Uganda’s controversial amendment to the Constitution removing presidential age limits has created a rift between the political and religious class.
Church leaders waded into the issue after President Yoweri Museveni accused the clergy of meddling in politics.
On January 9, during the burial of former archbishop of the Church of Uganda Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, leaders from the Catholic and Anglican churches said they were not partisan despite having spoken out on the issue of age limits.
“The churches are not against the state. Our remarks seek to tell the truth about the conscience of the state. The church is the conscience of the state as former president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta said. So, please, see us as your conscience and we shall continue to be a good one,” said Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, who heads the Kampala Catholic Archdiocese.
He said church leaders like Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka, Archbishop Janan Luwum and Cardinal Nsubuga gave prophetic messages to guide the state but they were misunderstood, criticised and even abused. “Yet what they said was the truth and what they prophesied took place,” Archbishop Lwanga added.
In his national address on New Year’s Day, President Museveni said some religious leaders were arrogant for speaking on political issues.
“They talk authoritatively on everything even when they have not bothered to find out the truth. This is assuming they do not have evil intentions, which would be worse,” said President Museveni.
He said the scrapping of age limits was not a personal pursuit to be president for life as had been widely misinterpreted.
“They are either ill-informed individuals talking about things they do not know or evil schemers who do not want Uganda and Africa to succeed,” he said of the leaders.
Speaking at the burial, Anglican Church of Uganda Archbishop Stanley Ntagali called on Members of Parliament to think more about the country.
About 317 MPs, mainly from the ruling National Resistance Movement, voted for the Bill while 97 MPs opposed it. President Museveni signed it into law on December 27. Had the limits not been scrapped, the president would have been ineligible to run again in 2021. He has previously boasted that he cannot lose an election, which is the reason why his critics and opponents were banking on the age rule.
Without the age and term limits, governance experts fear the country’s socioeconomic, political and constitutional stability could be undermined.
The scrapping of age limits has become a polarising subject not just between the church and State but among the public as well.
According to a survey carried out in December 2017 by the Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform and Citizens Coalition on Electoral Democracy, 85 per cent of Ugandans opposed their removal.
The survey results showed a 10 percentage point increase from an Afrobarometer survey conducted between December 2016 and January 2017. It showed that 75 per cent of the public did not approve removal of the limits.
The survey’s 50,429 respondents from 100 constituencies in the country felt it was a hindrance to peaceful transition of power.
The church had proposed a national dialogue or referendum, saying the matter had far-reaching consequences that should not be left to parliamentarians alone.
According to an analysis by Afrobarometer released in November 2017, majority of Ugandans who prefer democracy to any other form of government are increasingly dissatisfied with the way it works in the country.
Afrobarometer looked at what it calls the “democracy satisfaction gap,” which has to do with deterioration in values like the rule of law, freedom of the press and association, parliamentary oversight, and multipartyism.
It also pointed to “decline in trust in the electoral commission, perceived unfairness in the past national elections, as well as an increase in fear of violence and in having to be careful about what one says and how one votes.”
The church leaders insist that their speaking on these issues is misinterpreted by political players as meddling in politics.
Hostilities between the church and State have not ended well in the past especially for the Catholic Church.
If the government resorted to crude ways of instilling fear, Bishop Zac Niringiye, a social justice and democracy activist said cohesion between the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda and the Uganda Joint Christian Council would be instrumental in resisting the pressure.