To paraphrase a long-dead sage, I like my hair cut in silence and my barber knows it. A couple of weeks ago, however, I allowed a few sentences because as soon as I settled into the chair, the man got going.
“Ssebo, you are the news people,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, although I no longer qualify as a newsman, having left the newsroom nine years ago.
“Mzee’s thing,” he said.
“Which thing?” I played along.
“Togikwatako. Age limit.”
“What about it?” I asked quickly to avoid him pressing me for an answer.
“It is funny,” he said. “Those who are pushing for it now have armed escort.”
He named an MP, one of the key ones who think it is a wise thing for Uganda to change the Constitution and codify life presidency.
The MP, I learned, has four uniformed armed men guarding his sorry self, and more could be guarding his Kampala and village homes, all on taxpayer shillings. He never used to have any, at least not when he visited the barbershop, until he signed on for a visible role to make Mr Yoweri Museveni a president-for-life and blowback from the public ensued.
The present campaign to change the Constitution to allow Ugandans aged more than 75 years to run for State House is bizarre.
Those for it say the age-limit clause is discriminatory in the ageist sense and, besides, virtually no other country has it. Conveniently, they never say why for 22 years that clause sat safe. The answer is that they were not sure if President Museveni wanted to run after hitting 75 as he intends to do in 2021 when he will be 76 at election time. Now that Mzee has shown he wants to, the toadies have discovered just how terribly unfair the clause is.
The wananchi see through the rubbish, they see a naked power play for a life presidency and they are unhappy.
They get it that another nanosecond of President Museveni in power means more regression for Uganda on just about every front – from agricultural productivity to efficiency of government.
When the pro-life presidency brigade stepped forward, its members claimed their moves were very popular, or at least they expected an embrace from the supporters of the revolutionary mass party that is NRM. Nothing of the sort is happening on any meaningful scale. They can read the signs.
Hence the reason they are going about it by subterfuge and brute force. First, use NRM MPs, bypassing NRM party structures, to table a private member’s Bill to amend the Constitution, a manoeuvre that may yet run into serious legal trouble.
Second, ride roughshod over fellow NRM MPs who are in dissent. Lock them out of caucus meetings.
Third, instead of consulting the masses — their supposed millions of enthusiastic supporters — they are hiding from them. They will only consult handpicked local government and NRM leaders in the different parts of the country. The plan is to browbeat these local elites into submission so that they can “completely and also” endorse the life presidency project. President Museveni who has crowed that the NRM government derives its legitimacy from the “mandate of liberation” and the “mandate of the people” through winning elections has his MPs fleeing from the people — the people are now the enemy. I suppose that means that the legitimacy spoken of can no longer hold.
No wonder that the life presidency promoters have to move about under protection of the elite guards. When it comes down to this, the wise thing to do is drop the entire reckless adventure. But that won’t happen because, yes, brute force exists.
When opponents of the age-limit amendment objected loudly in the well of Parliament Building, the Praetorian Guard descended on them and in the process perpetrated a most shameless political act.
When somehow these opponents went on to counter the same project with public rallies, still there was panic on the other side because these gatherings appear cheerful and spirited, further indicating roughly where the public mood resides. The rallies had to be broken up. All the police have to do is declare that the anti-age limit politicians were inciting violence, or planning mayhem. And just to be sure, no MPs will hold these truly public consultations outside of their constituencies anymore.
This abuse of power borders on the fascist. It is unhinged.
But also it is what power looks like when it is inexorably slipping away.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.