the changes as quickly as possible. “If you don’t bring this amendment early enough to allow damage control and explanations, it will be difficult”, advised the NRM Chief Whip at a parliamentary caucus meeting on Wednesday.
Discussing what it meant to amend the supreme law of the land, another Minister declared that Article 102(b) on age limits was “disorganized” and that the aim was to “organize” it.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that critical MPs have suggested people start referring to the Constitution of Uganda as “the Constitution of NRM and Museveni”.
The informal approach to constitutional amendments aside, the second reason for the use of a private member’s bill relates to Museveni’s dependence on the NRM parliamentary caucus as a support base.
It was an MP who, at a parliamentary caucus retreat in 2014, got down on her knees to move a motion endorsing Museveni as the sole presidential candidate for the 2016 polls. This came amidst rumours that then Prime Minister Mbabazi was planning to run against him. NRM MPs were later sent to mobilise in support of the sole candidacy motion, each receiving Shs300,000 per constituency meeting.
NRM legislators do resist the President at times, a recent example being their rejection (at least for now) of a proposed constitutional amendment on land. But when it comes to defending Museveni’s presidency, they fall into line. A mix of ambition and patronage can also turn what were independent MPs into loyal cadres.
The MP tasked with tabling the age limit bill in Parliament, one Raphael Magyezi, is a case in point. After first being elected to Parliament in 2011, Magyezi was identified with a small group of “rebel” NRM MPs who, among other things, denounced Museveni’s long stay in power. He later turned, though, and lost his independent reputation.
The choice of Magyezi to table the age limit bill is also interesting in that it may help sway the one person who could pose an obstacle, the sometimes-independent Speaker Rebecca Kadaga. Magyezi was the chairman of the special taskforce that Kadaga assembled to spearhead her hard-fought campaign for re-election as Speaker.
While it is unlikely that Kadaga would interfere with the age limit amendment, having a strong supporter as the face of the bill certainly can’t hurt as a precautionary measure.
Where to from here
The plan was to table the bill in Parliament yesterday.
This coincided with a security crackdown in Kampala and in some regional towns. Police raided NGO offices, the Kampala Mayor was arrested along with journalists, the headquarters of two opposition parties were sealed off, groups of protesters across the capital city were shot at with rubber bullets and teargas, their leaders were arrested, a police helicopter circled the city centre, Parliament was surrounded by police and soldiers, and some oppositional MPs were reportedly blocked by police from entering the building.
The US Embassy in Kampala issued a statement expressing concern “that recent arrests and raids stifle the Ugandan people’s right to free expression.” Government spokesperson Ofwondo Opondo later responded that government “wont’ take unqualified lectures from foreign agents.”
The tension in the streets did not stop MPs from attending Parliament. They packed the Chamber, an unusual event given that House debates often go ahead without quorum. One anti-age limit MP showed up in a yellow VW Bug and dressed from leather shoes to baseball cap in the same official NRM colour. An opposition MP, meanwhile, came in a red track suit, declaring that if the constitution could be changed, she could change her dress code.
The debate was a non-starter, though, after Deputy Speaker Oulanyah failed to secure order in the House amidst loud whistling and singing of the national anthem by opposition MPs. He eventually adjourned Parliament till next week, giving him time to consult with Speaker Kadaga on the way forward.
While it is unclear exactly how events will unfold, Parliament will likely soon enact the age limit bill. The real question is what happens after that.
Many Ugandans on social media yesterday likened the general drift of President Museveni’s regime with the administration of former President Milton Obote in the 1960s. One MP recalled the “constitutional trickery” that took place in 1966 and culminated with the adoption of the “pigeon-hole” constitution, so called because MPs found it ready-drafted in their mail while the parliamentary building was surrounded by armed soldiers.
Certainly, Museveni’s own one-time assertion that he would break with the past, letting “people of presidential calibre and capacity” take over, has not aged well. Some of his most ardent supporters have also abandoned all pretences, warning, “They should know that we are the party in power, we have the support of the maggye [army], you cannot tell us Togikwatako [don’t touch it, article 102(b)].”
There is clearly cause for concern not only about next week’s parliamentary session but, more fundamentally, about what a post-Museveni Uganda might look like. The pre-Museveni period does not offer much positive inspiration, but with no clear succession plan and a strong—but factionally divided—security force, it is understandable that people are looking to Uganda’s history to make sense of its current path.