The Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2017, which carries, among other clauses, a proposal to remove the upper age-limit for presidential candidates, has stoked controversy and to manage the fallout, government has appointed retired Major General Kahinda Otafiire to be its sole spokesman on the issue.
The bill proposes the deletion of Article 102(b) to allow President Museveni, who will make 75 years in 2019, to seek re-election in 2021. Otafiire's appointment as spokesman for the controversial bill, according to sources close to cabinet, is intended to stem the flow of uncoordinated statements from different government officials.
"He is the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, and the amendment is a constitutional matter. That is why we decided that he should be the only one to speak to the media about it," Attorney General William Byaruhanga told The Observer on Friday.
While some government officials have tried to suggest that the upcoming constitutional amendment bill does not necessarily touch on Article 102(b), which caps the upper age for presidential candidates at 75, Attorney General Byaruhanga told us that the entire constitution is up for review.
"When we talk of a constitutional review, it means that anything in that constitution is up for amendment; because it is a constitutional review; anybody can suggest an amendment at any stage," Byaruhanga explained.
Byaruhanga spoke to The Observer a day after Otafiire told parliament that Ugandans were free to suggest any changes to the constitution.
"The Constitution is not my property but the property of the people of Uganda, it is not a commandment of God and all the articles of the Constitution are up for amendment [if] the people of Uganda so choose... " Otafiire said on July 6 during a special sitting of parliament to pay tribute to the fallen former DP president general John Ssebaana Kizito.
Fierce debate has ensued about the bill's intentions since this newspaper broke the story of its gazetting (See: Age limit bill now gazetted, The Observer, July 3).
Ssebaana's burial in Luweero district on Saturday offered yet another platform for the debate, with FDC strongman Kizza Besigye accusing Otafiire of doing someone else's bidding.
"President Museveni has turned himself into the Constitution; what he wants is what will be in it, and what he doesn't want will not be included in the Constitution. Even Gen Otafiire here is not acting on his own but on what Museveni wants him to do," Besigye said, as he pointed at Otafiire who represented government at the burial.
When it was his turn to speak, Otafiire said Besigye and former DP president Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere were part of the framers of the Constitution who inserted a clause allowing for its amendment.
"You are blaming me for nothing because I did not put that [amendment] clause," said Otafiire who was himself a member of the Constituent Assembly.
"My duty now is to institute a constitutional review commission to gather public views. Its report and what parliament will decide is what will matter," Otafiire said.
Otafiire cautioned opposition politicians not to waste time threatening to mobilize for a rebellion. He said Uganda has outgrown that era.
"Besigye and I know this place [Mpande] very well because we fought from here during the war [that brought NRM to power], but we have gone past the era of armed rebellion," Otafiire said. "What we need now is to sit on a roundtable and talk for the good of our country," Otafiire said.
He said Buganda's demands for a federal status will be achieved through dialogue as well.
During the NRM caucus meeting on Monday, Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa told members that the government wishes to see controversial business in parliament dealt with in this second year of the 10th parliament.
"The second year of this parliament is the best time to pass the seemingly controversial issues in parliament because we still have time for damage control," Nankabirwa said.
The caucus meeting had been called to discuss the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, popularly known as the GMO bill. While Nankabirwa might have been referring to the GMO bill and the Marriage bill, both of which have their own share of controversy, some MPs The Observer spoke to had the age limit amendment on their mind.
The government is also under pressure to pass election-related laws well before the next election cycle, following criticism that this often comes too late, and a recommendation of the Supreme court to that effect.
Meanwhile, activists have launched a campaign against the proposed amendment of Article 102(b). Through various platforms on social media, the activists are circulating telephone contacts and e-mail addresses of all the 431 MPs, urging their electorate to call them and ask them to vote against the amendment.
"Start engaging them. We are aware some may not be familiar with Article 102 (b), which says that for one to be president of Uganda he should be not less than 35 years and not more that 75yrs," the message that has been circulating on WhatsApp states.
"Tell them we [want] the clause to remain intact. That one call, that email [and] that text message may be key in defining the destiny of our country."
A separate message makes a similar appeal thus:
"Please call your area MP and engage them to trash the proposal of amending the age limit for the president as stipulated under article 102 (b) of the constitution."