In districts, members of the ruling NRM have begun to untangle the most complex hurdle to the re-election of President Museveni in 2021 – the constitutional presidential age limit.
But the campaigners are not presenting a unified front. In the open, many NRM leaders feign ignorance about the ongoing campaign to push for the removal of article 102(b) of the Constitution that caps the age for a president at 75. But in private, the campaign seems to be fast gaining traction every day.
Some NRM leaders have condemned the Kyankwanzi Woman MP and district NRM chairperson Anna Maria Nankabirwa for spearheading the first public adoption of an NRM district resolution to lift the presidential age limit. The resolution was adopted and announced on July 4.
“She is being overambitious because, maybe she wants to be seen but I am sure President Museveni doesn’t want it, at least for now,” the minister of state for Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda Ssuubi told The Observer on July 11.
The Kyankwanzi district NRM conference chaired by Nankabirwa took the lead on July 4 and passed the resolution urging its MPs to move a motion in Parliament for the amendment of the age-limit clause, which remains the only obstacle to Museveni’s hold onto power beyond 2021.
Museveni will turn 75 midway his current presidential term, which will make him ineligible to stand for another election. Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa too in a July 14 interview said that her namesake’s campaign was overly ambitious.
“It is their project and I can confirm to you that there is no forum where it has been discussed whether at the cabinet level or within the party leadership,” Ruth Nankabirwa said.
“I sit in cabinet and CEC [Central Executive Committee] of the party, and I have not got access to that information,” she added.
But an investigation by The Observer found the denials and criticisms of the Kyankwanzi Woman MP to be a façade. The government chief whip spoke to The Observer hours after a dinner for NRM district chairpersons at Hotel Africana in Kampala where the push was further amplified.
Museveni was the chief guest at the dinner that was hosted under the theme; Igniting the centrality of district chairpersons in the performance and growth of NRM to help Uganda achieve a middle-income status. The proposal for the removal of the age limit at the dinner was fronted by the Mitooma NRM district chairman Benon Karyeija soon after he delivered the opening prayer.
It was also included in a memorandum that was presented to the president by the interim chairman of the NRM district chairpersons’ forum Hajji Twaha Ssonko.
“Because we didn’t have enough time, I was not able to read our memorandum at the dinner but it [removal of the age-limit clause] is one of the items contained in it,” Ssonko said in a Saturday interview.
In the interview, Ssonko said the campaign has been on for some time and it will be discussed further at a retreat for the district party leaders at the National leadership Institute (NALI) Kyankwanzi.
“It is an outcome of the regional meetings that have been going on, and it is good that the president agreed to have a retreat for us at which we shall discuss at length the proposals contained in the memorandum,” Ssonko said.
The NRM district chairpersons are fourth in the queue of delegations lined up for retreats at NALI. The retreats begin this weekend with ministers who will be followed by youth leaders, women leaders and then the NRM district leaders.
An MP from western Uganda who preferred not to be named told this writer at Parliament last week that much as some party leaders were admonishing the Kyankwanzi Woman MP, she is not moving in isolation.
“Hers was a first step; it was timely because we needed to test the waters before moving on with it because it is likely to generate a lot of controversy,” the MP said. “You wait, within a month, another district is going to pass the same resolution, and it will go on like that.”
Within a week after the Kyankwanzi NRM leaders passed the resolution, the MP said, momentum began to build up among NRM MPs to support it. Removal of the age limit campaign is moving in tandem with a proposal to amend Article 105(1) of the Constitution to extend the term of office of all national leaders by two years.
“We are not handling it singularly [because] we don’t want the public to think that the amendment is about only the president, we are pushing it together with the extension of our term to seven years,” the MP said.
According to this MP, the proposal to extend the elective term from five to seven years is popular among MPs but lifting of the age-limit is still contentious. The term extension bill was first suggested late in 2013, under the title, “The Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council Extension Bill 2014” but it remained in the hands of a few NRM lawyer MPs.
Some MPs are reportedly excited about the proposals because they see an opening for them to make money from Museveni. Arua Municipality MP Ibrahim Abiriga is among MPs willing to work with the Kyankwanzi MPs to promote the proposal.
In a July 14 interview at Parliament, Abiriga said that before the Kyankwanzi NRM district conference resolution, the elders’ council of West Nile had sat and resolved to support the removal of the age limit.
“We [West Nile elders’ council] had a meeting in April at Arua district council hall and passed the resolution because we don’t see anyone who can match Museveni in ensuring peace and unity in the country,” Abiriga said.
The resolution, Abiriga said, was passed early because the party needs to politically prepare the youth for the amendment. But Mawokota South MP John Bosco Sseguya Lubyaayi said the two proposals are unnecessary.
“They [promoters] are being opportunistic, it is not necessary. People need to understand that [the age-limit clause] is about somebody’s life [because] at 75, someone has grown too old,” Lubyaayi said.
Lubyaayi who also doubles as the Mpigi NRM district chairman expressed his unwillingness to call a meeting to endorse such a proposal.
“The president unveiled the 23-point plan that we have to implement over the next five years, if we achieve that, why bother? Anyone else can take over from there,” he added.
Although she feigned ignorance about the plots, Ruth Nankabirwa admitted that she would entertain it if it came up in her district NRM conference.
“It is obvious that Museveni will be of age by the next elections and it is a matter that is causing anxiety among members. If it came up in my district conference because besides being chief whip, I am also the NRM chairperson for Kiboga, I will welcome it,” Ruth said.
Her Kyankwanzi counterpart, Anna Maria Nankabirwa sounded bitter on Saturday at her colleagues who accuse her of being overambitious and an opportunist.
“Those are detractors, the resolution is not my own; it is for my people and I have a duty to represent their views,” Anna Maria said.
“If anybody gave me an opportunity to ask for anything, I would ask for better health services, a water unit, road equipment, secondary schools for every sub- county in my district and capitalization for the sub- county Saccos. It is not my intention to be a minister,” she added.