Uganda is entering a major political battle that will show us the balance of political forces between President Yoweri Museveni and his opponents. A section of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) will push for the amendment of the constitution to remove the presidential age limit so that Museveni can run in 2021. Most of the leadership of the NRM are hostile to this proposed amendment but will acquiesce to it because the party has evolved in such a way that only those who do so survive politically.
Museveni’s opponents are already mobilising against the amendment. However, these efforts are currently and largely based in urban areas. And more specifically they are happening on social media. True social media has increasingly become a powerful weapon for mass mobilisation. But whether it has the same mass appeal in rural areas, where 80% of voters are, is yet to be seen. Thus, elites may pontificate on social media from their homes and offices but are unlikely go to the grassroots to mobilise in defence of their beliefs. And this is where Museveni beats them; he is already touring the country preparing for this amendment.
If anyone wants to defeat the constitutional amendment to remove age limits, they need to go mobilise at the grassroots, even as they shout themselves hoarse on social media. Yet it is very possible that our elites will spend time pontificating in self-righteousness tones on social and other media how the removal of age limits will undermine democracy and cause instability but none of them will go to the grassroots to rally people to their cause. Our elites will also spend a lot of time appealing to America and Europe to intervene instead of appealing to the people.
The problem with most debate on democracy in Africa is that it misses the basic principles of politics. In a democracy, people who hold an idea, a policy or a desire for a constitutional amendment should be free to mobilise citizens to their cause. If they get a majority, they win. The only prohibition is that the majority cannot take away the rights of minorities. I do not see how the amendment of the constitution to remove term or age limits takes away the rights of anyone. Therefore, from a purely democratic angle, term and age limits are undemocratic because they impose limits on the will of the people to decide.
The point in the debate on term and age limits is political not legal. Law is a function of politics. Constitutions can be written with the most idealistic provisions. However, whether any provision in such a constitution will be respected does not depend on the good intentions of individual leaders but almost entirely on the balance of political forces within the country. If there is a politically weighed majority in favour of age limits they will be respected. However, if the opposite holds, the constitutions would be amended. The claim that constitutionalism is a function of good leaders is misguided and has not worked anywhere.
For example, the U.S. constitution of 1788 clearly stipulated that all men are born equal. But it then proceeded to sustain slavery for the next 76 years.
It denied poor white men the right to vote until 1832, and white women the same right until 1920. The constitution that enshrined the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not protect Native Americans from genocide. Indeed, democracy in America did not abolish slavery; it entrenched it. Instead slavery was ended by a civil war and through an Emancipation Proclamation that was issued by the dictatorial power of one man using emergency powers.
Indeed, even when the 15th Amendment said that no one should be denied the right to vote on the basis of race or previous condition of servitude, it took America another 100 years to pass the voting rights act in 1965, which actually allowed most black people the right to vote. Even today, myriad laws that prohibit people with a criminal record from voting disenfranchise millions of black people. The point I am illustrating here is that laws and constitutional provisions can only be upheld when they enjoy political support. Short of that, they are ineffective.
In 2005, Museveni and his confederates were able to rally a politically weighted majority to remove term limits. It divided the NRM right in the middle and the country generally, a factor that brought opposition leader Kizza Besigye close to causing an electoral upset against Museveni in the 2006 elections. Today, support for removal of the age limit is very low. There is widespread Museveni fatigue across the country. Even in areas like Kisoro, Isingiro and Kabarole where he used to get over 90% of the votes, people are yearning for change, not because they dislike Museveni but because they would like to see him retire peacefully.
For example, in an opinion survey done by Patrick Wakida’s Research World International in November 2016, 73% of respondents said the constitution should not be amended to remove age limits while 74% said Museveni should retire. Of course the same survey asked people who voted whom they voted for; 54% said they voted for Museveni while 40% for Besigye. Given that Wakida is a self-proclaimed supporter of Besigye, these results are very credible and dent FDC’s claims that they won and Museveni robbed them of victory. Not surprisingly, they deleted this finding when publishing the results of the poll last year.
Therefore, in the struggle against removing the age limit, the opposition is beginning from a position of strength, Museveni from a position of weakness. Yet it is possible that Museveni could easily turn tables and make what seemed a hated and impossible proposal, a loved and probable one. This is because the mainstream opposition in Uganda led by Besigye prefers to rely on its biases, assumptions, and delusions rather than scientific research to design its strategy.
Consequently, in spite of its advantage in form of the popular hostility against removing the age limit, I can predict that Museveni is most likely going to get his way. The extremist opposition will use a language that alienates potential allies and creates enemies everywhere. It is already using the language of hate in its campaign, thereby alienating moderates. If Museveni wins again, don’t accuse him of rigging. Blame his opponents for fighting so hard to cultivate enemies instead of friends.