Lifting presidential age limit: Why Uganda just can’t stop

So, as long expected, the process of amending the Uganda Constitution to remove the 75-year age limit and allow President Yoweri Museveni to continue in office and stand for the nth time in 2021 is underway. Many people are angry, and of course, there are supporters of the move, especially in the ruling NRM party. But the fellows I love in this are those who are able to see the funny side to this, and crack jokes about it.

I am sure you have seen this one, which is very popular on WhatsApp. “It will be easier to amend Museveni’s date of birth from August 4, 1944 to 1968 so that we do not tamper with the Constitution. This would save us lots of money and less headaches. Changing one’s date of birth doesn’t require constitution amendment”.

I am remarkably indifferent to this age limit amendment, not because it is not problematic, but on account of it having become a foregone conclusion once the Constitution was amended in 2005 to remove presidential term limits.
It would be a contradiction for anyone who supported the 2005 amendment, to oppose it because, what did they expect? That they would open the door for Museveni to be president for life, but he wouldn’t grow old – or at least that he wouldn’t live beyond the age of 75?

On the flip side, if you oppose it and the Constitution isn’t amended, what happens when Museveni turns 75? Assume, by some force of the elements, he steps down, then a 40-year-old takes over. Are you saying it’s okay for his successor to rule for 35 years until he turns 75, since the Constitution has no term limits?

Therefore, the only way the opposition to lifting the age limit makes sense is not as a campaign against age, but as a push to restore term limits. The need to remove age limits today, reveals how shortsighted the 2005 amendment was. History teaches us that tinkering with term limits is the proverbial forbidden fruit. Once you have tasted it, you can’t stop. Usually it leads to a path where you have to at least make four amendments.

The first is to remove term limits. We have been there and done that. The second, if you were not foresighted enough to do it early, is to remove the age limit. A leader who isn’t ready to leave after two terms, will never be ready to leave after three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, or ten terms.

Virtually the only African country which had term limit, and it was amended (not lifted), and then the leader left on the new schedule was Sam Nujoma in Namibia. Having led the liberation war that brought Namibia independence in 1990, he served two terms.

His ruling SWAPO then pushed an amendment to give him a third term as a present for his historical role, and he took another bite at the apple and left in 2005. But they never removed term limits the way we did in Uganda.
Now, inevitably, a time comes when the president for life must leave, one way or the other. Then we get into a Togo situation. In Togo, former general (these generals!) and dictator Gnassingbé Eyadéma changed the Constitution in 2002 to remove term limits because he didn’t want to go home.

But soon he was ailing, and aging of course. He wanted his son, current President Faure Gnassingbé, to succeed him. The problem, however, was that Faure was 35. The Constitution provided that a president had to be at least 45 years. Well, Eyadéma pushed through a second amendment not too long after to LOWER the age of presidential eligibility to 35 years.

When our president finally decides to step down, say in 2034, he would be 90. But his choice for successor might be a favourite grandson or granddaughter, who is 29. Invariably, there will be an amendment to allow in a Faure.
This is because, again history in Africa teaches us, no leader who clings to office for 30 years or more usually thinks of passing the job to anyone outside the family, because he has no sensibility of the presidency as a national job open to all. He invariably sees it as family estate to be passed down along his blood line.

However way this plays out, after 40 or 50 years rule by the same house, the country gets totally fed up. Either through an uprising or because of the fecklessness of the ruling house, they lose power. In a bid to prevent another dynasty, a new Constitution is written or an amendment is made to restore term limits!
Uganda is in the second phase. There will be at least two more before political sanity returns to this land.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site [email protected]


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