KAMPALA. Up to around the year 1800, the ancient kingdom of Mpororo in western Uganda had a king called Kahaya Rutindagyezi. The king grew very old and senile and his sons demanded to share power with him.
The “stubborn” and “spiteful” king got angry and decided to disinherit his children. He hid the royal drum and committed suicide. Without the royal drum, no new king would be installed for Mpororo kingdom, and the kingdom disintegrated.
This is the story as it was told to the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs which is currently considering the Bill on, among other things, removing the age limits for presidential candidates by Makerere University political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa.
Mr Ndebesa was one of the 20 researchers who offered support to the Constituent Assembly that wrote the 1995 Constitution.
As the debate on whether to amend the constitution and remove the 75-year upper cap and 35-year lower cap for presidential candidates rages, the committee invited Mr Ndebesa in his individual capacity to offer his views on the matter.
Mr Ndebesa’s lecture to the committee also touched on Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia from 1957 to 1987.
Bourguiba mistook himself for the state and despite being described as “relatively moderate” and “pro-Western”, this is what he had to say when asked about Tunisia’s political system: ‘’The system? What system? ‘’I am the system.’’
In 1975, he had acquired the title of president for life, but he grew senile while in power and in November 1987, aged 84, he was deposed in a bloodless coup by his new prime minister Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, who declared that the president was too senile and ill to govern.
All Ben Ali had to do was put Bourguiba under guard in a villa outside Tunis and assume the presidency.
The committee had also invited law dons from Makerere University to give their views, but they declined the invitation, saying the committee was constituted to legitimise a process intended to create a life presidency for President Museveni.
In power since January 1986, Mr Museveni is barred, under the current constitutional order, to run again in 2021 because he will be above the ceiling of 75 years of age.
Mr Ndebesa, although he is also opposed to the proposed lifting of the presidential age limits, chose to appear before the committee.
He told Saturday Monitor on Thursday that he wished to put his views on record.
In the first point highlighted above, Mr Ndebesa’s argument, as he told the committee, was that if age limits are removed, Ugandans could easily end up with a senile leader as the people of Mpororo and Tunisia did.
Before Mr Ndebesa appeared before the committee, a group of doctors had briefly appeared before it and promised to return with a researched opinion on whether age has an effect on one’s capacity to lead.
Mr Ndebesa told the committee chaired by West Budama South MP Jacob Oboth-Oboth that although the oft-cited age cap is 75 years, the MPs should note that that is only the age for presidential candidates.
If someone is nominated to run for president just days to his 75th birthday and that person wins the election, Mr Ndebesa argued, that person will be president until the age of 80 years.
Basing on that, Mr Ndebesa argued that the doctors, while considering the age issue, should look at 80 years and not 75.
On the argument that imposing age limits on presidential candidates is discriminatory, Mr Ndebesa argued that if Parliament were to go with the argument raised by Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi, the sponsor of the Bill, that imposing age limits is a form of discrimination, then several articles of the Constitution have to be changed because they too would be discriminatory.
Mr Ndebesa asked: “Why select only 102(b) and not 102(a) or 102(c)?” Sub-clause 102(b) sets 35 and 75 as the lower and upper age cap for presidential candidates, respectively. If this discriminates against Ugandans outside that age bracket, Mr Ndebesa argues, sub-clause 102(a), which requires one to be a citizen by birth in order to qualify to be President also discriminates against those who are citizens by naturalization or any other type.
In the same vein, Mr Ndebesa argues, sub-clause 102(c), which sets academic qualifications for presidential candidates, also discriminates against Ugandans who do not have the stipulated academic qualifications.
In short, Mr Ndebesa argued, if the age qualification for presidential candidates must be removed because it is discriminatory, then all qualifications should be removed for the same reason.
Mr Ndebesa says he thought it through and decided to appear before the committee, but that he still has his doubts.
When we asked him whether he was hopeful that his views will be carried by the committee, he replied: “I wanted to participate in the process but, I don’t know whether I was not participated instead.” By “being participated”, he explained, “they (those who want to remove age limits) may just have wanted to have some process in the lead up to the amendment.”
The fear Mr Ndebesa raises is just a paraphrase of what those who were invited and declined to appear before the committee cited. These include four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, the Makerere University law dons, and the Uganda Law Society (ULS).
