Ministers Najjemba, Bakkabulindi, Banyenzaki want no limits
After months of denying that the president’s age-limit in the constitution was one of the items being considered for amendment, the issue came up for debate during a cabinet meeting on March 20, The Observer can reveal.
Early this month, President Museveni’s cabinet began considering the proposed constitutional amendments and electoral reforms, which are due to be tabled in parliament. After Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire, the minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, had presented the proposals, a cabinet sub-committee comprising all lawyers in cabinet was tasked to scrutinize and enhance the minister’s proposals.
The sub-committee’s report, however, stirred a heated debate during last week’s cabinet meeting. The bone of contention was the inclusion of the proposal for the removal of the presidential age limit.
Reliable sources have told The Observer that the cabinet meeting that sat at State House in Entebbe shortly after President Museveni swore-in newly-appointed ministers was sharply divided on the proposal.
A number of junior ministers, according to these sources, supported the removal of the age limit while a disgusted First Lady, Janet Museveni, shot it down. The controversial clause seeks to amend Article 102(b), which caps the maximum age for one to be elected president at 75.
However, Attorney General Freddie Ruhindi, who presented the sub-committee’s report, cautioned the cabinet to tread carefully when dealing with the age-limit proposal as there is a related matter in court. The Observer has learnt that while some ministers were of the view that debate should be frozen until the court matter has been disposed of, others saw no problem debating the issue.
On February 15, Benjamin Alipanga, a student said to be close to former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, filed a petition in the Constitutional court seeking an injunction against Museveni’s possible re-election bid.
In his petition, Alipanga claims that Museveni will not be qualified to serve a full five-year presidential term from 2016 because he will be past the constitutional age limit. The president will be 72 years old if he is re-elected next year, which implies he will turn 75 mid-way his fifth presidential term.
Notwithstanding the attorney general’s advice, many ministers fell over themselves in support of the proposal. Ministers Rosemary Najjemba (Urban Development), Rebecca Otengo (Northern Uganda), Charles Bakkabulindi (Sports), Henry Banyenzaki (Economic Monitoring) and Alex Onzima (Local Government) were the loudest voices pushing for the removal of the age limit.
They argued that the matter should be debated and cabinet should not be shy about it. Najjemba, who was most outspoken, argued that the petition before court cannot stop cabinet from debating the proposal. She said the court case targets an individual (Museveni) yet what is on the table for discussion is a matter of principle.
To avoid the suspicion that such an amendment is tailored for President Museveni, the ministers suggested that even the lower age limit (35) for one to aspire to become president should be removed.
One member of the sub-committee of lawyers told the meeting that the issue being in court can’t stop the debate in parliament. In fact, he argued, parliament can save court’s time and make what appears to be a complex issue straightforward. But Otafiire objected, questioning the motive of the ministers pushing for the amendment.
He said even if he were inclined to support them, now is not the time for such a debate. Otafiire was supported by Frank Tumwebaze, the minister for the Presidency and Kampala City, who said he too did not see any logic in the amendment at this point. Tumwebaze wondered whether the move was meant to impress or embarrass the president.
“If the move doesn’t target President Museveni, as the supporters argue, what’s the basis for it at this moment?” Tumwebaze asked.
The youthful minister, we have been told, also drew the attention of his cabinet colleagues to the constitutional age limits set for public servants and judges, among other categories of leaders.
But the person who poured the coldest water on the idea was the president’s wife, Janet Museveni, who is also minister for Karamoja. She had quietly sat through the debate as colleagues argued their viewpoints. When she chose to speak, Janet expressed shock and disgust at what she was hearing.
“For heaven’s sake, why do we have to be so predictable?” she asked, hinting at the frenzied public speculation that the proposal would be tabled sooner rather than later.
“I don’t see why we are having this debate even after lawyers have pronounced themselves on it; why now?” she wondered.
President Museveni was not present as this debate ensued. He had briefly appeared earlier in the day, and left after pointing out what he deemed to be the most important amendment proposals, particularly the granting of bail for serious offences.
He didn’t speak about the age limit clause, which if it stays as it is, would mean that he can’t rule beyond 2021 if re-elected next year. Museveni’s silence on the matter, according to Bakkabulindi, implied consent. He argued that if the president did not want the proposal, he would have said so. Some ministers opposed to the proposal were visibly incensed by Bakkabulindi and his colleagues’ position.
At some point, plain-speaking Otafiire jokingly said that he was surprised that the proponents of the amendment were mainly ministers believed to have been close to Mbabazi. Following the lawyers’ advice and Janet’s submission, the prime minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, who chaired the day’s session, urged the members to abandon the matter.
There was an attempt to start the age-limit debate during the NRM MPs’ retreat at Kyankwanzi last month but this didn’t materialize. When media reports claimed that the issue had come up, this was strongly denied by NRM spokespersons. Many people, including ministers, are wondering how the issue made its way into the cabinet sub-committee’s report.
The sub-committee claimed the idea came from the public but someone was quick to point out that this was unlikely as there had been no public hearings through which such an idea could spring up.
While some believe it could be the handiwork of overzealous ministers seeking to catch the eye of the president, others believe there could be a sinister move to embarrass the president or paint him in bad light. Last year, two MPs Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga) and Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa East) claimed at a press conference at parliament that some lawyers in cabinet and NRM were meeting separately at a Chinese hotel in Kololo, plotting to smuggle the idea into the constitutional amendment proposals.
Contacted for a comment yesterday, Otafiire said: “Cabinet minutes are secret. I don’t deny, I don’t confirm; whoever gave you that information should confirm, sorry.”
For his part, Attorney General Ruhindi told The Observer yesterday that the cabinet reached an agreement on constitution amendments and a draft bill would be coming up for debate next Wednesday. Onzima, one of the ministers reported to have supported the age limit amendment, declined to discuss the subject.
“Where did you get it from?” he asked. “If you can’t tell me who your sources are, I can’t comment.”