As religious leaders and elders huddle to develop a workable agenda for a national dialogue to deal with the country’s future after President Yoweri Museveni, the place of his legacy and, therefore, his participation in any process that determines how he exits has emerged as major point of contention.
The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) and The Elders Forum (TEFU) are organising the dialogue which they hope will be the only guarantor to a peaceful change of power in Kampala.
“Transition of power from one leadership to another has never been as important for Uganda. As you all know, this is President Museveni’s last term of office; by the time of the next election, he will not be eligible to stand for presidency because he will be above the constitutional age of 75. We need to ensure that this national dialogue process takes off so that Museveni can finish well according to the constitution,” said Mufti Sheikh Ramathan Mubajje, the current chair of IRCU at a recent closed-door planning meeting.
The major challenge the organisers are facing, sources say, is the fact that Museveni, 72, still appears reluctant to leave power. Having once changed the Constitution to remove term limits, plans for another change that will remove the age limit hurdle are under way with the president’s tacit approval.
Nakifuma MP Kafeero Ssekitoleko of the ruling National Resistance Movement surprised the country last year when he asked leave of parliament to move a private member’s Bill for a constitutional amendment to remove the age limit.
His move followed petitions from district NRM chairpersons and leaders of the district of Kyankwanzi made directly to President Museveni asking him to “change the Constitution and stand again” after his current term expires in 2021.
The moves have forced organisers of the dialogue to develop a new strategy: Secure Museveni’s buy-in in a discussion about his exit.
“One of the major issues we have spent a lot of time trying to work on for this dialogue is how to deal with the question of Museveni’s legacy and how we can deal with the question of bringing Museveni to participate in the dialogue,” said a source familiar with the planning.
“In discussions we have come to the realisation that to get President Museveni to participate in any dialogue about a transition from him, we must be careful in how we package his legacy, otherwise he won’t show up, and if he does not show up, then the chances the dialogue will have any meaning will be near zero,” said another person volunteering to pull the dialogue together.
President Museveni, who celebrated 31 years in power on January 26, is Africa’s fifth longest serving ruler behind Paul Biya of Cameroon (34), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (36), Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (37) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (37).
During celebrations to mark those 31 years, Museveni, did a mini sprint back to the podium to introduce a team of Uganda’s representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly, whom he had forgotten to introduce earlier.
Led by Speaker Dan Kidega the assembly delegates trotted to the podium to cheers and jeers for those who appeared not to demonstrate the same stamina as the 72-year-old Museveni as supporters shouted “Mzee akyali mboko,” loosely translated to mean “the old man is still fit.”
But promoters of the dialogue worry that even 54 years after Independence, a peaceful change of leadership remains elusive, the premise on which President Museveni launched the five-year guerrilla war on February 6, 1981 that finally brought him to power five years later—leaders staying in power too long and the lack of a culture of peaceful change has long been forgotten.
President Museveni has even snubbed talk of groomed succession — a non-democratic but less scary approach.
Recent changes in the top leadership of the military that saw his son, an army general moved from command of the elite Special Forces Command to a senior presidential advisor for special operations, were read by some as a move to free him from the rigours of military command and allow him to play an open political role.
Organisers have stated the goal of the dialogue is to “agree on a new consensus to consolidate peace, democracy, and inclusive development to achieve equal opportunity for all.”
They note, “This theme recognises the progress that has been achieved over the last 54 years of Independence; the enormous contribution of President Museveni in building the foundation for shared prosperity; and that citizens are no passengers on the bus to transformation — they are all playing a part.”
Seven thematic areas have been identified.
In spite of the effort however, fears that the dialogue may not take off at all are also real. Last year, Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda initiated what appears to be a parallel process— inviting six individuals drawn from a wide array of interest groups, civil society, academia and political players to a consultative process seen as leading to some form of dialogue — instead of throwing his weight behind the religious leaders and the elders.