Ugandan lawmakers brawl over bill on presidential age limit. Here’s what citizens think

12 Oct 2017

Originally posted on Monkey Cage blog.

  Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

A debate over a bill in Uganda’s parliament Tuesday turned violent, with lawmakers throwing chairs at colleagues and physically fighting them.

The bill that led to the brawl would amend parts of the constitution related to electoral matters. Among other more minor provisions, the bill would remove the age limit for presidential candidates.

Uganda’s constitution (in Chapter 7, Section 102a) bars anyone older than 75 from running for president. Should the bill fail, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni is ineligible to run for reelection in 2021. Museveni is 73 and has ruled Uganda since 1986.

Tuesday’s brawl in Parliament revealed a number of MPs supportive of Museveni continuing his rule over the country. But what do ordinary Ugandans think?

In a nationally representative survey of 1,200 adults interviewed by Afrobarometer between Dec. 26, 2016, and Jan. 8, 2017, 75 percent of Ugandans agreed that the constitutional stipulation on presidential age limit should be maintained.

Citizen opinion on maintaining the age limit is not driven by Ugandan dissatisfaction with how Museveni is doing his job. Presidential approval is high in Uganda, at 70 percent among Afrobarometer respondents. Of course, support for the age limit is higher (88 percent) among those who disapprove of Museveni’s performance compared to those who approve (71 percent).

Nonetheless, popular support for the presidential age limit is even strong among Museveni’s co-partisans. According to the Afrobarometer survey data, two-thirds of Ugandans who feel close to Museveni’s political party — the National Resistance Movement (NRM) — support the presidential age limit.

Supporting the constitutional stipulation on presidential age limit is consistent with broader support among Ugandans for political and electoral reforms. In fact, three quarters of Ugandans surveyed by Afrobarometer favored a proposal limiting the president to a maximum of two terms in office. Although the 1995 Ugandan constitution stipulated a two-term limit for the presidency, Museveni worked relentlessly and successfully to have the constitution amended during his second term in office so that he could run again (and again and again and again).

Museveni evaded reporters’ questions about whether he intends to run in Uganda’s next election in 2021, but said Ugandan MPs would have the final say on the presidential age limit.  Museveni’s statement runs counter to a quote from his inaugural address in 1986, posted to the government’s website:

The people of Africa, the people of Uganda, are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favor from any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the government.

If the sovereignty really is vested in the Ugandan people, data from Afrobarometer makes very clear what MPs should support if their duty is to represent citizen interests. MPs might also consider Museveni’s additional remarks in his 1986 inaugural address:

The main problem in Africa is of leaders who do not want to leave power.