A select group of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party MPs has been burning the midnight oil in the bid to figure out a scheme of how to table a constitutional amendment Bill to amend Article 102(b) and delete the presidential age limit without triggering political commotion.
An MP familiar with the ongoing manoeuvres in the NRM caucus intimates that the architects of the amendment initially toyed with the idea of tabling a proposal during a caucus meeting of NRM lawmakers, but the plan was shelved amid disagreements over timing.
Some MPs behind the move to delete the presidential age limit wanted the entire process tackled way before the 2021 elections so that there is enough time to do the damage control on the inevitable political backlash that will follow the amendment.
Other MPs, however, warned that there’s still a mild hangover from the disputed 2016 elections which needs to dissipate before such a polarising amendment is tabled.
With no middle ground reached, the proposal was shelved to allow for more “consultations”.
The NRM caucus meeting, where some MPs had planned to table the proposal, has since been permanently deferred and it is now very unlikely that the proposal will be tabled when the caucus meets at a yet-to-be set date.
But manoeuvres have been going on at Parliament, with some of the architects proposing that a resolution demanding that the NRM caucus resolves that it supports the amendment of Article 102(b) to delete the presidential age limit.
Such a move would borrow cue from the sole candidature proposal that was tabled by MP Evelyn Anite during the NRM caucus in 2014, leading to the endorsement of President Museveni as the party’s sole candidature for the 2016 elections.
Some NRM MPs think a resolution in the caucus could set into motion the process to amend article 102(b).
But internal opponents to that scheme quickly poured water on it.
They counter that NRM MPs can sign up to such a resolution, as was the case with Anite’s sole candidature resolution, but would not be legally bound by the resolution just as was the case with the 2014 resolution.
Under rule 89 of the Rules of Procedure, voting on a Bill to amend a provision of the Constitution has to be by roll call and tally. In essence, MPs can sign a resolution supporting deleting of the presidential age limit but turn around and vote against it.
Parliament is in the process of amending the Rules of Procedure and some MPs sympathetic to the proposal are considering moving a provision for open voting. That is, however, a tall order that is not likely to be pulled off.
Kassanda County MP Simeo Nsubuga is one man who has been in meetings to map a strategy of how to handle the Bill, but like many MPs involved, he talks about the ongoing scheming in measured tone and offers little working information.
MPs involved in the manoeuvres have been keeping their cards close to the chest and Mr Nsubuga is no exception.
“We do meet often but when you are going to a battlefield, you do not disclose the military tactics. The matter is not before Parliament but that does not stop individual MPs from caucusing among themselves,” Mr Nsubuga says.
But the Opposition has not been resting on its laurels. It is also roaring to put up a fight, the numerical supremacy of the NRM notwithstanding.
NRM has 302 MPs, numbers that are incomparable to 57 Opposition MPs. The Opposition knows very well that it cannot take on the NRM in a game of numbers.
Plan B in the Opposition is to break the bank and take on the NRM in the money game.
Even a passive observer of Uganda’s politics knows the role that money plays and Opposition MPs are very well alive to the fact that the side that flex the biggest financial war muscle may take the day.
Different amounts of money have been mentioned to have been set as a condition for NRM MPs to support the move to delete the presidential age limit.
Some sources have put the money that is being demanded by NRM MPs at anywhere between Shs200m and Shs300m.
During a meeting with parliamentary journalists last month, Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa was livid when asked about claims that her office is expected to be the conduit of money that will exchange hands between NRM MPs and President Museveni as “facilitation” on the presidential age limit amendment.
It had been claimed that some MPs had even threatened not to attend NRM caucus meetings if Shs300m was not provided as “facilitation”, a claim Ms Nankabirwa forcefully denied.
“You cannot survive if you are [an MP] and approach me and say that I give you money so that you do the work that you were elected to do because you will be committing suicide. To approach the Chief Whip and say that, ‘unless you give me Shs300m, I will not go to Kyankwanzi.’ How can you tell me such nonsense? It is criminal, illegal and unwise,” Ms Nankabirwa said.
