NRM says Besigye factor behind rush to pass Uganda's age limit Bill

Saturday October 7 2017

Uganda’s main opposition leader Kizza Besigye. PHOTO | AFP

Uganda’s main opposition leader Kizza Besigye. The country’s ruling NRM party is said to be pushing for constitutional amendments because they do not have a challenger against Mr Besigye. PHOTO | AFP 

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The move to lift Uganda's presidential age limit is being rushed apparently because of the ruling NRM party’s lack of an alternative, formidable candidate like President Yoweri Museveni to field in 2021, especially against Kizza Besigye, say top party officials.

Mr Besigye has challenged President Museveni four times. In turn, President Museveni has tried to silence his former physician turned fiercest political opponent.

As a result, the NRM has resolved to maintain President Museveni as leader for as long as Mr Besigye, 61, is still interested in running for president.

“Do you really see anyone in the NRM who can stand and win that Besigye? Not [Prime Minister Ruhakana] Rugunda, not Otafiire [Kahinda, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs]. I don’t even think Muhoozi [Kainerugaba, Museveni’s first son] can defeat him,” said a party official who is part of the group at the centre of calls to delete the age caps.

“Do you even really think Museveni can go to Kololo and hand over to Besigye? That man is too angry. When you talk about Museveni in his presence he gets so quickly worked up he almost gets spasms. Why is he so angry at him? So for us, we’re with our Mzee for as long as he [Besigye] is around,” the official added.

The Besigye factor appeared to be corroborated by Minister of Finance Matia Kasaija. Speaking on a popular nightly radio talk show on October 4, he said of President Museveni that the NRM “still sees value in him”.

In three out of four presidential elections challenged by Mr Besigye, Uganda’s Supreme Court found that the polls had been conducted in gross contravention of the law and were fraught with irregularities.

Yet in all the petitions, the court ruled that the irregularities had not been substantial enough to affect the outcome.

Sense of urgency

Now, however, the decision by the Supreme Court of Kenya to nullify the country’s August 8 presidential election on similar grounds that the Ugandan court disregarded, and the uncertainty that has followed the verdict, have “sent some messages to Uganda,” according to Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.

“So there is now more urgency than what we had, say, a year ago. Indeed, the age of the president is significant and closely related to elections because it ultimately will also determine who will be a candidate and who will not be a candidate,” Mr Rugunda told The EastAfrican on October 4.

The private member’s bill to scrap the age caps is now under consideration by the legal and parliamentary affairs committee. It has taken just five days to get to the committee stage — faster than any previous bill, including those sponsored by the government, has been processed.

To fast track the Bill, the Chambers of Parliament was invaded by members of the elite presidential guard on September 27. The officers roughed up and bundled out members of the opposition. While this use of force has drawn condemnation from the public, Mr Rugunda says it was necessary.

“Government is very confident that what was done was done well, and was done within the law, and was done to strengthen the institutions of government,” he said at a press briefing on Wednesday to give the government’s position.

“The fracas that took place in Parliament is something that we should condemn, and regret that our country can have incidents of that nature because when we have differences we should sort them out by rational discussions and not through throwing of chairs and exchanging blows.

“There have been a number of political, religious and civil society organisations raising a number of points about the motion by Magyezi [Raphael]. This is a welcome and healthy development. It shows that this is an important matter, the country is alert, the citizens of Uganda are awake. They are exercising their democratic right to criticise, to give different views, to suggest amendments, and the government is happy this is happening. Indeed, this is what we expect in a democratic system,” he added.

The decision to pass the age caps is aimed at securing ground early, according to party officials. The plan is to have the issue wrapped up by mid-December in order to take advantage of the distractions of the festive season.

Already there is a 2014 Constitutional Court petition over President Museveni’s age. Benjamin Alipanga, who filed the petition, sought interpretation of 19 articles at the centre of which was President Museveni’s suitability to stand in 2016. They include 102(b), which bars him from running again.

On October 3, Mr Alipanga wrote to Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga saying that business conducted on Article 102(b) is in disregard of his petition.      

“Parliament cannot and should not debate a matter that is currently pending before the Constitutional Court as to do so would be in contempt of Court,” his letter states.