Why many Ugandans are addressing the wrong issue in the debate on lifting age limits
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | 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.