A private member's bill believed to be a ruse for the repeal of the presidential age limit in the constitution has for the second time been shelved by parliament.
The bill, sponsored by Nakifuma MP Robert Kafeero Ssekitooleko, appeared on the order paper yesterday as part of parliament's "business to follow."
The bill, among other things, seeks to remove limits on the tenure of commissioners of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and extend the retirement age for judges. Nakifuma MP Kafeero Ssekitooleko had initially been expected to table his bill, The Constitutional (Amendment) Bill 2016, on August 10, only to withdraw it at the last minute.
Yesterday, after failing again to table the controversial bill, Ssekitooleko said he was entirely to blame. "I think I took long to make the necessary adjustments to it," Ssekitooleko said.
"Being a constitutional amendment, it needs to be handled with a lot of care, so, I need to move slowly but surely."
He added: "But I can assure you that by the end of the week it will have been tabled." Ssekitooleko's private member's bill is highly anticipated because it is believed that through it, an amendment will be introduced to abolish the constitutional 75-age-limit on the president.
Therefore, senior NRM leaders in parliament are expected to pick interest. Indeed the MP told us that he had formally introduced the bill to Ruth Nankabirwa, the government chief whip.
On her part, Nankabirwa insisted that government isn't behind the bill, although she added that once it is tabled, she will hold discussions with the sponsors as well as consult the Prime Minister, Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
"This is my bill, my own opinion but being a constitutional amendment bill, government may pick interest, and if they do, I will have achieved my intention," Ssekitooleko said.
He, however, denied that the hidden intention is to have article 102 (b) of the constitution deleted. "The only article that deals with the president that I want to amend is article 104, which is about the locus of challenging the presidential election results," Ssekitooleko said.
Currently, a presidential election can only be challenged by a losing presidential candidate, which Ssekitooleko wants changed to allow any registered voter or political party to do so if they so wish.
The Nakifuma legislator has a knack for controversial private member's bills. In September 2013, he peddled a bill seeking to extend the terms of all elected political leaders from five to seven years.
It was later dropped amid criticism even from NRM, his own political party. Ssekitooleko would later tell The Observer in March 2014, that the government had disowned its own bill. On Saturday, the Nakifuma MP insisted that the circumstances under which he is moving the new bill are different from those of September 2013.
The Observer understands that Ssekitooleko is working with a group of MPs, notably Peter Ogwang (Usuk), Barnabas Tinkasiimire (Buyaga West), Peter Amoru (Dokolo North) and Anita Among (Bukedea Woman). However, Ogwang distanced himself from the bill when asked to comment on Saturday.
"My brother, as far as I am concerned, I know nothing about that bill," he said.
SMELLING A RAT
Some opposition and independent MPs claim that Ssekitooleko's bill seeks to create an opening for the removal of the age- limit clause.
"Once you have opened [the process for amending the constitution], anybody can move an amendment [for any article] because such an amendment is acceptable in the House," said Wilfred Niwagaba, the shadow attorney general.
"If the trend is opening the terms and age limits for judges, a precedent will have been set and what will follow will be calls for lifting the [presidential] age limit," said another MP who declined to be named.
The age-limit debate began in July after the Kyankwanzi district NRM conference passed a resolution urging party MPs to move a motion in parliament for the amendment of article 102(b) of the constitution that caps the age of an in- coming president at 75.
Some of the MPs and members of the public who see this bill as a ruse point to early 2000s, when another innocent- looking constitutional review exercise ended up removing presidential term limits from the constitution.
President Museveni has previously said that he would not rule past 75 years, although he has at times vaguely said that he will obey the constitution.
The bill, among other things, intends to change the mode of appointment of the Attorney General. Its promoters want the government's chief legal advisor to hold office for seven years. They also want the retirement age for judges extended from the current 65 to 75 years.
"By retiring judges at an early age, you lose a lot of [human] resource and experience," said Tinkasiimire. He cited retired justices John Bosco Katutsi and James Ogoola, saying they would still be serving Uganda if it wasn't for the unreasonable age restriction.
However, Niwagaba doesn't buy this argument, seeing it as a ploy to keep pro-NRM judges who are set to retire. Tinkasiimire disagrees.
"I don't think that we can propose an amendment that targets an individual," he said, adding that they want to see an independent judiciary.
Tinkasiimire argued that a judge who is 64 and therefore left with one year to retire could be tempted to take a bribe as opposed to one with job security well into old age.
The bill also seeks to block politicians from joining the bench by providing that lawyers who have been involved in politics for the last 10 years should not be eligible for appointment. The same proposal, Tinkasiimire said, applies to IEC commissioners.
"If we are to talk of a neutral EC, it should be without politicians. Political party card holders should not be appointed," said the MP who was once expelled from NRM for indiscipline but has since reconciled with the ruling party.