As 2017 entered its last weeks and 2018 loomed on the horizon, many Ugandans were pondering what a number of occurrences in their country portended in the short to long term, and what the new year will be like. Much of the soul-searching had to do with a number of unsettling political developments.
In 2005, certain actors within the ruling National Resistance Movement party engineered the removal of presidential term limits from the Constitution. They contended that the term limits served no purpose.
In the dying days of 2017, they suddenly proposed that they be restored.
The latest machinations had their origins in a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2016, after a legal suit challenging the outcome of that year’s presidential election, that the government carry out specific legal reforms within a specific time before the 2021 general elections.
The government, not known to take seriously court rulings that do not advance the ambitions of the ruling party and its leaders, dragged its feet on the matter.
And then, like a bolt out of the blue, a ruling party member of parliament claiming to be acting in the interest of time, proposed a private member’s Bill whose centrepiece was to remove from the Constitution age limits for presidential candidates.
With breathtaking sophistry, he denied that his proposal had anything to do with President Yoweri Museveni’s soon-to-be ineligibility to run again.
The costly consultations that followed ultimately proved meaningless. For the most part, public reactions showed that the issue was at best extremely divisive, at worst highly unpopular.
Even then, despite public opposition, ruling party MPs supported the proposed amendment, as they did the even more controversial idea of extending presidential and parliamentary terms of office from five to seven years.
To ensure that not only they would end up with the Constitution’s blood on their hands, and that a large number of people would be implicated in its murder, they proposed to extend the terms of all elected leaders, also from five to seven years. That public opinion counts for nothing where their careers and personal interests are concerned has long been clear.
It was not the first time MPs showed disregard for popular opinion.
Way back in 2005, Ugandans expressed their opposition to the removal of presidential term limits from the Constitution. Those pushing for their removal argued forcefully that term limits served only to prevent Ugandans from electing leaders of their choice, and good leaders from continuing to serve.
Term limits on a continent such as Africa — which is short of good leaders, they argued — could even be damaging; they could force out good leaders and open the way for bad ones to take over power, with all the risks that entail.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the opposition was that their removal would open the way for incumbents to impose themselves on a population that may otherwise want them to step down.
On a continent where vote-rigging and manipulation of electoral processes were so common, they argued, removing term limits would be too much of a risk.
Twelve years after parliament voted to remove term limits from the Constitution, the results are in.
As numerous opinion polls have shown, not a single presidential election since 2005 has passed the test of being widely seen as free and fair or been universally accepted as representing the will of the majority.
Also, since 2005, Ugandans have consistently argued for the restoration of term limits. One might therefore argue that the recent decision by parliament to restore them would have been in response to popular opinion. It wasn’t.
It was a cynical ploy to reduce the bitterness in the mouths of the general public, of the removal of age limits whose intention is to create another opening for the incumbent to avoid stepping down.
Curiously, the same argument against term limits in 2005 is being thrown around: Ugandans can now freely elect the leaders they want without restriction.
And for good measure, critics of the manipulations and the entrenchment of rule by deception are being reminded that there are other countries where age restrictions do not apply. It is as if at the time Ugandans opted for age limits those that are citing them were unaware of their existence.
It would seem, however, that the government’s attempt to put up a brave face belies an acute awareness of much bottled-up public anger against these manipulations. According to certain analysts, there are frantic efforts to find ways to deflect public attention and limit the damage they have caused.
They are probably exaggerating, but some now claim there may be more than meets the eye to the timing of recent military action against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government says it was in response to plans by the ADF to launch terrorist attacks.
Coming amid palpable popular anger, and given its high visibility and publicity, sceptics argue it could have been timed to create a situation around which a new focus of public discussion can emerge. True or not, chances are that 2018 will throw light on this and other mysteries, among them the wider implications of the constitutional amendments.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]