Uganda’s presidential term limit debacle

Published 5th October 2017

Parliamentary brawls are becoming more common across the world. The scenes in Uganda’s parliamentary session last week were not unlike the ones that unfolded in South Africa’s parliament a few months ago. Punches and chairs were thrown and security staff were called to remove 25 members of parliament. The cause of the brawls- the introduction of a Bill that would remove presidential age limits, effectively allowing 73-year-old President Museveni to remain as an eligible candidate.

Members of the opposition and those of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), clashed during parliamentary sessions. Disturbing footage of the violence is all over the internet and has resulted in restrictions on the broadcasting of parliamentary sessions.

Discontent and opposition to the bill has not been confined to the halls of parliament. There have also been protests and demonstrations by students, civil society and concerned citizens. Ugandan security forces have reportedly clamped down on protests, detained journalists, raided offices belonging to international non-governmental organisations and arbitrarily arrested members of the opposition.

The NRM propped up their bill with curious arguments including that the current constitutional provision that provides an age restriction discriminates against the elderly. However, the ruling party’s true motives are far simpler than a claim of discrimination. According to the Constitution a presidential hopeful must not be “less than thirty-five years and not more than seventy-five years of age”. Museveni is 73 this year and the next election will be in 2021, without amending the laws- he cannot legally run.

Museveni has been in power since 1986 and is one of Africa’s longest standing leaders. He has progressively dismantled any constitutional hindrances that could remove him from power. For example, in 2005 he scrapped the two-term presidential limit allowing him to run for yet another term. In addition to amending the law in a bid to secure political longevity, the electoral process in Uganda has not always been free of controversy.

Unfortunately, the “president for life” trend in Africa is unsurprising. Like a married couple, power and certain Africa leaders seem to have a “till death do us part” arrangement. The Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been in power for 38 years and is 75 years old. Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been in power for 35 years and is 84 years old and thrives in a system with no term limits and President Omar al Bashir of Sudan has been in power since 1989 and is 73 this year.

Perhaps these leaders will surpass the all-time record held by Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie who reigned for 44 years. Muammar Gaddafi, is a close second as he managed to hold on to power for 42 years and Gabonese Omar Bongo Ondimba hit the 41 years in power mark at the age of 74.

Whilst many of these leaders played an instrumental role in the liberation and independence of their nations from foreign elements, many have also played a role in the brutal suppression of their own people particularly when there are voices calling for change.

In addition to using autocratic methods to stay in power, these leaders have also negatively influenced the some of Africa’s younger leaders. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila, 46 years old, has taken a page out of the president for life playbook. Kabila has breached his term limit by 9 months and has failed to hold fresh elections. Members of Kabila’s government allege that logistical constraints are preventing the election process from taking place but the veracity of these claims is deeply questionable. Blood has been shed as activists and opposition movements agitate for change. Many fear that the bloodshed will continue as the situation deteriorates rapidly.

53-year-old President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi sent his nation into a downward spiral when he controversially stood for a third term in office. Protests ensued, a coup was attempted, and a violent crackdown took place. Hundreds have been killed since he announced his intention to run for office. Burundi is on the brink of fully fledged chaos and yet Nkurunziza continues to cling on to power. Other younger leaders involved in heading down the same precarious road include 49-year-old King Mswati III of Swaziland who was crowned in 1986 at the age of 18 and remains in power today.

Developments in Uganda and the never-ending reign of many Africa leaders bring to mind the rare yet important example set by other leaders. I vividly recall attending a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Lawyers Association meeting in 2015 where the former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete was invited to give opening remarks. As it was one of his last official events in office, he stood at the podium and declared loud and proud that there is indeed life after the Presidency. If only other African leaders felt the same way.

** This piece appeared in the Star with the title “Holding on with all their might” on 5 October 2017

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