With age limit going, should Museveni become a single issue?

Friday July 14 2017

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO |

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO | FILE 

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We are finally there. The one development many Ugandans have been speculating about, with some looking forward to it, others dreading it, and yet others preparing to resist it, is finally here.

A section of Uganda’s leadership is now once again officially preparing to foist on parliament proposals for amending the country’s Constitution.

Indeed, they have already got the government to gazette Constitutional Amendment Bill 2017. Among the targets for amendment is Article 102. The article requires whoever aspires to become president of Uganda to be at least 35 years old and at most 75.

If the manoeuvring succeeds, President Yoweri Museveni, who under the Constitution as it is would otherwise be ineligible to seek re-election in 2021 on account of being older than 75, will be able to lead the National Resistance Movement into yet another electoral contest, 35 years after his first swearing-in as president.

In Uganda, these developments have triggered a variety of reactions. Discussions on social media are red-hot with anger, condemnation, and predictions of disaster.

Elsewhere, Museveni’s opponents in political parties and the “independent sector” have been penning missives pledging support, direct and indirect, to whatever “popular movement” may emerge to ensure that Article 102 is preserved and, as a result, Museveni is forced to leave office.

Clearly, were the end result of these manoeuvres to depend on what these individuals and groups think, failure by those seeking to prolong his stay would be certain.

We have enough experience by now, however, to doubt that they can determine what will happen. And we have enough experience, too, to foresee much more coherent organisation by Museveni and his allies who are seeking continuity, and much disjointedness, uncoordinated action and jostling for position among their opponents on the other side.

There are also Ugandans who have not so far reacted openly. Some do not care one way or the other, preferring to focus on things of more immediate concern such as how to make ends meet and ensure that their families stay healthy and their children in school. Others, however, are quietly nursing their anger and dismay at how much the proponents of change take Ugandans for granted.

It is easy to see where they are coming from. Take the argument, for example, that President Museveni’s continued stay is good for the country. It may well be. There are problems with this view and with the behaviour of its proponents.

One is to assume that Ugandans generally agree with it. Another is repeating it while at the same time preparing the ground for change by stealth, deception, and manipulation. Yet another is doing nothing to build a national consensus around it, let alone test its validity by holding a national referendum, for example.

To simply insist that “this is good for you” without so much as asking would-be beneficiaries what they think, is to take people for granted.

There is also a wider problem that is hardly discussed with regard to these perennial manoeuvres. It is the space they open for demagoguery involving single-issue activism, the issue being that “Museveni should go.”

By now, there are millions of Ugandans who share that view, as shown by rounds of opinion polling by different organisations. The percentage of respondents that want term limits to be restored and the president to retire honourably have kept growing year on year.

And yet the same people who would like to see Museveni retire and the two-term limit on presidential mandates restored do not show similar certainty when it comes to deciding whether there are credible alternatives to him or to the ruling party.

The problem we are confronted with here is why it is that Museveni’s opponents in opposition political parties and affiliated groups have as yet not convinced the wider public that they are suitable heirs to the stale outfit they wish to replace.

Predictably, single-issue activism has already reared its head, with individuals and groups issuing threats that leave no doubt as to how this is going to evolve. The words “force,” “fight,” “bloodshed” and promises to “bite” are now being bandied about in ways that point to possible violence. And then there are the doomsayers.

We are being told that a mere constitutional amendment to allow Museveni to run for president in 2021, which contest he is likely to win, never mind how he does it, will “guarantee” the impossibility of peaceful change.

It may well be true that his insistence on continuing may beget violence in future, say if he were to fail to prepare in advance for succession. However, to argue that it is somehow guaranteed is to slide into the realm of scaremongering.

Among its negative effects is to distract Ugandans from the imperative to discuss how the National Resistance Movement and other political parties and non-party actors can work together towards helping him ease himself out of power, certain that whatever concerns he has will be taken care of by his successors, whoever they might be.

Who knows, such collective effort could also help Ugandans reflect on the current political system and assess the degree to which it serves their interests, and what to do about it.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]