The context of the ongoing political tumult in Uganda is the recent amendment of the Constitution, which removed the 75-year cap on candidates seeking election as president. In office for the last 32 years, and having won another five-year term in 2016, President Yoweri Museveni is already 73 and would have been disqualified to run in Uganda’s next presidential election in 2021, except for the amendment.
As part of the constitutional change, members of the Ugandan parliament had also awarded themselves, and members of the country’s local councils, a two-year term extension. However, the country’s constitutional court eventually struck down this particular amendment, for the reason that it was made without recourse to the electorate. In a majority decision, the constitutional court, however, upheld the amendments on age limits, declaring them lawful.
Long before confronting, and now overcoming, the age limit provisions in Uganda’s constitution, Museveni had already reversed provisions on term limits contained in Uganda’s constitution. As a result, the term limit that formed part of Uganda’s constitution of 1995 was removed, setting the stage for unlimited terms for Museveni.
Uganda and Kenya have followed similar histories on the question of presidential term limits. Term limits in Uganda were introduced as part of the 1995 Constitution, which came into force after Museveni had already been in power for nine years.
In Kenya, no term limits were in place when Moi took power in 1978. These were introduced in 1992 following massive pressure for reforms by a rising opposition. Thus, in Kenya and Uganda, the term limits were to have a future effect and discounted the period the incumbent had already served in office.
As Kenya approached 2002, the year when Moi would be compelled to retire by operation of the new term limits in the Constitution, the big question remained whether he would comply with the Constitution, or he would seek ways to bust the term limits. To his massive credit, Moi respected the Constitution, organising elections that ensured a peaceful transfer of power.
What Moi had done was more remarkable when the opposition won the election, defeating Uhuru Kenyatta, his handpicked successor. Mwai Kibaki, who succeeded Moi, also retired at the end of his two terms. The examples of the two presidents have established a firm culture that term limits are to be respected.
On its part, Uganda’s constitution had term and age limits on the presidency, the practical effect of the two limits kicking in at different times. Museveni would have been ineligible to run in the 2006 elections because of the term limits.
After the 2001 election, he engineered a constitutional amendment in 2005, which removed term limits, allowing him to run again in 2006. At that point, the age limit, the second hurdle on a life presidency, was still some years away, and now also been overcome. Curiously, the recent constitutional amendments re-introduced term limits on the presidency, a demonstration of the ease with which Museveni toys with Uganda.
What is happening in Uganda has implications beyond that country, and particularly for Kenya. With a young president already serving is second term in office, Kenya’s history suggests that President Kenyatta has no space to change the Constitution to extend his term in office. However, debates about political inclusion already provide a pretext for a future tampering with the existing power arrangements, and would provide a possible basis on which Kenyatta can negotiate a way of remaining in public office beyond his term.
In this regard, Kenyan politicians are keenly watching the resistance to Museveni in Uganda, as this will inform their own calculations. Museveni has been a bad influence on the region and is a major bulwark for impunity. For example, Museveni was a major voice against accountability for the crimes that occurred in Kenya after the 2007 elections. As the senior leader, Museveni has been something of a mentor for the much younger leadership in Kenya.
In this regard, the Jubilee Party remains in great admiration of Museveni’s politics, and has modelled its hold on Kenyan politics in the image of Museveni in Uganda. The challenge on Museveni’s authority undermines Jubilee’s own authority in Kenya, by sending an unwelcome message that ordinary people can successfully organise against an entrenched political system. As Museveni clobbered opponents in Arua, Deputy President William Ruto, was in Uganda and the two met, creating a symbolism that Kenya approves of Museveni’s strong-arm tactics.
The incident in Arua is a continuation of a major political confrontation between Museveni and his own people, necessitated by a realisation that having overcome all legal restraints on absolute power, the Ugandan strongman seeks to make himself a life president.
While Ugandans will be the only direct actors in that confrontation, they will have the support of a whole region that is confronted with similar problems, and which will be hoping that victory by ordinary people in Uganda can be replicated elsewhere.
- The writer is Executive Director KHRC. [email protected]