World Politics Review | Uganda’s Museveni Succeeds Where Others Fail in Eluding Term Limits

Posted June 24, 2015 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in African News ~ 4,350 views



Andrew Green Tuesday, June 23, 2015 — KAMPALA, Uganda—As Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is learning, subverting constitutional term limits can be a tricky business. In April, Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third stint ahead of a June vote, despite a constitutional limit of two terms. His announcement was met with immediate protests, still ongoing, and an attempted coup. The election is now delayed until at least July.

His counterparts in nearby Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo must be watching warily. Both are about to bump up against their own term caps—the DRC’s Joseph Kabila next year and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in 2017. And both have intimated some interest in sticking around.

They could all take a lesson from their East African neighbor, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In power since 1986 and having disposed of term limits a decade ago, he is set to run for his fifth term next year. His party, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), committed to nominating him as its sole presidential candidate well ahead of next February’s vote. Already the 2016 campaign seems as much a coronation as a contest.

But even as he appears ready to coast to another five-year term, no one is more aware than Museveni that, while it is indeed complicated to abolish term limits, it requires just as much political skill to ensure they are not reintroduced.

The first lesson in removing term limits—and one Nkurunziza missed—is to start early. Museveni famously promised that his 2001 presidential campaign, his second after Uganda returned to electoral democracy in 1996, would also be his last. But before his term was even halfway over, a movement was underway among NRM members to lift the two-term limit established in the 1995 constitution. They formalized that effort during a 2003 party leadership retreat. Museveni denied orchestrating the movement, but took no steps to quash it. Instead, he proclaimed himself captive to the will of the people. If Ugandans were intent on drafting him, he maintained, how could he refuse? Kagame, who seems to be following Museveni’s playbook closely, has recently been making the same argument in Rwanda.

In 2005, Uganda’s parliament officially rubber-stamped the NRM leaders’ decision to lift term limits. It soon emerged that the vote was underwritten at a cost of 5 million shillings—about $3,000—per parliamentary supporter. Meanwhile, as a sop to Musevini’s opponents, parliament also sanctioned the return of multiparty politics, which had been banned when Museveni took power in 1986.

The president and his party managed this feat despite the fact that presidential term limits remain extremely popular among the Ugandan people. A March public opinion poll by the International Republican Institute found 65 percent of Ugandans are still in favor of a two-term limit. Yet, despite several attempts by the opposition and civil society groups to push legislation reintroducing the threshold, most recently in 2013, they have failed to gather any momentum.

In part, this is because Museveni deftly conflates the personal and the structural. As he is still quick to remind citizens, he delivered Uganda from a string of despotic administrations nearly 30 years ago and set the country on a course of prosperity. During his most recent state of the nation address earlier this month, he told Ugandans, “Another damage to the economy and the people would have been insecurity. However, the [Ugandan army] has ensured total peace in the whole country.” Of course, it is an army that he created and that he controls.

The implication is clear: While citizens may support term limits in theory, are they fully prepared for what might happen if they are applied to Museveni himself?

And then there is the carrot. After 30 years of leadership, Museveni controls the purse strings. It has even become his habit to travel to districts that elected opposition members of parliament and bemoan the state of their roads, hospitals and schools. But, he tells them, if they return their trust to the NRM and to him specifically, the situation can rapidly improve. It is a promise no one else, not even other party leaders, can match.

Ultimately, popular opinion only matters so much, anyway. It is the NRM-run parliament that would reinstitute term limits. These are the same parliamentarians who will be dependent on Museveni’s patronage to win upcoming re-election battles. Parliament is actually set to consider a bill to amend the constitution this year that so far includes provisions to change judiciary appointments and create an oversight board for salaries. Additional provisions will be culled from the advice of ruling and opposition party members and civil society organizations. Several promoters of the amendment bill have called for the reintroduction of term limits, but that suggestion has yet to make it into any official draft.

Still, the demand for term limits lingers, especially among voters too young to remember a period before Museveni’s leadership—a group that is rapidly becoming the majority. Unmoved by memories of conflict or promises of development, it is for them that the government has reserved its more heavy-handed tactics.

A series of legislative maneuvers since the last election in 2011 have closed Uganda’s political space. The 2013 Public Order Management Act allows police to break up meetings of three or more people. And a new NGO oversight bill would give a government-appointed board unlimited power to shut down nongovernmental and community-based organizations.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, has been disorganized by the retirement of its long-time leader and frequent presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye. As a result, it has mounted little resistance to the new government policies and offers scant refuge to anti-Museveni activists. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who was unceremoniously dumped from his perch in September 2014, announced plans this month to challenge Museveni for the NRM nomination. Museveni has long been alert to the possibility of a Mbabazi campaign, and attempted to pre-empt it by getting the NRM to anoint him as the party’s sole candidate for 2016. Mbabazi has challenged the move, but without Museveni’s vast patronage network, it’s unlikely Mbabazi will be able to convince enough party leaders to abandon that commitment. And after a political career entrenched in the ruling party, Mbabazi will have a hard time convincing the opposition to adopt him as a change candidate.

And so Museveni appears to already have a lock on 2016, while still keeping the term limits debate at arms length. But after the election, things could get interesting again. The constitution prohibits anyone above the age of 75 from running for president. Museveni, now 70, will hit that limit well before the 2021 poll. He has told local papers he has no intention of asking for a constitutional adjustment so he could run again. And yet, it’s starting to feel like 2003 all over again.

Some vocal NRM members are already trying to drum up support for the age limit to be scrapped as part of the current constitutional amendment process. And it is hard not to read a current parliamentary proposal to shift the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 75 as a trial balloon.

In the end, Museveni—and not Nkurunziza, Kabila or Kagame—may prove to be the best student of his own history, making him the most successful of Africa’s many aspiring presidents for life.

Andrew Green is a foreign correspondent based in East Africa. He writes often from the region on issues of health, human rights and politics, and his work has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New Republic and The Washington Post, among other outlets. You can view more of his reporting at

Source — World Politics Review



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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

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