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.
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 f 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).
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.
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.
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.