How, barring a major surprise, the current power structure in Uganda makes lifting presidential age limit inevitable
By Andrew M. Mwenda
Those debating the succession issue in Uganda should refer to Rome in 44BC. Rome had been a republic since 509BC when the patricians rose in revolt and deposed King Tarquinius Superbus. For nearly five centuries monarchy was taboo in Rome. Whenever anyone exhibited signs of strong leadership, critics would, to discredit him, accuse him of trying to make himself king.
On March 15 that year, senatorial conspirators of the Roman Republic led by Marcus Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar a powerful general and politician accusing him of trying to make himself king.
But anyone who has read the history of Republican Rome, most especially from the end of the Third Punic War in 146BC to Caesar’s death, would see that the republic was unsustainable. Leadership by a divided senate had caused Rome to be engulfed in civil war for a century. Killing Caesar could slow but not stop the slide towards monarchy. There were underlying factors necessitating strong centralised leadership. That is why 17 years after Caesar’s assassination, Rome actually succumbed to monarchy when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian, declared a Principate in 27BC, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Yet Octavian never declared himself king or emperor although that is what he became. Initially, he only persuaded the senate to name him princeps senatus, which meant “first on the roll call of the senate”. It soon took on the dignity of a prince. In fact in 27BC he asked to be relieved of all his offices and powers and be allowed to retire to private life. Instead the senate begged him to stay and confirmed his princely title for life. Later it conferred upon him the religious title, Augustus, which meant “Devine Augmentor” or “provider”, the name by which he came to be known in history.
Octavian (or now Augustus Caesar) understood both Rome’s hostility to and need for monarchy. Thus, he eased the death of the republic by keeping republican rituals and forms. He professed to be only chairman of the senate but no measure was proposed to it except at his instigation or consent. He ran for the consulate 13 times, campaigned and even paid for votes like the rest. Consuls and tribunes continued to be elected but actual power resided in him. The only important precedent he violated was to keep three cohorts of soldiers in the city and six near it to ensure his rule. After over a century of civil strife, Romans accepted this barely disguised monarchy with the humility of experience.
There is some similarity between Rome in the first century BC and Uganda at the end of the 20th Century and between President Yoweri Museveni and Augustus. Museveni campaigns in elections, spending oodles of money; his handlers stuff ballot boxes, beat up his opponents and even on occasion kill a few. Yet Museveni does not derive his power from these elections or the constitution. His power comes from his role in leading the NRA/M to victory through military conquest. Elections and constitutional rituals are only instruments to legitimise this power.
Consequently, this structure of power has led inevitably to a presidency for life. Yet Museveni does not seem to have planned it this way. Insiders say that when the NRA/M High Command met at Lubiri in January 1986 after capturing Kampala, Museveni insisted he preferred to be president for only two years of a transitional period, after which there would be peaceful succession. He was forced to accept four years. Yet when the four years expired, then National Political Commissar, Dr. Kizza Besigye, led a team to draft a resolution to amend the constitution to extend NRM’s life, and therefore Museveni’s presidency, for another five years.