The chaotic scenes that played out in Parliament last week were partly indicative of a desperate effort by the supporters of the age limit bill to circumvent both the referendum or a constitutional review commission as alternatives to using Parliament.
According to Kassanda North Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Nsamba, this fear was amplified on the eve of the fateful day when Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga County, Ssembabule district) and Lubega Ssegona (Busiro South) pleaded in vain with Speaker Alitwala Kadaga to allow Nsamba’s motion requesting for Constitutional Review Commission to take precedence over Magyezi’s constitutional amendment bill since it had been presented to the Speaker’s office four days earlier.
“The speaker deliberately refused to allow my motion to be read ahead of Magyezi’s. Our rules of Procedure direct that motions should be tabled in the House in the order that they were registered by the clerk to the Speaker’s office,”Nsamba complained.
This was confirmation that government is determined to use the easiest means to push through the amendment.
“They (supporters of the age limit) know that the general public is opposed to the idea of lifting the cap on presidential age limits and generally the entire preoccupation to tinker with the constitution. They know that if that commission writes a report after asking different sections of the public, it will not at all be in favor of what they primarily want; namely removing the age cap for president Museveni to rule beyond 2021,” Nsamba had said earlier while appearing on one talk show.
Additionally, before Magyezi was granted leave of absence to prepare the contentious Constitutional amendment bill, which its opponents fear is meant to pave way for “life presidency”, the ruling party had rebuffed all efforts to demand for a referendum.
And yet influential voices including religious leaders and the civil Society have until Tuesday this week when Rafael Magyezi finally tabled the contentious bill in the absence of all members of the opposition have not relented calling for the same but all to no avail.
“The issue of age limit is not partisan; it should be brought to voters other than leaving it to a section of MPs to decide for the whole nation,” said Sheikh Ramathan Mubajje, the current chairperson of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU).
He was supported by Bishop Martin Chelangat of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Sebei region
“As a church leader, I believe leadership comes from God, but let sanity of the Constitution be restored first … everything has a beginning and end, even if the incumbent gets stuck to power, age itself will catch up with him one day; scrapping the age limit is akin to selling “Ugandans’ birth right,” Chelangat said.
ICT Minister Frank Tumwabaze on the other hand, supported the Parliamentary approach to constitutional amendment when he said: “Moving a Private Member’s Bill is a right of any Member of Parliament, and the Executive can only put up an objection, if that proposed Bill has financial implications that distort the National Budget priorities as envisaged under Article 93 of the Constitution.”
Constitutional review or referendum?
Analysts argue that the option of instituting a Constitutional review Commission could prove tricky.
“Government fears it will be dominated by petitions that seek to entrench the provisions on the age-limit rather than make it easier, as the case is at the moment,” added.
This view is shared by a number of activists from the civil society, some of whom argue that the ruling party fears that if subjected to both the referendum and the Constitutional review Commission, its results would not go their way.
Sarah Bireete, the Director of Programmes at the non-profit Centre for Constitutional Governance which is also engaged in a public awareness campaigns about reviewing the Constitution- believes that the age-limit removal does not have sufficient public support, explaining why the NRM government is trying to use its majority in Parliament to push it through.
“If they (NRM MPs) claim that lifting the age limit is an issue of public interest, why do they not want to involve the public to hear what they have to say? Because they are aware that citizens do not want the age limits removed. And if there was a referendum on it today, I’m sure that up to 80 per cent of voters would say, ‘No’. So, there is evident hostility on the ground about this issue and that is why MPs are crying foul and invoking the army in a partisan issue,” Bireete said.