KAMPALA, Uganda–President Yoweri Museveni has just won something that this African nation’s former British colonial masters never had–the legal right to rule forever.
A key U.S. ally in fighting Islamic terrorists, Museveni is now free to seek a record sixth term as president. He is using violence and political tricks to hold onto power, opposition leaders say.
“We have had a past of anarchy from the time of independence in 1962 [from Britian] through President Idi Amin’s rule,” said Elias Lukwago, the Lord Mayor of Kampala, the country’s capital.
Lukwago believes the Constitution Court’s ruling, eliminating the age-limit on presidents, sets a very bad precedent for the country. He cites the history of his country. “We have never had a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another in this country. It has only been through armed rebellion and coups. Even Museveni came to power through rebellion in 1986.”
Term limits and age limits, the Lord Mayor said, were designed to prevent a permanent ruling class. “That’s the situation we were striving to avoid by having term limits and age limits in the 2005 constitution,” Lukwago said. “Now that these checks are gone, the future is uncertain for this country.”
Lukwago said that Constitutional Court’s ruling would be appealed to Uganda’s Supreme Court, the country’s highest.
The Constitutional Court’s judges removed an upper age limit for the presidency, previously set at age 75, from that nation’s constitution, in a ruling handed down on July 27. (Under British rule, term limits on colonial rulers were strictly enforced.)
The Constitutional Court also ruled that parliament must come up with a mechanism to halt further such amendments to the 2005 constitution – which has been modified twice to allow Museveni to stay in power.
“We are happy with the ruling of the justices,” said deputy attorney general, Mwesigwa Rukutana, a member of the ruling party. “Even where we are not contented, we are going to abide by the decision of the judges. We are not petitioning,” Rukutana said.
The Constitutional Court ruled that a public referendum was not needed to enact the 2017 amendment to the constitution and that the two-thirds majority vote in parliament, which the measure had received, was sufficient.
Opposition members of parliament and civil-rights activists have faulted the means used to cobble together the necessary two-thirds majority vote in parliament, citing a chaotic preliminary vote on December 20, 2017.
“Members of Parliament were brutalized by soldiers inside parliament,” said Winnie Kiiza, the chief opposition whip. “The police beat up MPs and their electorates during the consultation. What was tendered in court was just a fraction of this brutality. How dare the justices say the brutality was not adequate to annul the act? What is the numeric measurement of brutality?”
Shouting and fistfights broke out during the debate and the voting on the constitutional measure this past year.
The 2017 law, which the high court just upheld, will also widen the political leadership in the country, as Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party argued. The new law also lowered the minimum age necessary to run for the presidency from 35 to 18 years – the minimum age to vote in that East African nation. Some 80 percent of the country’s 40 million people are between the ages of 18 to 35.
Museveni’s NRM party dominates Uganda’s parliament; it holds 294 seats in that 452-seat legislative body. The three main opposition parties–the Forum for Democratic Change, the Uganda People’s Congress, and the Democratic Party–collectively have 58 seats. Political independents (effectively 1-seat political parties) occupy the remaining seats in parliament. Given its majority presence in parliament, Museveni’s ruling party can always outvote other parties.
Uganda’s constitution has been amended three times since its 2005 ratification. Two of those changes revised presidential-term limits. A limit of two five-year terms for the president was struck down in 2005, allowing Museveni to run for another term as president, in 2006.
The 2017 amendment is widely viewed by opposition leaders as a move to allow Museveni, who is among Africa’s longest-serving leaders, to run again when his current term expires in 2021.
If he indeed runs again for president in 2o21, Museveni will be 77 years old. Since the constitution forbids presidents older than 75, Museveni had to seek a constitutional change both in parliament and in the courts. He has just succeeded in both venues.
Museveni seized control of the country in 1986 after his guerrilla army emerged victorious in a long civil war against President Idi Amin, who came to power in 1971 and his successor, President Milton Obote, who came to power in 1980. Museveni has since won five national elections for president, although international observers have raised concerns about violence and intimidation at the polling places in previous elections.
Following the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Museveni gradually became a key U.S. ally in fighting al Qaeda’s East-African-based offshoots. Even so, U.S. officials have also criticized his regime’s record on individual rights. The U.S. embassy in Kampala did not immediately comment on Museveni’s legal victory.