Sunday April 29 2012

The long march to restoring term limits

MP Karuhanga proposed a Bill to ensure that

MP Karuhanga proposed a Bill to ensure that President Museveni gets out of office come 2016. Photo by Yusuf Muziransa  

By Nelson Wesonga

It is a cause for which Mr Gerald Karuhanga, the Western Youth Member of Parliament, is preparing for the worst but praying for the best.

After all, though many MPs have expressed support for his proposed The Constitution Amendment Bill, 2012, that seeks to restore presidential term limits, when push comes to shove, they could go anywhere.

Mr Karuhanga, who rose to the limelight with the allegations he made in October 2011 that three Cabinet ministers had received kickbacks from Tullow Oil, this time, faces an even more defining battle – one that has created a buzz across the political divide.

“The first challenge will be to get leave of Parliament to draft the Bill. It might be harder to see through the motion granting him leave. And now that NRM’s NEC has pronounced itself on the issue, MPs could tow NEC’s line,” says Ben Wacha, the former MP of Oyam North and chairman of the House’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee.
What Mr Karuhanga did last week when he presented the Speaker of Parliament with a draft was more of a courtesy call on Ms Rebecca Kadaga.

He has not yet moved a motion for consideration by the 375 elected MPs, who wield voting rights, asking for leave to table his proposed Bill.

Of these, 264 are members of the ruling National Resistance Movement, 34 (Forum for Democratic Change), 12 (Democratic Party), 10 (Uganda Peoples Congress), one (Justice and Equality Movement), one (Conservative Party), 43 (independent) and 10 Uganda People’s Defence Force representatives.

Sympathetic colleagues
Though Mr Karuhanga is an independent, many of the other 42 independents are more sympathetic to NRM, the party in whose primaries most had contested but lost in late 2010.

Where personal interest takes precedence over the long term good of the nation, they could side with NRM, which they bet, could reward them for their support in its hour of need.

“Other challenges would be at the second and third reading of the Bill. One would need the support of two-thirds of all the members of Parliament,” says Mr Fox Odoi, the MP for West Budama North.

Bills to amend constitutional provisions have to receive two-thirds support in order to succeed. In other words, the proposed amendment should be supported by 250 MPs.

When expunging the term limits, the Seventh Parliament voted by show of hands even though it could have been done by secret ballot. If the same method were used again, the numbers would likely not be on Mr Karuhanga’s side since NRM members may be afraid to be publicly defiant of their party chairman.

The battle is fully joined with the ruling party threatening members with disciplinary action if they persist in discussing the term limits matter. President Museveni has also made it very clear that he believes renewed debate on term limits is not the most urgent national issue even when the general opinion in political circles is that he is privately troubled that a debate on his very future is gaining currency.

All eyes will be on the National Resistance Movement’s parliamentary caucus which is always summoned to whip members into line every time a contentious and polarising matter divides them.

During such caucus meetings, members are persuaded to tow the party position through a combination of smooth-talking, unspoken threats and, some say, outright bribery such as it was alleged when term limits were lifted.
Mr Theodore Ssekikubo, the MP of Lwemiyaga (NRM), says, “President Museveni can be very persuasive.”
And where the MPs refuse to budge, they are labelled ‘rebels’.

“The President has used the rebel bogey in the past and gotten away with it,” adds Mr Ssekikubo.

Many now fear to be branded so since they could end up before the party’s disciplinary committee, which they wouldn’t want as this could later play to their disadvantage – should the President be looking out for supporters to reward.

Siding with the President
Though some NRM MPs are agreeable to President Museveni someday stepping aside, so far his presence is keeping the competing interests within his party undecided.

That indecision is, however, itself under a lot of pressure from the determination by those opposed to the life presidency tendencies they see in Mr Museveni’s disposition.

This is preferable to gambling with an idea that could fracture the party and expose its members to the uncertainty associated with the political wilderness.

There is also the likelihood that the ruling party could play up the unsubstantiated view that Mr Karuhanga’s amendment is targeting one person, Mr Museveni, even though the declared position is that it is intended to guard the integrity of Uganda’s democratic growth and ensure future peaceful transfer of power.

“The proposed Bill seems to target the President. But once you target President Museveni, you lose the support of even the moderate members,” says Mr Nicholas Opiyo, a legal consultant.

Mr Opiyo adds that if the proposal makes it to the floor of Parliament and sails through to the third reading – the last stage of consideration before voting takes place, the government could do all it can to ensure it is delayed until the end of the Ninth Parliament.

“The government could ensure the Bill is tabled towards the end of the Ninth Parliament when most MPs are more vulnerable to manipulation,” says Mr Opiyo. That is when many are preoccupied with campaigns to get re-elected and susceptible political pressure.

Mr Wacha, however, doubts it can be delayed.

Limits across all elective posts?

Already, there have been insinuations that term limits should apply to all elective posts. The current constitutional position is that MPs can run for office in eternity.

