Proponents of the removal of the age limit for presidential candidates from the Constitution will be wishing any talk about the scrapping of the same ends this year.
But there are signs that the controversial Bill hastily passed early this month will continue to define political events for the remainder of President Museveni’s rule.
By the time of writing this article, there was no official communication that President Museveni, officially 73, had assented to the Bill or that Parliament had forwarded it for his signature, but there is no plausible indication that he may not sign it.
In fact, Mr Museveni organised a party at State House for the more than 300 legislators who voted in favour of the removal of the presidential age limit from the Constitution, while their counterparts from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party who oppose the plan face disciplinary action from the party.
Fresh battle lines have been drawn in the wake of the passing of the Bill and the theatre of contentions has now shifted from Parliament to places of worship, courtrooms and will most likely feature on the streets and political rallies.
President Museveni, who will mark 32 years in power on January 26, has over those years had what could be termed as defining moments of his presidency. By 1989, just four years into his presidency, there were already voices, albeit minimal, calling on Mr Museveni to step down from power. But by this time, he still enjoyed the support of many of his Bush War comrades and didn’t find much resistance to hold on to power.
He would ask and get another five years as the 1995 Constitution was drafted and enacted. At the age of about 52 in 1996, the new Constitution gave Mr Museveni another opportunity to contest for two five-year terms.
With the enactment of the Constitution, the proverbial failure of a peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another was seemingly solved and this would be reflected in at least two articles of the 1995 Constitution. President Museveni kept his cards close to his chest and 22 years later, articles 105(2) - setting two terms for a president to serve and 102(b) - capping the presidential age limit at 75, are no longer in the Constitution.
If the two five-year term limits had been observed, Mr Museveni would be more than 12 years in retirement, and if his successor had served the same two terms, they would be in their second year of retirement.
In 2001, President Museveni talked about serving his last term, only to engineer a Constitutional amendment that controversially removed the five-year term cap in 2005, leaving the age limit as the only safeguard against what observers and analysts have termed as a life presidency project. The age limit is also gone.
The process of lifting term limits, between 2003 and 2005, triggered serious fallout in President Museveni’s government and the NRM. The removal of the age limit, on the other hand, seems to have galvanised the masses, who warned their representatives not to tamper with the provision.
Opinion polls and media reports prior to the decision of Parliament suggested an overwhelming rejection of the removal of the age limit and the voices against have only become louder after the amendment was passed.
Religious leaders, who have in the recent past come under criticism for their loud silence on injustice and other issues affecting their followers, have since turned the tables and not only criticised Parliament for its stance, but have appealed to President Museveni not to approve the Bill.
The age limit issue is likely to be around for a very long time, but some observers argue that the opposition against the same might not translate into much action given the resistance it faces.
Dr Sabiti Makara, a senior lecturer in the department of Political Science and Public Administration at Makerere University, says Ugandans should start to envision a future beyond what he terms as Museveni’s life presidency.
In case of a referendum, Dr Makara says, ordinary Ugandans and election results will be easily manipulated in President Museveni’s favour and state machinery from “crime preventers” to the military will be used to crash any dissent.
“We can only count on term limits if they can be sustained after Museveni’s life presidency,” he says.
Before the age limit Bill took shape, reports of a comprehensive plan to quell resistance and activism against the plan by the police, the military and other militias, were rife. What started as rumours became reality with every attempt to show discontent against the age limit removal, including in the House, brutally quashed by the aforementioned entities.
Sunday Monitor understands money was also available for those whose silence or consent had a price. The same approach, especially the use of the police, the military and militias, will apparently be deployed in the coming days should there be an attempt at coalescing citizens in any form to show their discontent to the age limit removal.
Relying mainly on Article 3 (4) of the Constitution, which states that all citizens of Uganda have a right and duty to protect the Constitution, the Opposition has promised to roll out campaigns aimed at resisting what they term as the subversion of the will of the people effective January 9, 2018. But even without specifics of what the campaign will entail, police, through Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander Frank Mwesigwa, has declared they will defeat the Opposition’s “illegal activities” effective January 9, 2018.
Mr Mwesigwa boasted that police had averted “evil plans” by the Opposition throughout the parliamentary process of the age limit Bill.
Battle lines have also been drawn and courtrooms will be the next scene from Parliament as legal minds for pro and anti-age limit groups argue out their case in support or against the Bill.
