If the controversial Constitution Amendment Bill targeting to remove age limitations on the presidency is passed, President Museveni will have nothing in the Constitution to stop him from indefinitely running for president.
The Independence on October 9, 1962, history has recorded, was received with indescribable enthusiasm. In his speech, Uganda’s first prime minister Milton Obote, said: “With the goodwill of all who wish to see her prosper, Uganda will go forward from strength to strength.” Such was the unwavering hope and great expectations, yet Uganda at every stage since has undergone challenges that have pulled her either back or seemingly taken her forward.
The challenges start in 1966. Other events prior might have had impact, but it was the 1966 crisis that was the first major turning point for independent Uganda. Coming only four years after Ugandans were “fully in charge of their destiny”, the incident set the young independent nation on a path, some claim it has never recovered from.
On May 22, 1966, prime minister Obote ordered units of the Uganda Army to attack Kabaka Mutesa II’s palace at Bulange Mengo. Kabaka Mutesa II was also the president of Uganda. A power struggle between the two leaders had been simmering for some time and the attack was only a climax. Subsequently, Obote suspended the constitution and removed the ceremonial president and vice-president. In 1967, a new constitution proclaimed Uganda a republic and abolished the traditional kingdoms. Obote was declared president.
But somehow, Uganda trudged on until a military coup on January 25, 1971, led by Idi Amin that sent the country on a totally different path. The next eight years were eventful and tragic. The expulsion of Asians, the brutal killing of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans and development of major infrastructure are some of the things that defined that era.
Even after Amin, many people lost their lives and property in the subsequent power struggles until 1980 when Uganda held crucial elections that would have set us on a democratic civilian rule. The opportunity was lost, however, when the elections were marred by widespread irregularities, prompting President Museveni and other dissatisfied Ugandans to go to the bush, plunging the country into a devastating civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead.
One would not be blamed to assume that by 1986, we had learnt our lesson or perhaps matured given that Uganda came of age in conflict and struggle after Amin and was now ready for the “fundamental change” and “not a mere change of guards” as promised by the group that took over in 1986.
When he came to power, President Museveni and his team promised a better future for Ugandans. They promised unity, freedom, and an end to impunity. Tribalism, nepotism and sectarianism etc would be a thing of the past. If the NRM Ten-Point Programme was a marriage proposal, then the bride (Uganda) was won over immediately. She had suffered but her hopes were once again rejuvenated with the promises for a better future. Some parts of her, with much suffering and bloodshed, resisted the promise for more than 20 years. It is up for this discussion whether they were right or wrong.
Ten years would pass before the marriage was formalised in the 1995 Constitution, which clearly defined the way business would be conducted in the new dispensation. President Museveni, who had already ruled unelected for 10 years, was the first beneficiary of the newly consecrated marriage in 1996. The new agreement gave him one more chance, which he took with open arms in 2001, when the electoral body declared him winner in a heavily contested election. Uganda found herself at yet another turning point when in 2005, Parliament amended the Constitution to eliminate presidential term limits. More promises broken.
At 55, the country is at such another turning point.
As pen is put to paper of the first draft of history, Ugandans on either side of the political divide are bent on seeing their side take the day. The majority, who will be most impacted on by whatever decision wins, are merely spectators.
Despite strong resistance from within and outside Parliament, a motion to allow a member to privately table constitutional amendment on the removal of the age limit was allowed.
The legislator, Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi, also quickly received a Certificate of Financial Implication from the Ministry of Finance, which indicates the funds that are required to institute the proposals in a Bill are available. Many private members’ Bills are rejected or stall because of this certificate.
Former Inspector General of Government (IGG) Augustine Ruzindana and one of the framers of the 1995 Constitution says Uganda reached the turning point in 2005 and the country is now dealing with consequences.
“This one is really not as important as 2005 because this is just a consequential amendment. The removal of term limits clearly showed the intents of a life presidency and we said so at the time. Already you can see what the environment is. It is an environment of tension,” he says.
