Youth campaigners for the removal of the constitutional age limit for presidential candidates have begun getting public nods of approval from high-profile ruling NRM officials.
Top of the list is the prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, who confirmed to The Observer in an interview yesterday that he has been meeting the youth.
"Yes I meet them; they are my young comrades," the prime minister told this newspaper at parliament.
"I see nothing that provides a scientific or rational reason that somebody who is above 75 years cannot be president," he added.
This admission makes Rugunda the first senior government official to publicly throw his weight behind the campaign to lift presidential age limits.
The youth campaigners are allied to NRM and the National Youth Council (NYC) structures. They are working under a loose coalition named Kick Age Limitations out of the Constitution (KALOC) and are holding meetings with a number of top government and NRM party officials.
The group met Rugunda on August 31 at his office at the Twin Towers building, behind Parliament House. According to sources, Rugunda agreed to support KALOC activities and is also reported to have told the youths that the age limit clause enshrined in Article 102(b) of the Constitution has no scientific basis.
"As a medical doctor, I have not come across any scientific research that shows that someone below 35 years or above 75 years lacks the capacity to lead. Those are unscientific barriers, leaders should be judged by their continued capacity to advance the socio-economic development," Rugunda reportedly told the youths.
Article 102(b) states that a person is not qualified for election as president unless that person is "not less than thirty-five years and not more than seventy-five years of age."
During the interview with The Observer, Rugunda defended his belief that the age limit should not bar anybody from offering themselves for the presidency, saying it gives Ugandans the freedom to elect leaders of their choice.
"A society should select or choose leaders on the basis of the challenges facing the country and leaders should be selected in response to how he [the leader] relates to the challenges and the solutions that he provides," Rugunda said.
"The people of Uganda should, therefore, be at complete liberty to elect leaders of their choice in a free and fair election," he added.
OTHER NRM BIG SHOTS
Besides Rugunda, The Observer understands, the youth group is also working with a number of cabinet ministers, NRM secretariat leaders such as Rose Namayanja Nsereko (NRM treasurer), Richard Todwong (NRM deputy secretary general) and members of the party's central executive committee (CEC) such as Robert Rukari (Entrepreneurs' league).
While other government and NRM leaders have quietly met the youths, social media has been awash with photos of Namayanja meeting the group's leadership at a public event in Luweero.
According to Ibrahim Kitatta, one of the group's coordinators, they got in touch with Namayanja at the burial of the NYC executive secretary Shaft Nasser Mukwaya's father.
"She asked us to brief her about our campaign. She was happy and encouraged us to take it [campaign] further because it had opened the leadership to the need for opening the lower age limit too," Kitatta said.
When contacted, Namayanja told The Observer that since the government has allowed the opposition to go ahead with their pro-age limit campaign dubbed K'ogikwatako (should you dare touch it), there is no reason why it should bar the NRM-leaning youth from publicising their own views.
"That is what freedom of expression requires," added the former minister of information.
The proposal to amend Article 102(b), which caps the maximum age for one to be elected president at 75 years, was supposed to be part of the 2015 amendments but was removed after a stormy cabinet meeting on March 20, 2015. (See: First Lady foils age limit plot, The Observer).
Museveni turns 73 years of age this year, which implies he will clock the constitutional 75 year age cap midway his current term and will, therefore, not be eligible to stand for re-election in 2021.
Although the age removal campaigners are careful not to tag their campaign to the person of the president as a beneficiary, it is glaringly clear that the article is the only hurdle standing in the way of Museveni's re-election.
The campaign by KALOC, however, came as a big relief to the more senior agitators of the amendment because the youths' call for the removal of the lower limit somehow sanitises the debate.
"We don't want the public to look at this [campaign] as a Museveni project and the coming on board of the youths helps us to bring out the fact that the current [constitutional] provisions are discriminatory," Kassanda South MP Simeo Nsubuga, one of the vocal promoters of the campaign, said on Monday.
Nsubuga, along with MPs Peter Ogwang (Usuk), Arinaitwe Rwakajara (Workers), Jacob Oboth-Oboth (West Budama South), Anita Among (Bukedea Woman), Robert Kafeero Ssekitooleko (Nakifuma) and John Bosco Lubyaayi (Mawokota South), have since September last year been quietly campaigning for the lifting of the presidential age-limit.
Lubyaayi, however, seems to have gotten a change of heart. Recently, he has publicly bashed the lifting of the age limit.
Nonetheless, the MPs' team, according to Nsubuga, has been expanded to include regional coordinators. The country has been divided into 15 regions of Karamoja, Acholi, Lango, Teso, Bukedi, Bugisu, Kampala, Kigezi, Ankole, Bunyoro, Tooro, West Nile, Buganda, Busoga North and Busoga South.
The regions have been further subdivided into sub-regions to ease mobilization efforts.
"There has been some element of fear [among MPs] but efforts by the youths have helped us deal with the fear and I can assure you that more MPs have signed up," Nsubuga said.
He confirmed that the group's weekly meetings still continue despite a directive from the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, prohibiting debate on the matter until it is tabled on the floor of parliament.