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Removing the presidential age limit in Uganda: the power of cash and coercion

With a median age of 15 years, Ugandans are likely to continue to be ruled by a man who could easily be their great grandfather. 

Anna Reuss Kristof Titeca
7 August 2017
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President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning by DFID. Flickr. Some rights reserved.A few weeks ago, reggae star Bobi Wine won a landslide victory in a parliamentary by-election on the outskirts of the capital Kampala. The ‘Ghetto President’, as he is known by his fans, portrays himself as a representative of the youth that feels left behind by government: At 35 years old, the political newcomer has thus just passed the minimum constitutional age limit for the real-life presidency some rumour him to aspire to.

And yet, with a median age of 15 years, Ugandans are likely to continue to be ruled by a man who could easily be their great grandfather. Efforts to remove the constitutional age limit of 75 years for the presidency that currently bars three decade ruler Yoweri Museveni from running again in 2021 are now in full swing.

The president has strongly distanced himself from any proposal to lift the age limit contained in the Constitution, dismissing it as a waste of time when he is busy with work. In a 2012 interview, Museveni had flatly denied intentions to stay on beyond the age of 75 .

Of course, it seems that it is indeed the president himself that is engineering the constitutional changes, a highly sensitive affair that requires skilful manoeuvring. Many members of the ruling party in parliament, which has to pass constitutional changes with a 2/3 majority, say they are still undecided or – openly or quietly – oppose the lifting of the age limit. Youth associated with opposition political parties have launched Inchi Yetu (Our country), led by the 25-year-old national youth MP Anna Adeke (independent), to oppose the age limit removal.

In other words, Museveni and his allies still have some work to do to have the constitutional amendment passed, as there is quite some opposition to the proposal.

Patronage and coercion have traditionally played a role in keeping the ‘big tent’ together, from the no-party system through to the present day.

How will the President and his allies have the proposal passed?  

As Museveni’s regime is getting increasingly divided, it is relying more and more on patronage and coercion – strategies discussed in great detail in the recently published paper ‘When revolutionaries grow old: the Museveni babies and the slow death of the liberation’, which are summarised below.

Patronage and coercion have traditionally played a role in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) to keep the ‘big tent’ together, from the no-party system through to the present day.

Patronage used to be strongly intertwined with other sources of legitimacy, and more particularly the liberation struggle which brought the Museveni regime to power. For a long time, having brought peace to the country, was a major source of legitimacy for the wider population. The generation of ‘freedom fighters’ also provided the necessary internal cohesion and legitimacy within the NRM bound by sentiments of comradeship and decades-old personal ties.

Then with changing demographics and the defection of many liberation veterans (from Besigye, Mbabazi to Sejusa), this situation changed: patronage and coercion became increasingly important. Internally, to keep an increasingly divided party together and externally, to keep the youth on its side – much of the current generation were born under the Museveni regime, and have never known another leader. These dynamics are already visible in the discussion around the age limit, and will become more so over the months to come. So what has happened so far?

Working the (inner) crowd

First, the President and his allies have been working the crowd. The age limit removal has been mooted in different forums over the past years. In 2014, a proposal to remove the age limit for judges resulted in a standoff between President and legal fraternity. In this case, which was by many viewed as a test balloon for the presidential age limit, the president sought to keep Chief Justice Odoki in office past the constitutional age limit for judges– an endeavour that ultimately failed.

In July 2016, 120 NRM district party chairpersons petitioned the President with a request to remove the constitutional age limit of 75 years.

In early July, the age limit debate gained new impetus when the relevant article of the Constitution (Art. 102(b)) was gazetted for amendment. The bill to remove the constitutional age limit for the presidency is expected to be tabled before the end of the year, and the campaigns of proponents and opponents are beginning to take shape.

A number of key figures in party and cabinet have over the past month come out to openly declare their support for the President.

A number of key figures in party and cabinet have over the past month come out to openly declare their support for the President. Long-time opposition party leader Beti Kamya who in 2016 was appointed state minister for Kampala and turned from harsh critic to ardent supporter of the President said Museveni should rule as long as he wants, adding that he alone was more intelligent than his entire cabinet of 80 ministers combined. A statement for which she was much criticised.

