By Agather Atuhaire
For how long can Museveni, Mbabazi block them with threats?
Despite being draped in the bright yellow colours of her party, Dorothy Hyuha, the NRM deputy secretary general looked quite downcast as she announced a clampdown on MPs in its ranks pushing for the return of presidential term limits.
Flanked by an equally yellow-draped but dour -looking NRM party Spokesperson, Mary Karooro-Okurut, Hyuha read from a prepared script. She said the NRM’s governing body, the 14-strong Central Executive Committee (CEC) chaired by President Yoweri Museveni at State House Entebbe on April 22, had decided to keep open presidential terms.
“Any member, therefore, who takes a position contrary to that of the NRM, is engaged in an act of indiscipline and will be dealt with appropriately,” she announced. It was a wimpy performance by an official of a cornered organisation.
Few missed the irony that among the MPs pushing for a return to term limits is Cerinah Nebanda Arioru, the 23-year old fresh graduate who fought off the NRM party rigging machine to snatch Hyuha’s Butaleja Woman MP seat and the right to speak for NRM. Nebanda and another 110 MPs from all parties in parliament had on April 17 announced their plan to have the constitution amended to restore term limits. Even as Hyuha spoke, most of these MPS were in a hurriedly arranged NRM caucus meeting, a last minute effort by President Yoweri Museveni to beat them into line before the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting the next day, on April 24.
At that point, most NRM Caucus delegates were insisting on two agenda items; the return of term limits and the removal of Amama Mbabazi from the NRM Secretary generalship. The Hyuha camp, which did not want these items debated, was reacting with threatens and stonewalling.
According to CEC members who planned the Caucus and NEC meetings, at this point, Mbabazi and Museveni had agreed to block those crucial debates and use the meetings as pulse-feelers by focusing on the Public Order Bill, the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), and other general party performance. Some MPS walked away dejected. Many more would feel the same way after the NEC, the NRM’s 650-strong National Executive Committee (NEC), which brings together MPs and district leaders.
The question now is how Museveni and Mbabazi plan to block the term limits debate which appears to be roller-coasting into a major showdown.
The MPs pushing for the return of term limits are led by Western youth MP Gerald Karuhanga who is not in NRM. Karuhanga has already written to the Speaker of Parliament to allow him introduce the Bill to amend the constitution. Kadaga must respond.
Karuhanga says his motion seeks to correct a mistake that was committed by legislators of the 7th parliament who, in 2005, eliminated Article 105 (2) of the 1995 Constitution which provided for a maximum of two five year terms for the president. The constitution was amended because then, as now, the NRM had the majority but also allegedly bribed each MP with Shs 5million. There is talk of money this time too.
But the move to return to presidential term limits is strong because it was a major campaign issue for, especially opposition candidates, in campaigns for the February 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections. The clamour for them intensified after the election when prices of essential commodities and food went up, inflation escalated to over 30%, the opposition launched protest rallies over the rising cost of living amidst runaway corruption and public profligacy. Museveni’s suppression of the A4C’s Walk-to-Work protests exposed police terror and brutality and dented Museveni’s good governance credentials.
Museveni’s popularity has plummeted. Although he won the presidential election by 68% in February 18, 2011, barely a year later, a poll by Afrobarometer showed in March that up to 75% of respondents believe Museveni is leading the country in a “wrong direction”. Many want him out.
Uganda has had regular elections every five years since 1996 and Museveni has won all of them. Now, Kinkizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi told The Independent, “People do not believe regular elections can bring about regime change”. They want a constitutional block to regime longevity.
“Democracy in Africa is very fragile because civic competence of the population is still limited so it is possible to undermine the whole electoral process,” Baryomunsi explained in a sophisticated reference to accusation that Museveni wins through vote buying, and rigging, ballot-box stuffing, and voter intimidation.
In a recent interview with CNN, Museveni stuck to the answer he has given when he is asked when he thinks his reign, now into its 26th year, will end. The decision is not mine, he told the CNN, my party will decide.
But as the bid to stifle the discussion, whether in parliament, or within party organs has shown, Museveni is determined to cling on. Despite anxiety about a peaceful transition mounting among politicians, the clergy, and civil society, rumours that Museveni wants his right hand man Prime Minister Mbabazi or his son Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba to succeed him appear far-fetched. None of these two has a popular democratic base either within the party members or among Ugandans. It will be difficult to sell them without reverting to either a military regime or totalitarian state.
That explains why although NRM has the majority in parliament, chances are high of passing the Bill to return term limits and possibly, block Museveni from standing again in 2016. The mover of the motion, which needs signatures of at least a third of the 375 voting members, says it is clear the majority has put aside party interests and will pass it.
However, there is fear that if the Bill is passed as proposed Museveni could in 2016 claim it’s a new dispensation that gives him another 10 more years in power.
