21 September 2017

Uganda: Brawl Over Age Limit Removal Is a Bit Like Two Bald Men Fighting for a Comb

Photo: Alex Esagala/Daily Monitor
Security officers deployed at the main gate of Parliament.

A proposal to remove presidential age limit from the Constitution has left the population sharply divided, Parliament under heavy armed guard, and Uganda on the edge of a political crisis. A country with one of the youngest population in the world is on the verge of being torn apart in a fight over one of the oldest and longest-serving leaders.

Supporters of the proposal argue that the age-limit is discriminatory. Why block a sprightly 76-year-old from serving their country, they argue. This argument is, of course, not entirely honest, for nothing is said of the other requirements for the job, including academic qualifications. These, I am sure, have denied the country the excellent and visionary leadership of many a clever and popular bricklayer, village wag or peasant, discriminated against for the lack of a mere piece of paper!

Opponents cite the demographic quandary above, the need to breathe new life and energy into the country's top office, and the opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another, among their objections to the proposal.

The discussion has even veered to the point of asking whether, beyond the inevitable breakdowns in the plumbing and drainage, there are medical grounds against a 75-year-old holding the office and whether they would still have the mental computing power to process multi-faceted problems.

The framers of the Constitution had pragmatic reasons for imposing age caps on the presidency: Below 35, one might be in rude health, but inexperienced, impetuous and incapable of offering good leadership; yet an 80-year-old bursting with decades of inexperience might be too frail or damaged by senility, Alzheimer's or any of the old-age ailments to lead. In other words, the framers of the Constitution didn't envisage anyone in pampers, or anyone who needed pampering, in power.

But this argument begs the question: If a majority of voters do not want to be led by an octogenarian (regardless, in this case, of how they get onto the ballot paper), why don't they simply vote for someone else?

That question requires us to return to the Constituent Assembly and to the spirit within which the Constitution was written.

Aware of Uganda's turbulent political history, a key desire among many CA delegates, was to guarantee a peaceful handover of power from one elected leader to another.

They closed the door by entrenching a two-term limit on the presidency, but naïve and high on post-war euphoria, forgot to lock the windows by leaving a one-party system in charge of the State and kicking the can of political pluralism down the road.

The ideal was that the Movement, when it finally acknowledged that it was indeed a political party, would borrow from the best-practices laid down in the Constitution, wean itself off the State, and develop a culture of internal competition.

In reality, it was the tail that came to wag the dog; the NRM party hijacked the State, embedded itself within all its structures and brought its imperialist political culture into the national political sphere.

From Besigye to Bidandi to Kategaya to Mbabazi and hundreds more in-between, the cemetery of contemporary Ugandan politics is littered with the gravestones of NRM luminaries who brought republican kitchen knives to a gunfight for the control of empire.

If the fight over the age limit were about discrimination, the Solomonic solution would be to postpone a decision on that clause for another 10 years. But it is not. As both sides know, and as with the two-term limit, there is only one intended beneficiary or loser. Both sides can do themselves and the country a huge favour by being honest about this fact.

This would allow us to have two related but separate discussions.

First, since Mr Museveni isn't too keen on retirement, whether voters should support, work around or actively resist him? Secondly, and more complex, what a post-Museveni Uganda might or should like, and what political and constitutional arrangements might be required.

The fight over the age-limit proposal merely deals with the immediacy of the first without addressing the inevitability of the second. Fighting over the former in order to deal with the latter is a bit like two bald men fighting for a comb; even if the pro-Museveni camp wins this battle, Ugandans will have to fight and settle the post-Museveni war. After all, unlike in political dramas, the ending in life's series just can't be amended.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's freedom fighter. Twitter: @Kalinaki.

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