Some Museveni allies have been trying to present the removal of the age limit as an opportunity for the youth – a group within the NRM is reportedly pushing for the age lowered to 18 years, a move primarily viewed as a decoy that is ultimately geared at passing the constitutional changes to enable Museveni to stay in power, rather than the rise of young leaders. NRM stalwart in parliament, retired Col. Mwesigye, also came out strongly in support of the constitutional changes, arguing that leaders of all ages, from 18 upwards, should be given the right to run for presidency.

Most recently, the President’s private secretary for political affairs David Mafabi’s entered the fray when he chaired a group of NRM members who resolved to support the amendment of Art 102 (b) of the constitution.

Cash bonanza?

The above efforts are largely internal to the NRM, and therefore by far insufficient to convince everyone. What else can the President do, particularly to convince all MPs?

This is where patronage comes in, and particularly cash handouts. These have become increasingly important for the regime. For example, in 2013, each MP received USD 1880 to ‘promote’ the controversial Marriage and Divorce Bill in their constituencies. Between May and October 2015, NRM MPs received at least USD 1.64 million to popularise the sole candidature motion and de-campaign presidential candidate Mbabazi.

In other words, hard currency is in demand. 

In other words, hard currency is in demand. The bonanza that the age limit removal promises to be to many entrepreneurial politicians and political operators in the wider sense is slowly gaining pace.

In June, some MPs who are fronting the lifting of the age limit gifted their yet unconvinced colleagues with bags of sugar and an envelope with 300 USD. When the constitutional term limits were removed in 2005, brown envelopes were handed out to MPs containing 3,000 USD. Yet, the price MPs are rumoured to have demanded this time is much higher – 80,000 USD cash per head  – an increased amount not only reflecting monetary inflation, but particularly the inflationary use of financial patronage by the Museveni regime.

There is no doubt that also beyond the parliament, cash will also play a crucial role: many buy-offs will be required to serve all the constituencies, many of which have developed an ardent sense of political entrepreneurialism in an economy where presidential handouts for many are the only gain to reap: politics, and particularly the elections, are getting increasingly commercialised.  

This was already visible in the sole candidature motion ahead of the 2016 elections that sought to pre-empt a showdown between the President and his challenger then NRM Secretary General and Prime Minister Mbabazi, in party primaries. NRM youth were divided and were competing for buy-offs from respective candidates rather than fighting over issues. While some NRM youth recently have expressed their support for the lifting of age limits, others have openly spoken out against the planned constitutional changes.

A state of fear

Securing the lifting of the age limit will not only require cash, but also a tight grip on those opposing it on the streets. Both the actual use and the threat of force have consistently been used as a strategy by the regime.

The 2016 elections illustrated this clearly, when NRM Secretary General Justine Kasule Lumumba, for example, warned mothers in a village that ‘the state will kill your children’ if they were to protest in Kampala. At his closing campaign in February 2016, Museveni openly warned voters of instability and violence should the NRM fail to secure a majority and opposition ‘disrupt peace’.

Opinion polls show how the majority of the Ugandans do not believe the President would peacefully leave power. These sentiments equally play a role in the discussion around the age limit: the regime projects an image of chaos and instability onto a leadership without Museveni. Another NRA old hand even warned in July that Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army rebels may capture Kampala, if Museveni does not stay on in 2021.

Opposition and youth groups are sure to fight the lifting of the age limit, with whatever little means they have, and the government is likely going to restrict their space ever more. In July, 56 FDC supporters who were found with anti-age limit removal campaign material, were arrested near Kampala.  They were detained in the feared Nalufenya police station that had in recent months made headlines over cruel torture of suspects, after they were found gathering in groups with anti-age limit removal campaign material. NRM youth leaders who criticised the age limit removal were also arrested in mid-July.

The combination of patronage and coercion will become increasingly prominent over the months and year(s) to come, with the campaign for the removal of the age-limit to further heat up. A Ugandan analyst dared to say what some others quietly think too, ‘let’s get the inevitable age limit removal circus over with, whatever the cost of bribing MPs, and give Museveni a constitutional option of staying in power – for the sake of ‘peace’’.

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