Ms Nankabirwa threatened to expose any MP who dares come to her requesting for money in exchange for support of the proposal to amend Article 102(b).
So how does the Opposition plan to counter the money that will inevitably start flowing when push comes to shove?
A civil society source familiar with the planning in the Opposition circles says they are amassing their own financial war chest to be used to take on NRM’s financial machinery.
The Opposition leadership in Parliament is toying with the idea of tabling a request before friendly donor countries to channel money into efforts to fight the presidential age limit amendment rather than supporting strategies like building structures in political parties.
With their own war chest, the plan is that if Mr Museveni can “facilitate” NRM MPs with Shs100m, the Opposition is either able to match the “facilitation” or even better it.
This “facilitation” from the Opposition would target “friendly” NRM MPs that can tilt the numbers game.
The Opposition will also reshuffle its Shadow Cabinet in 2017 and MPs suspected of double-dealing will have to be weeded out.
When the going gets tough, the Opposition leadership will want its bolts tightened to avoid strategies leaking to the other side. They will want MPs with unflinching loyalty to be the only ones on their books.
Bukedea Woman MP and former FDC deputy treasurer Anita Among is one of the Opposition-appointed MPs sweating over whether she will retain her position.
The Independent MP, who is the deputy chairperson of the influential Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) is an unapologetic sympathiser of the ruling government and has been on the record over her dealings with Mr Museveni, a relationship that has rubbed many Opposition MPs the wrong way.
She deputises on an accountability Committee where appointments are made by the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
The 67 Independent MPs are also a constituency that is up for grabs.
Kampala Central MP Mohammed Nsereko (Independent) flaunts himself as the de facto leader of the Independent MPs and he has been keen to speak out against the proposal to delete the presidential age limit.
When he contested for Deputy Speaker of the 10th Parliament and lost, Mr Nsereko garnered 115 votes and has since formed an informal coalition known as “Team 115”, in reference to the number of votes he garnered.
Nsereko’s bargaining chip is that he can deliver the 115 MPs either side. Though he says he will oppose the proposal to lift the presidential age limit but those who followed him as rebel MP know he is very alive to changing positions.
This week, the government decided to test the waters with an equally controversial Constitutional Amendment Bill (2017) that seeks to amend article 26 to allow the government to forcefully acquire land for public works.
Though, on the face of it, the controversial Bill is unrelated to the presidential age limit debate, it will help proponents of the removal of age limit understand the political terrain in Parliament or, more specifically, in the NRM house.
Reading of the first Bill was met with bi-partisan disapproval on Thursday.
Opposition MPs are also happy with the debate remaining in the public domain and this seems to have riled the pro-age limit removal camp.
The Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, was quoted in The Observer this week warning that the police will not allow the age limit talk in institutions of learning and villages.
Senior Presidential Adviser on media issues Tamale Mirundi has been going around radio stations claiming that the age limit talk is being sponsored by Opposition MPs so that the public psyche is prepared to reject it if MPs dare to go to the constituencies to consult about it.
The government has a well-choreographed standard response to inquiries about the moves to amend Article 102(b). The response is that the Bill is not yet tabled and that if Ugandans support the proposal to effect an amendment, then the government has no choice.
The standard response from majority NRM MPs is that they will consult their constituents before making up their minds on which side to vote for.
Deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana this week told Parliament that the gazzeted Constitutional Amendment Bill only touches on Article 26 regarding government acquisition of land for infrastructural development.
“It is up to Ugandans. If Ugandans feel that we should amend that Article 102(b), they are free. They should bring it. I cannot begin being speculating on their behalf. Of course there are voices saying that the Article should be amended but they have not been formally presented to us and it has not gone through the due process,” Mr Rukutana said at Parliament.
But as the manoeuvring slowly takes shape at Parliament, Mr Museveni, as is often the case when a fluid issue is up for discussion, has held his cards close to his chest and remained mute.