Even among MPs, the element of self-preservation could override the need for term limits for presidents if the government threatens to insist on restricting their tenancy in the House.

The other challenge in amending the Constitution is where it must be subjected to a referendum so the voters can pronounce themselves on the issue.

Although the national mood has people warming up to the restoration of term limits for presidents, the perennial problem of ‘selling’ their votes could come up if the matter is then pushed to a referendum. The government would then probably be in a good position to win the day in such circumstances seeing as it is that it holds the keys to the national treasury.

An equally important challenge is that even if Parliament were to pass such a Bill, it would then be sent to President Museveni to assent.

But the President has in the recent past said that the longer one stays in power, the more experienced, and, therefore, the better.

He would likely refuse to assent to the Bill although the most such a refusal would achieve would be only to delay it coming into law for a few weeks.

The Constitution provides for situations where the President refuses to assent to a Bill within the prescribed 30 days, and where Parliament refuses to changes its position, the Speaker will cause the Bill to be laid before House and it automatically becomes law.

What should Mr Karuhanga do?

Mr Wacha says for this proposal to succeed, it must be a concerted effort.

“In Parliament, it is all about numbers, not wishful thinking. So if this proposed Bill were to succeed, it would have to be a concerted effort. But I believe the NRM won’t give in easily,” says Mr Wacha.

Mr Karuhanga could do with lessons from Abraham Lincoln, a former President of the United States of America.
Lincoln said, “If you want to win a man to your cause, first convince him you are his sincere friend.”

Besides the largely converted opposition MPs, he could reach out to NRM MPs and inform them that, legally, President Museveni would be eligible to contest in 2016 for the presidency. He can also point out that Parliament cannot legally enact a law specifically for an individual.

Mr Karuhanga agrees: “The President has the support of most MPs. We cannot win them over if many believe our proposal will bar the President from contesting again in 2016.”

However, he and his colleagues are banking on the premise that since this issue resonates with the masses; the government will not swim against the tide.

But the same masses’ sentiments did not stop MPs from taking car loans from the government.

The process that the Bill would go through…
1. First, the MP will have to ask the Speaker of Parliament for permission to table the Bill.
He has to do this on the floor of Parliament, where the Speaker would – if she or he deems it necessary –grant him the leave.
2. On being granted leave, Mr Karuhanga will go to Parliament’s Legal Department to help him draft the Bill using legal language.
3. After the legal department has prepared the draft, he will take it to the First Parliamentary Counsel, a government department where it is checked to ensure it does not contradict other laws.
The department also helps to fine-tune it in terms of legal language.
4. It is after the First Parliamentary Counsel and the Attorney General’s Chambers have given their opinion of the legal implications of the Bill that Mr Karuhanga has to get a Certificate of Financial Implication from the ministry of Finance to accompany the Bill.
5. Once the certificate of financial implication has been secured, the draft is taken to the Government Printery in Entebbe to print more copies.
6. The mover then distributes the copies to the AG, the Speaker, and the Clerk to Parliament as well as to the MPs.
7. It is after the Speaker has got a copy that he or she can direct that it be included in the Order Paper for the First Reading in the House.
8. During the first reading, the clerk just reads the title of the draft and the name of the person who will shortly present it.
9. The mover then also reads the title of the Bill and its objectives with secondment from another member.
9. After this formality is done, the Speaker commits the Bill to a relevant committee of Parliament, in this case the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee.
11. The committee meets separately to weigh the pros and cons of the Bill. It also usually consults stakeholders so as to get their input.
12. On completion of the scrutiny and consultations, the committee prepares a report, which it gives to the Speaker as a sign that it has completed its assignment and is ready to present the draft Bill to the House.
13. Once again, the Speaker includes the draft Bill on the order paper for the Second Reading.
14. It is at the second reading that the whole House debates the Bill clause by clause, that is, all the members get a chance to discuss the Bill.
15. After the discussion, the Speaker asks the House whether it supports the Bill or not, and if the House supports it, it then it goes to the ‘Committee of the House’ stage.
16. During this stage, the Speaker leaves his or her official seat and sits among the committee members, but with the Speaker serving as the chairperson.
However, unlike the other stages, here winding discussions are rare because it is assumed the issues had already been thrashed out during the previous stages.
What mainly takes place during this stage is the deletion or otherwise of clauses or even just words. This is to remove ambiguities or to insert amendments.
17. When all the contentious clauses have been addressed, the mover of the Bill moves a motion for the committee of the House to report to the House, which, if okayed, the chairperson of the committee goes back to the Speaker’s seat.
18. The mover of the Bill then formally reports to the House on what was agreed on by committee of the House.
19. Members of the House will then be asked whether the Bill should go for the Third Reading, and if they substantially support this, Mr Karuhanga will ask the House to adopt and pass the draft into law.
20. If they support it, it will be taken to the person it is believed it is targeting, the President, for assent.