A highly contentious amendment to the constitution of Uganda now leaves President Museveni free to remain in power indefinitely, as long as he wins elections. But the country’s legal bodies, as well as other civic organisations, are fighting back. Huck Stevo reports.
After 32 years in power, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, 73, is now certain to become Africa’s longest-serving leader, after parliament in December voted for an amendment to the constitution that removes the 75-year age limit for anyone wishing to contest for the country’s top
The amendment, now passed into law, has paved the way for Museveni to stay in power indefinitely. As has been shown in the past, no one else can win the elections.
Constitutional changes were also passed that extend the term of office for the President and members of parliament, from five to seven years, beginning with the current term – despite strong objections from civil society, religious leaders and the decimated opposition in parliament.
As expected, Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) used its majority in the House to see through December’s constitutional amendment bill, a move which the Uganda Law Society, the umbrella body of the country’s legal fraternity, says was unconstitutional. The law society has petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking to have the changes annulled.
The lawyers argue that the conception, debate and passing of the bill by parliament contravened the constitution. The petition says the bill, authored by an NRM member of parliament from the western part of the country, where Museveni comes from, should have been tabled by the attorney general as required by the constitution.
They argue that the mover did not give credible reasons to support his motion. Furthermore, the lawyers’ body argues that the timing of the amendment bill, which came as the President is serving the last term in his existing 32-year long rule, was clear evidence that it was aimed solely at keeping the President in power.
In the run-up to debate in parliament, MPs were each handed Ush30m (approx. $9,000) to facilitate ‘consultation’ with the people they represent to get their views. Examples abound of MPs who ignored the rejection of the proposed bill by their voters and instead supported it.
“Those examples show that the money was a bribe to the MPs to support the amendment [bill] regardless of the people’s views,”
says Betty Nambooze, of the opposition Democratic Party legislator.
Finally, the lawyers argue that although parliament is mandated to amend some sections of the constitution, term limits for the President, MPs and local councillors form a fundamental section of the supreme law, which it requires a national referendum to change – as was the case before restoration of multiparty democracy in 2005.
“Because Museveni wanted multiparty democracy restored to please the international community, he backed the referendum on multiparty democracy. Why is he now applying double standards?” a political scientist at Makerere University, who declined to be named, asked.
Uganda’s renowned constitutional lawyer, Prof. George Kanyeihamba, a retired Supreme Court judge, describes parliament’s action as weirdly unconstitutional. It is a shame, he argues, that a constitution which took legal experts over five years to discuss and draft can be amended by a handful of people under the veil of parliament.
Other top lawyers, including Prof. Frederick Ssempebwa, who was a member of the Constitutional Review Commission which wrote the 1995 constitution, have joined a long line of prominent academics and other intellectuals to criticise the constitutional amendments. They argue that the bill would wash away Uganda’s democratic gains and the hope of having a peaceful transfer of power, which has eluded the country since independence.
Judging from the way Ugandan courts have handled politically related cases in the past, many analysts cast doubt on the chances of the changes being struck out by the Constitutional Court.
“You have to bear in mind that most of the judges, including Chief Justice Bart Katureebe and his deputy Owiny Dollo, were either in Museveni’s Cabinet before or belong to the ruling NRM party,” a prominent lawyer who declined to be identified says.
Nevertheless, the Uganda Law Society president Francis Gimara believes that the petition, which is premised on nine grounds, is too strong to be ignored by the justices of the Constitutional Court.
As soon as the amendments were passed, Police Chief General Kale Kayihura ordered heavy deployment of the police and paramilitary forces in Kampala city and major towns to stop expected sporadic demonstrations, especially by the youth, many of them educated and jobless, who believed that the departure of Museveni in three years’ time would give them hope for a better future.
Those MPs who backed the amendment bill are on notice that they will lose in the coming elections. The social media has since been awash with condemnation of the changes.
“For a country which has never had a peaceful change of power since independence in 1962, the constitutional amendment casts a dark cloud over Uganda’s political future,” says the Makerere University political science lecturer.
“He is also going to spend heavily on the police, the army and spy agencies and as is already happening, vital sectors of the economy such as education and health will be underfunded, leading to poor service delivery and widespread condemnation of his government by the majority of the population.”
The health sector lacks doctors and nurses, as most of them have fled the country to seek greener pastures abroad. A doctor in Uganda earns the equivalent of $250, while a primary school teacher bags an average of $90 per month. An MP, on the other hand, earns the equivalent of $8,000 per month.
“The big disparity in pay between civil servants and professionals, including doctors, and politicians, shows that Museveni is more concerned with his political survival than the welfare of his people. Paying MPs well certainly wins him their support,” says veteran journalist Henry Wasswa.
That is the genesis of the 120 Presidential Advisors in the Office of the President. For the poor rural folk, he will give cash handouts to women and youth groups, especially during general elections, to win their support and to create the impression that he is popular, opposition critics say.
Succession a bone of contention
In the long run, whether or not he successfully clamps down on the opposition, Museveni will have the daunting task of dealing with his internal party politics. As he grows older, his succession will become a bone of contention.
The President has alienated his peers in the five-year bush war which brought him to power, back in 1986. Critics say the President is currently surrounded by younger political upstarts he has helped climb the political ladder, who he hopes will not challenge his suspected grand plan to have his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, presently the Commander of Special Forces guarding the President, or his wife, Janet Kataaha Museveni, presently an MP and Education Minister, succeed him.
Since the President has sidelined the war veterans who helped him come to power, the prospect of a Zimbabwe-like internal coup, which removed President Robert Mugabe from power, is unlikely.
But as old age takes its toll on him, Museveni’s cronies will jostle for state power and that will certainly mark the beginning of a new wave of political uncertainty. Whatever will happen, the prospect of changing leadership in Uganda peacefully is as distant as ever before.