Test of supreme law as Ugandan MPs prepare to scrap age limit

Saturday July 8 2017

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni inspecting the guard of honour on budget speech day June 8, 2017. He will have ruled for 35 years by 2021. The current law bars him from running again. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG 

By GAAKI KIGAMBO
More by this Author

As Ugandans await the formal presentation of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2017 in parliament, the looming scrapping of the presidential age limit is shaping up as the ultimate test of Uganda’s commitment to constitutionalism.
At the core of the Bill, gazetted on June 8, is the controversial amendment of Article 102(b), which disqualifies any Ugandan below 35 years and above 75 years from contesting the presidency.

Although an attempt to scrap the age limit has always been expected, the first real step towards it has elicited a heated public debate.

The ruling NRM party which is driving the agenda, appears better organised than those against it.

According to sources familiar with the ruling party’s plans, a three-pronged approach has been mooted, involving mobilising as many resolutions from disparate groups in districts; a rigorous media campaign to shape public opinion in favour of scrapping the age limits; and intense lobbying of legislators.

“They [resolutions] are part of a scheme by the regime to sanitise the process through the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), which will go around the country to get the views of the people where you will see a lot of these district resolutions being presented everywhere it goes,” intimated one such source.
The Commission is expected to be announced soon after 18 names are submitted to President Yoweri Museveni from which he is to pick the eventual 12 members, according to Ruth Nankabirwa, the government chief whip.

Heated debate

Those in favour of the lifting of age limits have as their core argument that the law unfairly locks outs Ugandans who may still be able to lead effectively despite their age. They term the law a violation of rights of the voters who prefer “tried and tested” leadership.

Indications of the NRM’s strategy were first revealed in August 2016. The NRM chapter in Kyankwanzi District presented President Museveni a resolution in which MPs promised to present the removal of age limits in Parliament.

Part of its argument is that, “Article 102(b)… has detrimental effects to the sustainability of the country’s development progress as it poses prohibitive effects to those Ugandans and leaders who may still have the ability and potential to provide leadership.”

This effort was shortly after followed by a “resolution” of NRM district chairpersons from across the country who at a dinner to celebrate their victory at Hotel Africana in Kampala asked the president to prepare to stand again after his current term expires in 2021.

The chairpersons in giving their endorsement asked Museveni and their MPs to immediately start exploring ways to have the constitution amended.

The counter argument is that the age limit is the last safeguard against a lifetime presidency by President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

The age cap bars him from standing again in 2021 when he will be 76 years old.

Proponents of this view argue that removal of age limit erases any chance of a peaceful and democratic transition of power in Uganda. And that a change in law will create real possibilities of a reversion to tyranny, oppression and exploitation that the Constitution aimed to cure in the first place.

“If age limits are removed from our Constitution — as they will eventually be — there is no way in which we can look forward to a deepening of democracy in Uganda because it implies that the semi-accountable presidency we now have will be replaced with an imperial presidency with no possibility of peaceful change,” according to Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango, a leading law scholar in Uganda.

According to Arthur Larok, who is actively involved in organising against the removal of the age limit, the use of all avenues is necessary.

“This is a monumental challenge. So we need to use several fronts to tackle it. We believe the process cannot be controlled centrally because different people are certainly going to be compelled to do different things according to their convictions and abilities,” Mr Larok explained.