“The laws that we pass do not usually have a retrospective effect unless you are passing them to target a particular individual,” says Baryomunsi. In this case, the only bar on Museveni would be the age limit.
Article 102 (b) of the 1995 constitution provides that for anyone to qualify to run for presidency, he should not be less 35 years of age and not above 75. If Museveni was born in 1944 like most sources say he will be 72 years old in 2016 and still eligible. He will only miss the bar in 2021 when he will be 77.
Even then, there are unverifiable claims that Museveni has instructed the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to push an amendment to remove age limits.
Dokolo county MP Felix Okot Ogong, who likes to threaten to run against Museveni but jump out at the last minute, told The Independent that such actions show that the President only “thinks about himself and how to stay in power”.
“People are worried about the future of this country,” Okot Ogong said.
“It is unacceptable that we have never had a peaceful transition ever since Uganda got independence,” Karuhanga told The Independent, “Must we lose lives and property in coup d’états every time there is a need for change of government?” he asked.
Despite such passion, it remains unclear if the MPS can remove the presidential term limits because in March, two MPS; Odonga Otto (Aruu) and John Lukyamuzi (Rubaga South) initiated a motion to impeaching Museveni for alleged non-performance that fizzled out as quickly as it was mooted.
The MPs have also been accused of merely seeking headlines by jumping on an idea mooted by civil society organisations and Church of Uganda Kampala Diocese Assistant Bishop Zac Niringiye.
Karuhanga dismisses that as mere cheap talk.
“I was still at the university when those terms were abolished but I promised myself that if I ever stepped in parliament that would be the first thing I do,” he says.
Still, Karuhanga is having a tough time wiggling out of a spin to his motion by another MP Medard Bitekyerezo (Mbarara Municipality) who is proposing that term limits extend to parliamentarians. Bitekyerezo argues says it is selfish for MPs to criticise Museveni for clinging to power when among them are MPs who have been in parliament since the Constituent Assembly in 1994. He has said he will table a separate Bill demanding that MPs also serve for only two five year terms.
Karuhanga says Bitekyerezo is being diversionary to weaken the motion.
“Where in the world have you ever seen term limits for parliamentarians?” Karuhanga asks. He says unlike the President who has all the executive powers, parliament is not an individual but an institution where anyone can be opposed in case he suggests an unfavorable policy.
“With the president we are looking at one person having all the executive powers and a possibility of him misusing those powers,” Karuhanga told The Independent.
Okot Ogong said unlike MPs, the President is not a representative; he determines everything in the country.
“While I have no problem with having term limits for MPs as well,” says Baryomunsi, “I think it is not necessary.” He argues that 60% of MPs in the ninth parliament are new because MPs in Uganda can be easily voted in and out.
“The problem is not at the level of parliament,” he concludes, “I think they are just mixing issues because it is the presidency that determines the direction of parliament.” This group needs to rehearse some more solid responses to this question because citing precedents is Museveni’s favourite game as his reels off names of major democracies that do not have presidential term limits.
Only MPs like Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala Central) appear to stand on firmer grounds. He wants term limits pushed even further.
“I don’t have any problem with the ruling applying to MPs,” he told The Independent, “In fact let it apply to district chairmen, local leaders and even other civil servants. Let us practice what we preach.”
What they say on return of Presidential term limits
MP Gerald Karuhanga (Western Youth)
“Assuring a peaceful change from Museveni would be the perfect gift to give Ugandans as the country marks 50 years of independence.”
MP Roland Mugume (Rukungiri Municipality)
“People are tired of the same faces and the same policies. Change is inevitable even when it is not necessary but in this case it is absolutely necessary. We have had this president for over quarter a century nowand he has appointed the same cabinet, the same judiciary and everything so it is critical that Ugandans witness a peaceful change.”
Michael Mukula (Soroti municipality)
“There is no way even after Museveni that another person can be given a blank constitutional cheque. The region is moving towards economic integration and Uganda is the only country in the region without term limits. There is no reason why Uganda should be different from the countries forming the federation.”
MP Chris Baryomunsi (Kinkizi East)
“Why did MPs in the 7th parliament commit such an omission of abolishing term limits? Those who supported the abolishment were perhaps basing on the conditions prevailing then having been moving from the movement system to multiparty. Given the history of this country where we have had change of governments after coups, there is need to prepare for peaceful regime changes.”
MP Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala Central:
“The Bill if passed should not apply only to Museveni because everyone who has overstayed in power has ended badly
MP Jacob Oboth Oboth (West Budama South)
“Term limits is a small issue that doesn’t even call for any debate. The term limits should never have been abolished. When the people abolished term limits, they knew we had a good president who knew what he was doing (but) there is fear that the president could be misled or that he could be replaced by a dictator who could take advantage of the open ended terms in the constitution.”