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Museveni: the next ‘benevolent’ President for life?

In Uganda, Museveni and his supporters battle to remove the constitutional age limit which bars him from running again, by presenting himself as the expression of "the masses'"' wishes.

Ivan Ashaba Kristof Titeca
18 October 2017
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Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office. CC-BY-2.0.Three weeks ago, images of clashes between Uganda’s opposition and government MPs in the Ugandan parliament went viral. These clashes evolved around the potential amendment of the country’s constitution, which would pave way for the removal of the maximum age for presidential candidates at 75. At 73, President Museveni is constitutionally barred from running again; and the recently introduced bill aims to change this.

At the time of the clashes in parliament – which had a negative effect on Uganda’s image in the world – Museveni himself was out of the country, attending meetings in New York and in Brussels. By creating an apparent distance between himself and ongoing efforts to install himself as president for life, he is attempting to portray himself as the benevolent victim of the masses’ wishes, only obeying what his citizens want, but at the same time taking various measures to ensure the bill will pass.

What has happened so far?

The process started on the 21st September when a motion to seek leave of absence from parliament to prepare the bill was on the order paper of the plenary session. This provoked a strong reaction of opposition legislators, who stonewalled proceedings by heckling and shouting, causing an adjournment until September 26. Also this plenary session got off to a chaotic start: one opposition MP accused an NRM legislator of entering the legislative chamber with a firearm (a claim later confirmed by the Speaker of Parliament).

This deteriorated into a physical confrontation as brawling lawmakers pushed, shoved and threw chairs. The session was again adjourned until September 27, when even worse fighting broke out: speaker Rebecca Kadaga started the plenary session by announcing the suspension of a group of 25 mostly opposition MPs for obstructing parliamentary business the previous day. Most of the suspended MPs defied the speaker, who then ordered the eviction of the group, leading to clashes between the legislators and plain clothes operatives attached to the elite Special Forces Command (SFC), who eventually kicked out the MPs. Only then – after most of the opposition was either kicked out, or walked out – was the motion passed, allowing discussions of the bill to be started.  

After being tabled for a first reading on the 3rd of October, the bill has now been sent to the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee, which is expected to hold public hearings. In a final stage, the bill – in its current or modified form – will come up for vote in the parliament, with media reports indicating that the president wants the bill passed by November. In theory, none of this should pose much of a problem, as the NRM has a firm numerical majority: of the 446 legislators in the 10th parliament, NRM has 297 – guaranteeing a two third majority necessary for a constitutional amendment. While the opposition still has the possibility of legal battles contesting the proposed amendment – a first petition was introduced with the Constitutional Court on the 3rd of October –those suits are not expected to amount to much.

What has opposition done to protest the bill?

As a sign of what they claimed to be their willingness to pay the ultimate price while protecting the constitution, opposition MPs have been wearing red headbands or red fez caps: Earlier in July, Uganda’s oldest political party, the Democratic Party, had launched a campaign called ‘Kogikwatako,’ or ‘Don’t touch it’ in Luganda. “Kogikwatako” and other variants soon became the slogan of the struggle to keep the age limit, and started trending on Ugandan social media.

At the same time of the parliamentary debates, a range of protests broke out in Uganda. At Uganda’s oldest university, Makerere, police engaged in running battles with students opposed to lifting of the age limit. The protests also spread to other districts outside Kampala, such as Arua, Lira, Bugiri and Mukono. In a few other cases, leading opposition figures like Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Kiiza Besigye were either arrested or prevented from leaving their homes.

These protests, although small in scale, seem to reflect that the ‘masses’ perhaps are not that much in favor of removing age-limits: a new poll by Afro barometer, found that 75% of the Ugandans polled want the age limit to stay. Support for the age barrier stood at 67 percent even among NRM followers.

Similar concerns are raised by other actors within society: Religious leaders, under their umbrella body the Inter-Religious Council, called for a referendum to decide the age-limit issue, a move that failed to gain momentum. Other religious leaders, and more particularly the umbrella body Justice and Peace Network have condemned police attacks towards people opposed to age limit removal. More recently, Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama and other Acholi religious leaders called on the president to retire at 75, adding that any attempts to amend the age limit would “tantamount to treason”. Equally interesting was the Buganda kingdom’s stand – a powerful political and social force in the country – statement cautioning Museveni to act carefully on constitution-related issue, and sympathizing with those injured in the fight in the parliament. There also have been reports of pro-age limit removal MP’s who were harassed at various occasions.

These protests seem to reflect that the ‘masses’ perhaps are not that much in favor of removing age-limits.

The regime equally has been strong in its response to criticism: a number of NGO offices have been raided in actions which were clearly targeted towards voices critical of the bill. On September 20, 2017, police raided the headquarters of Action Aid Uganda on suspicion of funding anti-age limit removal activities. This was followed by Bank of Uganda freezing the assets of Action Aid over alleged money laundering. Other similar searches have taken place at other Civil Society Organisations.  

