Echoes of 1966 as guns return to parliament over Constitution

Standoff between MPs and security cordon are glimpse of times long past.

Security forces patrol a Kampala street as university students protest against plans to scrap the presidential age limit from the Constitution. PHOTO | AFP 

IN SUMMARY

  • Efforts by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda to explain to the House that the heavy deployment on Thursday, failed to wash with infuriated the opposition and some ruling party MPs.
  • The MPs were beside themselves with anguish at being frisked and all but denied access to parliament by heavily armed security personnel who had taken over the building.
  • There has been condemnation from foreign governments that extend significant financial support to Kampala.

The Uganda government’s decision to surround Parliament with security forces ahead of debate over a planned motion to propose amendments to the Constitution to remove presidential age limits not only recalls unpleasant episodes from the country’s troubled history that the 1995 Constitution sought to cure for good, but could also reinforce the view that guns, not the law, rule Uganda.

Efforts by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda to explain to the House that the heavy deployment on Thursday, September 21, which Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah had described as being “beyond what is necessary” and was an essential preventative measure, failed to wash with infuriated the opposition and some ruling party MPs.

The public and the international community also looked on in horror at the cynical repeat of history.

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The MPs were beside themselves with anguish at being frisked and all but denied access to parliament by heavily armed security personnel who had taken over the building.

They also ran down protestors across the country, opposing the removal of age caps.

What’s more, some two non-profit organisations – Action Aid International and the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies – who were suspected of planning and funding the campaigns against removal of age caps were also locked down and their premises ransacked.

“Cordoning off of Parliament in such a manner is unacceptable and should be condemned in the strongest terms possible and never be allowed again,” said Winnie Kiiza, the Leader of the Opposition in parliament.

Condemnation

There has been condemnation from foreign governments that extend significant financial support to Kampala, which the government has attempted to rebuff.

The US embassy and the EU Delegation expressed concern that the heavy-handed response to resistance against tinkering with the constitution risked stifling the right to free expression and damaging the country’s international standing.

“Infringements upon protected rights under Uganda’s Constitution will impede the country’s development. We call on the Government of Uganda to guarantee all its citizens’ freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, without fear of intimidation,” said the statement by Ms Deborah Malac, US ambassador to Uganda.

In response, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo branded these concerns as “misplaced”, saying law enforcement agencies were reacting to clear threats of violence against people who held different views from those issuing the threats.

“Some of those summoned by police have recorded statements and posted them on the media threatening to kill those they disagree with together with members of their families which cannot be tolerated.

“We, therefore, ask for patience as law enforcement conducts its investigations,” Mr Ofwono said in a statement also issued on September 21.

Possible constitutional amendments

“The ongoing debate in Parliament and within the country with regard to possible constitutional amendments and electoral reform must be conducted by all sides to the debate in a civil, cordial and peaceful way however contentious the issues may be in an effort to build consensus.

“Should consensus fail then the matter shall be decided by Parliament as the elected, legitimate body as the Constitution provides,” his statement added.

On Thursday, Parliament adjourned a packed plenary to temper evident tensions on both sides of the aisle over intentions to remove presidential age limits, which have captivated public debate in recent days.

A motion seeking leave to prepare a private member’s bill to that effect had been expected to form business in the House.

However, a mid-morning conference between Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and her deputy Mr Oulanyah decided to defer it until she had brought herself up to speed on the matter, because she has been out of the country.

While the House accepted this decision, it was seized by the heavy deployment of a security personnel that included police, the army, snipers, and plain-clothed operatives who had earlier surrounded the parliament and its precincts and even forced the Speaker to use an alternative entrance.

The show of force followed a boastful retort from Evelyn Anite, a junior minister and chief mobiliser of the term limit opposers, that they had the army on their side. As such, they will not be intimidated or their mission foiled by anyone.

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