“The Uganda Law Society avoids, shuns, distances itself from the parliamentary committee,” the Society’s president, Mr Francis Gimara, said during the lawyers’ general assembly on Thursday.
“I’ll instead be writing to the committee that ULS will not appear,” he added.
The lawyers resolved that appearing before the committee would be to “legitimate an illegitimate” process.
The 23-person committee is composed of members with diametrically opposed views.
Opposition whip Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, who was one of the leaders of the “defiance” in Parliament when some MPs tried to block the tabling of the Bill by Mr Magyezi, leading to the invasion of Parliament by security operatives, has been very active in the committee thus far.
He told Saturday Monitor: “This committee is supposed to do work for Parliament; it is not a sub-committee of the NRM Caucus or party. Should anyone, either the leadership or any member of that committee, attempt to fail that committee to do the technical work that it is meant to do, then they will be inviting us to take on the committee as well.”
Mr Nganda accuses chairperson Oboth-Oboth of being partisan in handling of the matters before the committee.
“Right from day one, Oboth-Oboth was behaving like a vigilante; he was protective of the most critical witnesses (and) up to now he has not summoned the minister of Finance, neither has he summoned the Clerk to Parliament, yet he had promised (to do so) when I introduced the issue of certificate of financial implications. There is an attempt to ensure that that information does not come out,” Mr Nganda said.
For any Bill to be considered by Parliament, the promoter has to obtain a certificate of financial implications from the ministry of Finance, which confirms that the government will be in position to shoulder the financial burden the introduction of the Bill may impose.
Mr Magyezi is deemed to have found the process of securing the certificate easier than any ordinary private member intending to introduce a Bill would, raising suspicions which Mr Ssemujju says he would like to clear.
As a result of tabling the Bill, Parliament has already given each member Shs29m to “consult” their constituents on the matter.
In response to Mr Ssemujju’s accusations, Mr Oboth-Oboth said: “Ssemujju is not objective, he has no hope and he offers no alternative. He has come to the committee with all his biases, so he sees everything with bias. The process has to end, but Ssemujju doesn’t want the process to end. Ssemujju and (Monica) Amoding; their conduct is outrageous.”
Ms Amoding, a member of the ruling party, is the woman MP for Kumi District and has opposed the proposal to lift the presidential age limits since the idea was introduced.
When Mr Magyezi appeared before the committee and she did not agree with what he was saying, Ms Amoding walked over to where he was seated and switched off his microphone.
Mr Oboth-Oboth continued: “Definitely we have not ruled out calling the ministry of Finance because this is a very serious matter. There is nobody else (apart from Mr Ssemujju) doubting that anybody could forge the certificate of financial implications. We shall call the minister.”
Ms Robina Gureme Rwakoojo, the committee vice chairperson, said: “I have not talked to Hon Ssemujju to know whether that is his view. In my understanding, I believe Hon Oboth has tried to handle the committee fairly. We have had some interruptions from members, people just derailing the committee, but we have managed to professionally handle the committee.”
Apart from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Electoral Commission, everyone who has appeared before the committee thus far has either supported or opposed the lifting of the age limits, and there has been very few signs for a middle ground.
Speaking to the different members of the committee, the dominant view already emerging is that there will be a majority report, which will most likely recommend the lifting of the age limits, and a minority report, which will oppose it.
That is how it usually ends up with such committees, including the one that preceded the removal of presidential term limits in 2005, chaired by current Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah.
In the end it may not matter whether an elderly person can or cannot govern well.
Those who have appeared before committee
Among those who have appeared before the committee is Mr Raphael Magyezi, the sponsor of the Bill, and Constitutional Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire.
These two received hostile treatment from committee members opposed to the lifting the age limits, prompting them to storm out of the committee.
Mr Magyezi said he would prefer that the matter is instead handled by the whole Parliament.
Former minister Tarsis Kabwegyere and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda also separately appeared before the committee to back the proposals, while Leader of Opposition in Parliament Winnie Kiiza on Thursday told the committee why the proposals to lift age limits should be disregarded.
Democratic Party president Norbert Mao addressed the committee in poetic fashion, comparing its work to the trial of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, with the Constitution taking Jesus’s place this time round.
The Uganda Law Reform Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission also separately appeared before the commission.
A number of individuals and groups are expected to appear before the committee before its time expires next week, unless Speaker Rebecca Kadaga allows it an extension.