Uganda: Age Is But a Number – Museveni Looks to 2021 and Beyond

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was confirmed as the winner of Uganda’s presidential election for a fifth consecutive time on 20 February 2016. However, if the president is to stay in office beyond the next set of elections in 2021 he will have to overcome a constitutional impediment. Article 102 (b) of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution states that “a person is not qualified for election as President unless that person is not less than thirty-five years and not more than seventy-five years of age”. President Museveni will be 76 in 2021. But in the last year, Museveni, indirectly and from a distance, has been testing out strategies to either keep himself in power or anoint a successor.

Born again?

In December 2016, Justice Steven Kavuma, Uganda’s second most senior judge was rumoured, though this has been denied by Uganda’s judicial authorities, to have sworn an affidavit that he was in fact four years younger than his official age. At 69, Kavuma appeared to have found a new lease of life, just as his retirement age of 70 loomed. His announcement drew much hilarity on Ugandan social media, but was there an ulterior motive for his actions?

Kavuma, a founder member of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), served as State Minister for Defence in the early 2000s and was described as “hugely partisan” by a former Supreme Court judge. The process behind his appointment as Deputy Chief Justice in 2015 was challenged in the courts over its legality. “There is no doubt he enjoys the confidence of Museveni”, Nicholas Opiyo, a Kampala-based political analyst and human rights lawyer, told ARI. Could he therefore have been testing the water for the president? Museveni’s official birthday is 15 September 1944 but given his well-documented upbringing to rural, illiterate parents, the date was estimated by reference to local historical events. Museveni only needs to be one year younger, not four, to stand again in 2021.

The idea of altering one’s age is not as surprising as it might sound according to Opiyo, who notes that “the practice is commonplace among civil servants who do not want to retire upon clocking up their mandatory retirement age”. A point reinforced by a letter dated 6 February 2017 from the Ministry of Public Service (MPS), which indicated that “many requests” had been made by officers to change their dates of birth, particularly those coming up to retirement. For now the MPS has been clear that the dates declared at the time of initial appointment will be used, but Museveni will undoubtedly be watching what unfolds with interest.

A repeat performance

Elsewhere, the wheels are already in motion for a tried and tested approach. In August 2016, a private member’s bill was presented to parliament by NRM MP Robert Ssekitooleko. The bill, which was subsequently thrown out by the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, without being debated, proposed the raising of retirement ages for judges and life tenures for members of the electoral commission. “It was widely, and correctly, perceived as a first step towards undermining and eventually amending Article 102 (b) of the Constitution to remove the presidential age limit”, wrote Dr Busingye Kabumba, a constitutional law expert at Makerere University – a presumption denied by Ssekitooleko.

Uganda has “history” of such shenanigans. After the presidential elections in 2001, Museveni faced a constitutional impediment to re-election: the country’s two-term presidential limit would prevent him from standing again in 2006. A sustained and successful parliamentary push for constitutional reform ensued, one from which Museveni consistently distanced himself publically but was widely considered to be directing behind the scenes.

The removal of term-limits was passed by parliament in 2005 alongside the reintroduction of multi-party politics, the passage of the legislation allegedly eased by sizeable incentives to vote in favour of the reforms. Museveni remained in charge.

In Uganda’s 10th parliament the ruling party has the two-thirds majority – excluding NRM-leaning independents – required for constitutional amendments. Even outspoken critics, like Rebecca Kadaga, are unlikely to oppose what Museveni wants. According to Nicholas Opiyo, “she is combative on soft issues, and for the purpose of raising her political capital when it benefits her, but in matters crucial to the president, she has always given in”. A trade-off that sees the removal of age limits coupled with the reintroduction of term limits (with Museveni starting afresh) is a possible approach, and one that would deflect criticism at home and abroad.

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SOURCE: All Africa
Jamie Hitchen, Africa Research Institute (London)