Uganda’s move to remove the presidential age limit from its Constitution is a double-edged sword.
For while it seeks to lift the upper cap of 75 years beyond which a person is no longer eligible to seek election to the highest office in the land, it also seeks to reduce the lower limit from 35 to 18 years old.
The movers of the motion would have looked dubious to argue that an octogenarian is fit enough to lead but a 34-year-old isn’t.
The under-35s have taken the proposed amendment very seriously as they start smelling blood, so to say. After all, they have the numbers. No wonder, the most prolonged clashes over the amendment Bill were between security forces and the students of Makerere University, stretching into two days.
Ours is not a very numerate society, so the numbers don’t seem to add up neatly. The pro-amendment people say, in case a president dies in office, those in the line of succession like the vice president and Speaker of parliament might accede to office when they are over 75 years old. But this argument is faulty as the 75 year-limit is on contesting, not being president, otherwise the contesting age would have been 70 so that one cannot attain 75 years while serving their 5-year term.
But numbers are not our strongest point. It has even been repeatedly alleged that the 75 year-limit was fixed in the 1995 Constitution for the sake of one man, the twice-deposed first post-Independence president of Uganda Milton Obote, who was a “youthful” 70-year-old then and it was feared he might contest in the 1996 election. Since Obote has been dead a decade now, there is no need to keep the 75 year-limit.
But now the proposed amendment also allows 18-year-olds to stand for president as long as they are citizens with an education qualification of A level or its equivalent.
With the next presidential election scheduled for February 2021, any 14 and a half-year-old Ugandan can start warming up to running for president.
And the threat of such a candidate is not just theoretical. With today’s fast paced digital information connections thanks to technology, such a person can mount an effective campaign if they have enough ambition, a smartphone and about $10 for Internet data per month.
Then they can reach millions of voters daily over the next three and a half years. Comedian Anne Kansiime sold herself over the Internet. The next Kansiime could be a political one. With a doting parent willing to put a few thousand dollars into the digital campaign would be an added advantage.
For the 2021 election, a strong presidential contender may not need printed posters, or to travel thousands of kilometres to hold rallies across the country.
If the 35-75 years age limit in 1995 managed to lock out Obote, its removal in 2017 could also land us with a petulant 18-year-old president still under the thumb of their parents.
Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala. E-mail: [email protected]