I had avoided re-engaging with the debate about term limits, but my name was dragged back into it by my esteemed ‘uncle’ and elder academic, Prof Matthias Ssemakula Kiwanuka (New Vision, August 12, 2015).
Supporters of life presidency, such as Prof Ssemakula Kiwanuka, often quote countries without term limits in order to justify why they were removed in Uganda in 2005. Not only is the comparison intellectually dishonest and wrong, it is also a fundamental misreading of the historical evolution of the idea of term limits within Uganda’s own political context.
Indeed, in all my arguments about term limits, I have always made the point that citing the example of other countries is simply a diversion from addressing the concrete situation that we have in Uganda. When term limits were introduced in Uganda, they were not an import from elsewhere. Rather, they were dictated by the very real experience of bad governance that Uganda underwent virtually since independence.
Historically, Uganda never had term limits and, indeed, neither the 1962 (independence), the 1966 (pigeon-hole) nor the 1967 Constitutions provided for them. That experience was an unmitigated disaster for several reasons. First, Ugandan leaders tried by every means possible to perpetuate themselves in power, either through the barrel of the gun or via rigged elections.
The peak of such addiction to power was the declaration of life presidency by Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. Second, the absence of term limits was the direct cause of the civil war fought between 1980 and 1986. Had there been such limits, Milton Obote would not have been eligible to stand for the 1980 election.
Indeed, he had to resort to violence in order to retain power when he should have bowed out of office as an elder statesman. Uganda’s history thus demonstrated that when Uganda had no term limits, the results were disastrous. The introduction of term limits in the 1995 Constitution thus did not emerge from the blue.
However, at the first opportunity to put them to the test, we abandoned them after only ten years. How then can Prof Ssemakula argue that they don’t work in Uganda when they have actually never been tested?
History is always the best teacher. The problem is that most people don’t want to learn from it. However, we can always turn back to history to find out who was the most avid supporter of the concept of term limits in the past. Before President Museveni came to power, he declared that the main problem with Africa was not underdevelopment.
Rather, he stated, it was the desire by African leaders to remain in power at whatever cost. To put President Museveni’s words differently, it was the failure of the systems of peaceful succession; it was the failure of predictable governance; and, finally, it was the failure to place defined limits on the period of time in which a leader could be in power.
Now, the tune has opportunistically changed, pointing generally to underdevelopment as Africa’s main problem, and not leadership. Since underdevelopment is still with us, then we should stop being concerned about who is leading us. Which Yoweri Kaguta Museveni should we believe?
At the end of the day, the debate is not really about whether or not to have term limits. It is about creating systems and instruments of good governance and sticking to them, both when they work in your favour and when they work against you.
Such duplicity explains why there are now moves to have a constitutional amendment to remove age limits just as the claim is being made that the NRM is giving way to ‘young blood’.
I agree with Prof Ssemakula that the removal of term limits in 2005 was not Uganda’s biggest tragedy. Rather, it was that when really put to the test, President Museveni has demonstrated that he is actually no different from Milton Obote or Idi Amin.
The author is a professor of law at Makerere University