Lawyer Male Mabirizi Kiwanuka is already in court challenging Constitution Amendment (No2) Bill 2017 in its entirety.
Another concerned citizen, Pius Kabwisa already notified the Attorney General of his intentions to petition the Constitutional Court if he doesn’t exercise his legal mandate to advise the President not to assent to the Bill which he says is full of irregularities.
Six opposition law makers led by Opposition Chief Whip Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda sued House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga challenging the manner of their December 17 suspension. The six did not cast their votes on the Bill as a result.
Other law makers have lodged a suit in the East African Court of Justice to challenge, among other things, the processing of the Bill.
There are reports suggesting that other challenges will be made in the courts of law against the Bill.
What happens next?
On a probability, elections are expected to be held in 2021 or 2023 if a proposal by legislators to extend the presidential term by two years is adopted through a referendum.
For now, in May 2021, when his current term expires, President Museveni will just be four months away from the age of 77 and will have no constitutional bar against his contesting.
The incumbent will not have to make any more excuses or provide explanations for his stay in power. Questions about this had led to him flip flopping in either justifications or answers.
Responding to a question during an interview on whether there are plans to amend Article 102(b) to allow him run for presidency for the sixth time in 2021, Mr Museveni said: “I cannot change the Constitution because I do not have that power.”
In 2015, at a press conference during his tour of West Nile, he gave an impression that he would follow the Constitution, which would have implied standing down come 2021 and peacefully hand over to a newly elected president
“He [journalist] was saying the Constitution talks of 75 [as the age limit]. Now, what am I planning to do? I will follow the Constitution,” he said.
Earlier, he had told journalists at Kawumu State Lodge in Luweero District on March 22, 2015, that: “I am not interested in age-limit talk”. Two years later, he was interested.
On NTV’s On The Spot programme, he said “…after clocking 75, I will not support the lifting of the age limit to allow me to contest for another term of office” and in response to a question on whether he supports age limits, he said: “I think that after 75, the vigour…I think there is some scientific idea there that maybe the vigour is not as much after 75 years. That one I would not quarrel [with it]. I know there are some leaders who have been leading even beyond 75, but I think if you want very active leaders, it is good to have the ones below 75.”
If a recent interview with Al-Jazeera is to go by, then there is still hope for those who want President Museveni to peacefully handover power and head into retirement. Responding to a particular question on whether he would rule beyond 75 years, he said: “Not at all. Certainly not.”
It reads far-fetched, but he could have forced through the age limit amendment, despite the opposing public outcry, to demonstrate his power.
So, when history is written, will the removal of age limit from the Constitution be singled out as the moment that defined the final years of the Museveni presidency?
“It will but not in the negative. Let us be honest, NRM wants Museveni to continue and Museveni’s stay means more electricity, more economic growth etc. Transition has been confused by the Opposition with handing over power,” says Col Shaban Bantariza, the deputy executive director of the Uganda Media Centre.
“By the end of next year,” he adds, “we will not remember that there was this age limit thing. We Ugandans have kajanja, which in Runyankole we call Kahehe.”
He explains that the age limit will not be what will define the remainder of Mr Museveni’s legacy because those who have been vocal in opposing it are not necessarily against the age cap but President Museveni being on the ballot in the next general election.
“They are accusing NRM of legislating for one man but the same accusation can be made against them for wanting to legislate against one man,” he said.
NRM party deputy secretary general Richard Todwong says the party is in the process of coalescing its supporters to back Parliament’s decision on the Bill.
“As a party, we will soon embark on mobilising our members in total support and defence of Parliament’s actions. We shall do this through our internal structures,” he says.
Once all the NRM registered voters, whom he says are more than 13 million, are fully behind the decision of Parliament, Mr Todwong says the Opposition will be left in the cold.
“It is a very sharp issue with the Opposition having sharply defined lines and our side also has sharp defined lines. It is a fact that the Bill has been passed and when the President assents, it will be an act of Parliament, which will make it difficult for anybody planning to oppose it,” he said.
To Democratic Party secretary general Gerald Siranda, it is not yet time for celebrations by the ruling NRM and President Museveni, who he says face a very tough future.
“NRM and Museveni have put themselves in the firing target. All Ugandans are looking at an opportunity of a peaceful transition. I have not seen something before that has ignited Ugandans like this. This is not about us politicians; Ugandans are not ready to shed any more blood to change government,” he says.