The Daily Monitor of October 5, had a screaming headline: ‘Removing age limit is treason – Odama’. This was in reference to a press release the previous day by religious leaders in Acholi leaders under their umbrella organisation – Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). Indeed, this paper produced the full statement verbatim signed John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu Archdiocese. In the statement, the religious leaders assert thus “our role is to advise the citizens of Uganda to stand on the basis of truth in this matter since the Bible teaches that whoever has the truth and the courage is the majority”. I agree that the truth must be told to Ugandans. The truth in terms of what the law says and what is going on with respect to the proposed constitutional amendments.
The truth is that the framers of the 1995 Constitution included Chapter 18, titled ‘Amendment of the Constitution’, and carries Articles from 259 to 263. Articles 260, 261 and 262 are quite instructive as they elaborate on how the various articles of the Constitution can be amended, namely, those that require a referendum; those that require approval by district councils; and those that can be amended straight away by Parliament.
Article 102 that is under contention falls under the category that requires only two thirds support of parliamentarians to be amended. Further, Article 94(4b) of the Constitution states ‘A member of Parliament has the right to move a private member’s Bill’. A private member’s Bill is a proposed law introduced by a back bench MP as opposed to a government Bill, which is introduced by a government minister. A private members Bill can also be introduced by a committee of Parliament through its chairperson.
The rules of procedure of Parliament, particularly rules 110 and 111, give full effect to Article 94(4b) by elaborating the procedure for moving a private member’s Bill. Article 111(1) states ‘A private member’s Bill shall be introduced first by way of motion, to which shall be attached the proposed draft of the Bill”. The purpose of this motion is to seek leave of Parliament, which means seeking permission from the House to draft and table a Bill.
The above clearly indicate that Raphael Magyezi, the elected MP for Igara West in Bushenyi District, has a right to introduce a private member’s Bill in Parliament. He should be saluted for carrying out his duties diligently as an MP. I have personally moved private members Bills before I was appointed minister. These were successfully considered by Parliament and passed into law. These are the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010 and The Tobacco Control Act, 2015. By the time I was appointed to Cabinet, Parliament had given me leave to introduce a Bill titled ‘The Medical Society Bill’ and I was also working on another Bill for a law to regulate the use of acid in Uganda.
What happened in Parliament on September 27, therefore, was a simple matter of listening to MP Magyezi present and justify his motion. He was granted leave by Parliament and has since tabled the Bill in Parliament and the Speaker has referred the Bill to the Committee of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs for scrutiny. Anybody interested or affected by the Bill, is free to provide their views to the committee to enable it produce a meaningful report.
As the committee scrutinises the Bill, MPs are also free to consult their constituents to seek their views. This is not a legal requirement, but on a contentious issue like the age limit, it is necessary that MPs educate their constituents about the Bill and get their views before the final debate and vote. This raises the key question: Was it necessary for a section of MPs to turn disorderly and violent with an aim of stopping Magyezi from moving a motion in Parliament? Why should an MP stop his colleague from speaking in Parliament? Democratic practice and civility demand that we listen to each other even when we are disagreeable on an issue. An English author, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in her 1906 book, Friends of Voltaire wrote: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’. This was in reference to Voltaire’s attitude about the author of a book that was attacked, publicly burnt and resulting in the author going to exile. Parliament is an assembly for exchange of ideas as well as intellectual engagement.
It is not a place for showing physical might. It is awkward to see an MP abandon their role of legislation and turn into hooligans like was witnessed in Parliament. What is sad is that few commentators have condemned this behaviour. Why glorify such indiscipline?
The Acholi religious leaders pose a question whether someone who has reached the age of 75 years while serving as president ought to leave office. Article 102(b) says: ‘A person is not qualified for election as president unless that person is not less than 35 years and not more than 75 years of age. The key word here is ‘qualified for election’, meaning a president can be 76 or 80 years of age, but someone of 75 years and above cannot be nominated to vie for the position of president.
This matter was even clarified in the Constituent Assembly when this issue was being debated.
The reference by the religious leaders that 75 years in Article 102(b) means retirement age of a president in civil service sense is not only false, but also laughable. The statement that amending the Constitution by Parliament amounts to treason demonstrates either poor understanding of the law or deliberate efforts to drum up emotions on the side of the religious leaders. Let religious leaders and other stakeholders present their views to the committee of Parliament.
Dr Baryomunsi is the Member of Parliament for Kinkizi East in Kanungu District and minister in charge of Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org