There have also been grenade attacks on the homes of a number of opposition MPs. Although flash grenades (for training purposes), and although the regime distances itself from these attacks, it points to the general atmosphere of fear around the age limit topic given that all three legislators are vocal critics of the anti-age limit removal. The regime pressure is particularly increasing for Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-politician who has managed to translate his popularity along political lines, and who has become a vocal critic of the regime and anti-age limit bill. Both nationally and internationally, his opposition received much attention, making him a central figure in the ongoing protests. Confirming this status is President Museveni’s personal response to Kyagulanyi’s recent critique. Kyagulanyi has been detained several times in the last weeks, and there are indications that the regime also starts targeting his entourage.

What about internal opposition?

The NRM is no homogenous entity. In the past, there have been various internal tensions, both between the executive and legislative branch, and among NRM MP’s, in which NRM MP’s frequently rebel against the party line. This was visible in the politicking around the anti-gay bill.

For example, the speaker of the parliament and senior member of the ruling NRM party, Rebecca Kadaga, has a reputation of acting independently – the ‘rebel’ MP case being a good example. Also in the run-up to the age-limit bill, this seemed to be the case: Kadaga had previously said she would not accept piecemeal efforts to amend the constitution and urged the government to bring an omnibus bill with broad proposals. Earlier, the speaker had for example rejected a private member’s bill which sought among other things to allow judges to stay in office after clocking 70 years of age – a decision welcomed with cheers and clapping from other law makers.

However, she quickly abandoned this more ‘independent’ approach, with stories speculating that State House had ‘broken Kadaga’s back’ by applying pressure so she would prioritize the bill on the order paper.

With the exception of ten ruling party MPs opposed to the lifting of the age limit, not much other internal opposition has materialized: unlike prior to the lifting of term limits in 2005 when some senior ministers opposed the move, this time no single senior government official has openly criticized the move to lift the age limit. Only retired politicians (such as former Democratic Party President Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, former Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya, former Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi) and a cantankerous presidential adviser named John Nagenda have warned against the move.

The senior command of the army has been silent, with all 10 army legislators supporting the motion, unlike in 2005 when two army MPs opposed the move or abstained from voting. In fact, this time an outspoken junior investment minister named Evelyn Anite claimed the NRM has the support of the army to push back against pro-democracy agitators. The army spokesperson responded, “The UPDF has established structures and 10 Members of Parliament through whom it can make its views known when necessary”.

It is clear that the regime will again use sticks and carrots to make sure everyone follows the party line: apart from applying pressure, it also emerged that MP’s will receive around 5,500 USD to ‘consult with their constituents’ on the age-limit bill. In doing so, the regime not only aims to buy off the MP’s, the consultation also serves as a response to the religious leaders’ and other actors’ call for a referendum.

What about Museveni himself?

Museveni for most of the time remained coy on the matter. Earlier while responding to a journalist’s question during a special Question-and-Answer session at State House in Entebbe, Museveni dismissed those pushing for the removal of the age limit as “those who don’t have what to do” who are “wasting their time”, while he – Museveni – is “busy with his work”. At other times, he indicated he did not even realize there was a political debate raging in Uganda. However, at a recent NRM parliamentary caucus meeting, Museveni (finally) explained why he needs more time as president, citing the desire to advance Pan-Africanism and the integration of the East African community. He equally appeared on the radio promising to deal with any opposition blocking the age limit motion.

Museveni has always portrayed himself as the popular leader who follows the wishes of the people. These kind of strategies are not new: in neighboring Rwanda President Paul Kagame is serving a third term after Rwandans ostensibly begged him to run again. Kagame’s third term also followed changes to the constitution.

Yet, it is clear for everyone involved that this is a clearly orchestrated manoeuvre by Museveni. For example, pictures emerged of him with an NRM youth pressure group for the age-limit removal. A similar strategy was used for the 2016 electoral nominations, when a veterans league pushed for Museveni’s sole candidature.

Further indicating this strategy is the way in which the bill has been introduced: while it is legally permissible for an individual MP to initiate legislation through a private member’s bill, it is traditionally, the Cabinet bringing business to Parliament (through the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip). In this case, this did not happen. Why was this the case? Also here, the regime wants to create an image that Museveni is not the initiator of this move. Instead, Museveni wants to project himself as a reluctant beneficiary, and having the bill originate from Cabinet would not serve that purpose. So a private member, with the full backing of Cabinet, was the safer option as Museveni gauged the national mood. Along the same lines, the bill is presented in a general manner, arguing that the age cap is discriminatory, rather than specifically presenting the bill for the person of Museveni.  

In sum, none of the above sounds particularly new: a President portraying himself as a victim of his popularity of the masses, aiming to amend the constitution in his favor, by simultaneously distancing himself from it and making sure sticks and carrots are used to push the amendment through. In this sense, the clashes in the parliament were bad news, as well as the (inter)national attention to Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, bringing unnecessary international attention to an event which as such should in theory not pose much of a problem. In order to avoid more of this unnecessary attention, it is to be expected that the age limit bill is pushed through as quickly as possible.

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