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September 21, 2018

Breeding a culture of violence

President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta accompanied by their host President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet Museveni greet Uganda members of Parliament after addressing a special session yesterday.Photo PSCU
President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta accompanied by their host President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet Museveni greet Uganda members of Parliament after addressing a special session yesterday.Photo PSCU

Uganda made it onto Trevor Noah’s show. This is not, as you may have suspected, an entirely flattering thing as he showed part of the parliamentary fight over the proposed removal of age limits for the president. And ‘parliamentary fight’ was not a learned debate, but an actual, physical fight, with chairs and other items being thrown. Active democracy, as the Somali parliament in Kenyan exile called it years ago when they threw the Intercont chairs around the room. The communications commission then ordered media houses not to broadcast events that are ‘stirring up hatred, promoting a culture of violence.’ I’m not so sure who was doing the promoting here since it was the lawmakers who are fighting.

Uganda’s constitution has an upper age limit of 75 years for the president, so President Yoweri Museveni – who has ruled the country since 1986 and still doesn’t admit to being tired, much like your screaming toddler fighting to keep his eyes open – would not be eligible to run in the next election in 2022. This is inconvenient. So this will be changed. The country has owners.

The situation reminds me of 2005 when he had to remove the term limits, only with nastier fighting: It’s been a bit more than a decade since the term limits were removed, and Museveni’s popularity and legitimacy have steadily declined since then. I don’t doubt that the age limit will eventually be removed, but it will cost him. More legitimacy, and also cash: paying MPs to pass laws has become a well established tradition in Uganda.

I’m not surprised by Museveni’s move (despite all his efforts to present himself as reluctantly agreeing to the people’s demands). And ultimately, I expect that the protests will remain a short -term disruption- and Museveni’s government typically acts very aggressively against any protests to avoid them gaining momentum.

Of course you can argue that this is good for stability – especially in sectors such as oil, where Museveni was and is very immediately involved. So maybe this is good news, at least until, say, the pipeline is well on its way? But this stability also includes stability of the deeply entrenched corruption as he cannot afford to cut off his patronage networks across the board, especially against the background of his declining legitimacy. And it really just means postponing the problem that there is no clear succession plan. Museveni could be run over by a bus, have a cardiac arrest, die of natural causes and then the inevitable transition will be messy. This is blatantly clear. And our eyes are wide shut.

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