Uganda’s unexciting last ditch effort to stop Museveni’s life presidency
A court is deliberating on whether to reinstate presidential age limits, thus putting an end date on Museveni’s rule. Might it…?
Given that it could determine whether or not Yoweri Museveni gets to be president for life, one might expect more excitement around the legal case currently with Uganda’s constitutional court. After all, this might be the opposition’s last chance to stop the president of the past 32 years extending his rule indefinitely.
The lawsuit centres on last year’s constitutional amendment that scrapped the presidential age limit of 75, a move that allows the 73-year-old Museveni to seek re-election in 2021. Parliament voted heavily in favour of this change, but opposition and civil society have taken it to court. The petitioners argue that the amendment was “smuggled” into law, that it is unconstitutional, and that the procedure for voting on it – which saw fist fights, army incursions, and the suspension of some legislators – did not follow parliamentary rules.
The constitutional court heard these arguments over two weeks before adjourning on 19 April. It is expected that they will deliver their ruling in the coming days or weeks.
The five-judge panel’s decision could fundamentally shape Uganda’s political direction for years to come. Many see merit in the petitioners’ case. And yet there seems to be a general feeling of resignation amongst opponents of the age limit removal, which according to a recent survey is an overwhelming 85% of the population. Why? Looking at four possible scenarios of what might happen next begins to explain.
Scenario 1: The court annuls the age limit amendment
Some commentators are holding out hope that Uganda’s judges follow in their Kenyan counterparts’ footsteps last year and demonstrate judicial independence by ruling against the president. A wholehearted judgement in favour of the petitioners would invalidate the removal of presidential age limits, meaning Museveni would have to step down in 2021, and invalidate an accompanying amendment to extend parliamentary terms from five to seven years.
Given close rulings in the past, there may be reason to put an outside bet on this outcome. Following the 2001 elections, for instance, all five judges of the Supreme Court agreed that there had been irregularities, but ruled 3 to 2 to uphold the outcome. In 2006, the seven judge-panel in the same court again agreed that rigging had taken place, but ruled 4 to 3 that this did not warrant annulling the results.
These narrow margins suggest to some that the petitioners have a chance of winning if the judges found their case sufficiently convincing. The remaining scenarios, however, show why this appears unlikely.
Scenario 2: The court upholds the age limit amendment
A second, more probable, scenario is that the judges simply follow the logic of past cases. As in 2001 and 2006, they might concede that the process fell short of procedural standards, but argue that the bill would have passed nonetheless.
Similarly, the court could try to have its cake and eat it by annulling some amendments – such as the extension of parliamentary terms, which arguably more clearly contradicts the constitution – while upholding the more critical removal of presidential age limits. Such a ruling would allow the judiciary to show a degree of independence without overly antagonising the president and unleashing all that entails.
Some legislators who voted for the amendments in part because they included a longer term in office might object. But this pushback may be minor given that MPs have already benefited financially from this episode after they were awarded USh 29 million ($8,000) each to “consult” their constituents ahead of the vote.
Scenario 3: The court upholds the age limit amendment following intimidation
In 2005, there was much consternation when an armed squad known as the Black Mambas besieged the High Court in Kampala and attempted to re-arrest treason suspects that had been granted bail. Ugandan lawyers responded angrily to this incursion by holding a one-day strike in protest at what they called a “despicable act”, insisting that it is unacceptable for “armed men to intimidate or otherwise interfere with the due process of the law”.
Despite this, the affair was repeated in 2007 when armed forces again surrounded the Court after it granted bail to the same suspects. A similar incident then occurred in 2011 when security operatives invaded a magistrates court attempting to seize bailed suspects accused of taking part in an anti-government demonstration. The courts later dismissed both these cases, but the sieges nevertheless sent a clear message to the judiciary: that judges do not have the final say.
The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has arguably moved away from such overt repression in more recent years. However, the heavy deployment of the army and police around the 2016 elections and the soldiers’ raid of parliament in 2017 suggest that military intimidation remains a key weapon of the regime.
In the remote eastern city of Mbale, where the recent case was heard instead of in Kampala where there may be more public attention, the security presence was ramped up and roads were closed during proceedings this month. Whether or not the judges need to be reminded more bluntly of the dangers of defying the government, fresh memories of armed interference in the courts may sway their thinking.
Scenario 4: The court upholds the age limit amendment following bribery
If using the stick seems too costly for its public relations, the NRM could use the carrot. On this front, the government has frequently been accused of bribing politicians in more or less covert ways. Opponents, for example, say that the USh 29 million given to legislators to consult their constituents ahead of last year’s vote was an “outright bribe”. They say the same of the USh 5 million given to each MP ahead of a similar vote that removed presidential term limits in 2005.
Many Ugandans believe that if the government can grease the palms of 400 legislators, it can surely do the same of five judges. These fears are given further weight by frequent reports of corruption in the judiciary. Last year, for example, a High Court judge was investigated for allegedly losing a case file after soliciting a bribe.
The benefits that judges could be offered do not have to be so outright, however. Many justices in Uganda are referred as “cadre judges” due to their perceived allegiances to the ruling party. Others may tow the NRM line to increase their career prospects. None of the constitutional court judges is perceived to have overt loyalties to Museveni, but the benefits of staying in the government’s favour – as well as the dangers of not – are clear.
Nowhere to turn
For the government to uphold its age limit removal, it just needs three of the five judges to succumb to the stick (3), the carrot (4) or otherwise opt for a relatively easy way out (2).
The judges may yet prove expectations wrong, but if – and mostly likely when – they uphold the amendment, there may be protests in response. After all, the vast majority of Ugandans are said to be against Museveni extending his time in office by amending the constitution.
However, along with learning how to change the rules as he goes along, the president has also learnt over time how to pre-empt or crush popular demonstrations. Since the momentous Walk to Work protests in 2011, the government has made sure to deploy security forces around urban areas ahead of elections or around other events that could spark resistance. Many would-be protesters know the cost of demonstrating and know it is unlikely they will reach the streets before the men in uniform.
What this means is that Ugandans seeking change now cannot find it through political channels, legal channels, or even the streets. This is why many appear resigned or indifferent to the case awaiting judgement in the constitutional court. In time though, we may come to see this apparent popular apathy as merely the calm before the brewing storm in Uganda.