Why many Ugandans are addressing the wrong issue in the debate on lifting age limits
Last week the NRM caucus did the expected and recommended the removal of age limits on the presidency so that President Yoweri Museveni can rule for life. With NRM controlling 82% of parliament, the amendment will sail through easily. There was a hue and cry among Ugandans elites with some people even threatening violence. Yet those fighting this constitutional amendment are fighting a wrong war.
During the Constituent Assembly, Uganda’s current opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, opposed the entrenchment of age limits in the constitution. Now he has joined the bandwagon opposing the removal of this provision. Of course Besigye has a right to change his mind. But he and his supporters should also remember that Museveni has a similar right!
Besigye now claims, and his supporters agree, that he opposed age limits because he knew the constitution had term limits, which would limit Museveni’s stay in power. He is qualifying his argument after the fact. Museveni has also said that when he said the problem of Africa is leaders who cling to power, he meant those leaders who are not elected. These changes of convenience only demonstrate the opportunism of politicians.
Besigye and his supporters have always argued that the constitution should be about principles not individuals. As a matter of principle, why should anyone above 75 years be denied a chance to serve Uganda as a president? Therefore, to oppose lifting of age limits because such an amendment would benefit Museveni is placing a person above a principle; and subjecting our constitution to the benefits some individuals may get rather than to values that transcend those individuals.
If Besigye really believes people above 75 years are competent to run for president, he should defend this principle even if Museveni would be the first to benefit from it. Museveni is mortal. Whatever his machinations, there is one inexorable huddle he will never cheat – nature. Museveni will die and Uganda will remain for a very long time after his death. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to oppose the amendment of a constitutional provision which is good for many aging Ugandans simply because Museveni will benefit from it.
The issue that is agitating many Ugandans is not the age limit, even though it has becoming the rallying cry. Rather it is Museveni’s seeming permanence in power. Many people in Uganda are tired of Museveni and want him to leave. This is a political not a constitutional issue. Rather than hide behind some pretentious defense of the constitution, activists should mobilise people for change. It will be easy for Museveni to buy 350 MPs. But it is much harder for him to buy off 20 million Ugandans who will be eligible to vote in 2021.
Opposition activists claim that their position against the amendment is a moral argument and not partisan. They accuse those supporting lifting of age limits of being unpatriotic sycophants bribed by Museveni, fighting for their stomachs rather than the good of the country. This is downright hypocrisy or delusional or both.
Their ideological cloak is to claim that their politics is not really political; that rather it is a reflection of universal values of democracy. They also claim that their partisanship is really not partisan, but just a reflection of some objective moral truths. They present their case in a way that says it is Museveni’s supporters’ politics which is political and partisanship. This twisted illogic is the problem with opposition activists and their messiah.
Ugandan elites argue without a sense of perspective and history. The provision limiting the age at which one can run for president was not put in the constitution because there was evidence that people aged 75 and above are not capable of governing the country. Rather it was meant to block one person; former president Milton Obote, from running for president in case he returned. To argue therefore that the constitution should not be amended to fit one person’s preferences is stupid when it was written to do exactly that.
Since he came to power, Museveni has been consistent. Each time a constitution provision has stood in his continued stay in the presidency, it has been removed. The first time it was in 1989 when his first four years interim period came to an end. The proposals to change the rules so that Museveni can remain president were drafted by Kizza Besigye. The second came in 2003 when term limits of the 1996 constitution stood in his way. This time the battle to remove them was led by Amama Mbabazi. One of the leaders of the remove age limits crusade will most likely run against Museveni is 2031.
The anti age activists want to use the constitution to secure their political objective of getting rid of Museveni, which their political mobilisation and organisation has failed to do. This is utter stupidity. No constitution can protect anyone from any harm. Constitutional provisions can only work when backed by politics. But as we have seen with the NRM caucus, age limits lack a politically weighted majority to protect them. So the constitution will be amended.
Law is a creature of politics and constitutional provisions cannot ensure their survival because constitutions are created and destroyed by political decisions. Museveni wrote this constitution to serve him. Anyone who wants to stop him must not rely on the constitution but on politics. They must go out and rally a politically weighted majority for their beliefs. NRM supporters have every democratic right to seek to amend the constitution to serve whatever political purpose they like. Those who disagree with them should learn this message and instead of using threats, intimidation and blackmail on social media, they need to go to the villages rally the masses.
Museveni’s opponents have always wanted luck to do for them what they have failed to achieve through political organisation and mobilisation. No constitutional provision will remove Museveni from power. Only political mobilisation by his opponents and nature (when he dies) can. Appealing to his moral sense when he has committed himself to ruling for life is naïve. And claiming that their partisan struggle to get rid of him is an act of patriotism only demonstrates how delusional our elites have become. None of these politicians – whether in NRM or in the opposition – is driven by any higher moral purpose; instead all of them are driven by greed for power.