In 2005, Parliament voted to remove term limits from the constitution, giving Museveni a lifeline to continue as president.
Seven years later, a significant number of MPs, including some of those who voted for the amendment in the seventh Parliament, are agitating for a return of the presidential term limits. David Tash Lumu looks back at the events surrounding the controversial abolition of term limits.
The removal of presidential term limits to give Museveni unlimited terms in power was launched in March 2003, during a Movement National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting at the National Leadership Institute, Kyankwanzi. Just before the meeting, bisanja (dry banana leaves) had come to symbolise the agitation for a third term for the President.
In the aftermath of the meeting, senior Movement leaders like First Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya, former ministers Amanya Mushega, Richard Kaijuka, Bidandi Ssali, Miria Matembe and former army commander Mugisha Muntu, who opposed the idea, broke ranks. In a cabinet reshuffle that followed, President Museveni dropped ministers who had spoken out against the move, including Kategaya and Matembe.
Eventually when the issue reached Parliament in 2005, Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo, one of the MPs drumming up the return of term limits today, blew the whistle on the Shs 5m that each pro-Movement MP had been given as inducement to support the amendment. Interestingly, Ssekikubo went ahead to vote for the amendment.
Several NRM supporters who had vowed to oppose the move, like Henry Banyenzaki, the minister of state for Economic Monitoring and Rubanda West MP, changed positions as the crucial vote approached. Asked about the return of the debate, Banyenzaki told The Observer in an interview recently: “There is no problem. It is a very healthy debate. Let the debate continue and Parliament will decide.”
Banyezanki added that he had changed his position under “pressure”.
“In 2005, it [term limits] was a very hot debate. I was personally for [term] limits at that time, but I succumbed to the party position,” he said. “I had to be bound by the party position because that was a very crucial matter within the party; so, I don’t regret it.”
He added: “We debated the issue in the party, we put our issues forward and we lost. But if they want to revisit it, I have no problem.”
Another current minister who was against the amendment but later changed his mind is Bright Rwamirama, the minister of state for Agriculture. Rwamirama told this writer that the challenge the MPs pushing for the restoration of term limits face is persuading Ugandans to back their position.
“They have to convince the country,” he said.
During the vote on the lifting of term limits in 2005, two lawmakers associated with NRM abstained. These were: Col Fred Bogere (then UPDF MP) and Beatrice Byenkya Nyakaisiki (then Hoima Woman MP). Byenkya, who is currently a presidential advisor, told The Observer that at a particular time term limits will come back without much ado—just like it was in the Constituency Assembly (CA) when Article 105(2) was created.
“When I abstained at that time [in 2005], I was listening to my conscience. And I must say that term limits will come back whether we want it or not,” she said.
In his book, Impassioned for Freedom, which was launched in 2004 by Nuwe Amanya Mushega, Kategaya states why he opposed the removal of term limits. “In Africa, but particularly in Uganda, we seem to be cursed with having leaders who cannot be taken on their word. Of late I have been told that politicians are people without a sense of shame.”
Kategaya was referring to the fact that his childhood friend, President Museveni, who had promised during the 2001 election campaigns that he was seeking his last term in office, was now in 2005 seeking an amendment to hang onto power. In a 2004 interview with The Observer on the same theme, the Rwampara politician famously invoked a Kinyankore saying that “a man can only shift positions on his bed but not go back on his word.”
Interestingly, Kategaya was later to go back on his word and accept a ministerial position in President Museveni’s third term government in 2006. As agitation for the lifting of term limits increased, the Movement leadership started loosening up on political parties and indicating that it was ready for a return to multi-partyism.
This proved an important tradeoff as opposition supporters were told to mind their own business and let NRM pick its best candidate since multi-partyism was to be in place. During the Movement National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting at Kyankwanzi on December 18, 2001, President Museveni named a 19-member committee headed by Defence minister Chrispus Kiyonga to study this and other related issues and make appropriate recommendations. Members included Kategaya, Bidandi Ssali and Maj Roland Kakooza Mutale.
The Kiyonga committee reported its findings at another Kyankwanzi NEC meeting on March 30, 2003. This committee’s report did not at all mention the removal of presidential term limits, as it hadn’t arisen during their investigations, but the issue nevertheless dominated debate. Museveni remained cagey and spoke about the subject remotely during this meeting.
A week after the Kyankwanzi meeting, Kategaya gave Sunday Vision an interview in which he spoke strongly against the lifting of presidential term limits. He said: “… It is not clear whether President Museveni wants the third term or not. Because of the vagueness, people are beginning to suspect his motives. I don’t want to see my colleague, with whom I have worked for so long, being suspected by the people. I don’t want to see my long-standing colleague involved in manipulation for this will create cynicism.”
Kategaya again spoke against the removal of term limits at a PAFO seminar at Hotel Africana on November 7, 2003. The Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO) had organised the first in a series of seminars on the dangers of abolishing presidential term limits. During this seminar, Kategaya presented a paper titled, ‘Political Transition in Uganda: The Stakes for Regional Integration in East Africa.’
He said: “I would like to deal with this transition under what is now popularly called third term, or according to Salaamu Musumba ‘sad term’. What is referred to here is the vigorous attempts to amend Article 105 (2) of the 1995 Constitution to remove the term limit on the presidency… In 2001 the promise was made in writing that H.E President Museveni was going for his last and final term. What we need is the cool analysis of those who are trying to get jobs or trying to save what they have. These types of people are always compromised in their analyses.”
In an interview with The Observer in May 2004, Kategaya said: “I never thought that the Museveni I knew would be involved in this type of games I am seeing, not at all. This is totally the opposite of what I knew of the man. …One of the things you have to treasure is your credibility. The moment people begin doubting your credibility, there is a problem. President Museveni now has a problem of credibility. He may think he is popular but I am not sure myself. He does not have the same credibility as before.”
In the end, Museveni and his supporters had their way and the constitution was amended to give him unlimited terms in office. Another amendment introduced multi-partyism. However, because the removal of term limits wasn’t a principled position but rather a pro-Museveni project, Uganda is back to square one in as far as the debate is concerned.
Whether Gerald Karuhanga (Youth, Western) and those who share his cause get their way this time or next time, what looks certain is that the genie is out of the bottle and some day, like Beatrice Benkya said, term limits will be back.