The only plausible solution, Mr Ruzindana says, is for Ugandans to sit and develop consensus on the future of the country.
“The way out usually is that people should sit down and agree on the way forward but you have seen force, it is force that is being used. That is not the way you develop consensus. The best way is to talk to each other and to diffuse the tension because it affects everything,” he adds.
As Uganda encounters another decisive moment in her history, former Buganda Katikkiro (prime minister) Dan Muliika, says the country has to go back to the basics to avert some of the consequences of the crisis brewing in the country.
The starting point, he suggests, is looking at the preamble of the 1995 Constitution, which recollects the not so good history of Uganda. He argues that the preamble was written based on an appreciation that most of the conflicts and stability the country has had, were over contestation of power in the highest office in the land.
“I think it is a very contradicting point if the Members of Parliament cannot read that preamble and understand it well and all safeguards put in that Constitution to ensure that we get a peaceful way of transfer of power,” he says.
Another missed point, Mr Muliika argues, is what he calls a deliberate attempt by the ruling government to keep people, including leaders, either uninformed or misinformed about the Constitution. This, he says, is criminal.
“One fundamental thing NRM should remember is that when that Constitution was promulgated, they were instructed, not begged, to translate it into our local dialects and that has never been carried out. You are making people fools because you cannot come and try and talk to me about change of the age limit when I don’t have that document in my way of understanding.”
Without serious reflection and intervention, Mr Muliika, says Uganda is still in a vicious circle.
“We are back to square one. We are busy building another revolution as you saw it take Obote out. We are busy building it, even Obote did not see that he was building a revolution against himself but that is how it starts,” he says.
Irene Ovonji, the FIDA-Uganda chief executive officer, says Uganda is at a stage where the last safeguard against life presidency project is under threat and is already undermining what “little political stability” is left in Uganda.
“On the positive side, it has united a majority of Ugandans across regions, class and I believe, political party against the so-called Magyezi Bill, which few of us believe is a private members proposal given the high involvement of Cabinet ministers lobbying to remove presidential age limits, SFC and UPDF in and around Parliament, partisan police role allowing demonstrations for but stopping those against the Bill,” she says.
Picking from the events of September 27, she says the country is in worse position than it was in 1966. The day, she explains, will live in infamy as one when the independence of Parliament was overthrown, just as it was with the Black Mamba raid on the courts.
“Where does Uganda go from here? We are on the edge of the abyss. The options in constitutional terms are imperial life presidency or citizens’ self-liberation. The choices we face are an out of control presidency and the death of constitutionalism, or the assertion by citizens of their power over the political future of Uganda as intended by articles 1 and 3,” she says.
Bill is tabled
With the Opposition, Independent and NRM MPs who are opposed to the lifting of age limit out of the House, the Constitutional Amendment No. 2 Bill, 2017 that seeks, among other issues, to scrap the age limit for presidential candidates from the Constitution, was tabled without resistance for the First Reading. It was subsequently referred to the House Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga for further scrutiny.
The Bill also seeks to amend Article 104 (6) to increase from 20 to 60 days the number of days within which the Electoral Commission is required to hold fresh polls if a presidential election is annulled.
It also seeks to provide 15 days, up from 10, after the declaration of presidential election results, within which the results can be challenged.
In their joint opinion, Makerere University Law School lecturers have already warned the country about the dangers associated with messing up with the only safeguard to a life presidency.
“Every democratic and peace-loving Ugandan should not forget the history of the country. The Constitution was enacted bearing in mind that history of political turmoil and constitutional instability.
Having removed the term limit safeguard in 2005, Uganda continues to face the danger of life presidency and the continued violent change of leadership,” the more than 20 lecturers, who termed the violence and machinations in Parliament as the Bill was presented, as “the rape of the sanctity of Parliament” warned.