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Uganda's age limit bill tests judiciary

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni attends the 30th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 28, 2018.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni attends the 30th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

Uganda's constitutional court on Thursday ruled against extending parliamentary term limits in a landmark verdict to decide whether to annul last year's controversial age limit bill, which would also allow President Yoweri Museveni to run for life. The case has called the independence of the judiciary into question.


The devil is in the details, and there were certainly a lot of those in Thursday's landmark verdict, described by the Daily Monitor paper as 'judgment day'.

Ugandans had to wait more than three months for the five judges, led by Deputy Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny Dolo, to deliver their verdict on the age limit petition.

By late Thursday afternoon, they were still waiting.

"We should be angry because of course it's wasting time," blogger Ivan Aboga Rackara told RFI, before relativising: "We've waited three months so a few hours to wait for the petition ruling wouldn't be much."

Key members of the opposition challenged the legality of last year's bill, which also included extending parliamentary terms from 5 to 7 years, saying it was unconstitutional.

Rukundo Ibrahim, Director of Justice Care Uganda, an advocacy group in Kampala, agrees.

"The constitution was already amended in 2005 to remove presidential term limits (...) and now they are equally amending it to remove what was interpreted in that constitution of 2005," he told RFI. "We are saying no. We cannot have our constitution as just a mere bulk of paper, where someone can just come tomorrow and change," he said.

In his ruling, Justice Kenneth Kakuru appeared to insinuate the same thing, arguing that the constitution "should not be changed like men change shirts."

Seen as one of the more empirical of the five judges--comprised of four men and one woman--Kakuru sought to give a historical context of what he called Uganda's "chequered" history, characterised by some as having dictatorial laws and practices.

Challenging moment for judiciary

This grueling exercise in Ugandan history didn't disguise the fact that Thursday's ruling was also very much a test for the judiciary.

"We've seen that the judiciary in Kenya has been increasingly independent," says Uganda's Justice Care Ibrahim. "We also want to celebrate, we also want to set a good jurisprudence in East Africa."

Last year in Kenya, Supreme Court Judge, Justice David Maraga, won international praise after annulling the contested election.

There are encouraging signs here too, reckons blogger Rackara: "When Judge [Cheborion] Barishaki goes ahead to say that members of parliament acted unconstitutionally in extending their tenure, that for me was a huge stride in this democracy struggle."

Opponents of the presidential age bill however are likely to take issue with the fact that neither Justice Barishaki, nor Justice Elizabeth Musoke who spoke after him, saw anything wrong with scrapping presidential term limits.

"The argument by the petitioners that amendment of presidential age limits violated people's sovereignty is not tenable. There was a bill, there was debate, there was consultation," he said.

Observers will recall the heated scenes in parliament that saw lawmakers trade not only barbs but blows as well, forcing the army to intervene.

Barishaki defended the intervention of the army and exonerated Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga--the one who brought them in--of any wrongdoing.

Judiciary also on trial

In terms of what the two amendments woukd actually do to Uganda's political system, experts say they would pave the way for two elections; one in 2021 to elect a new president, and another in 2023 for parliamentarians.

"Uganda doesn't have that money to spend," reckons Henry Muguzi of the National Coordinator of Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM), which monitored the last elections in 2016.

"Democracy is expensive and you need money to organize an election," he told RFI.

"In the case of Uganda, it doesn’t stop there, many flag bearers will look to the president for campaign finance and I'm not sure he has all that money to give (...) the economy is not doing well after the last election," he said.

Asked whether he had faith in the independence of the judiciary, he said: "They are also on trial."

"Corruption here is endemic and civil servants, judges come from the same pool of society."

Two elections may not be needed. Two of the five judges threw out parliament's ruling to extend MP terms from 5 to 7 years, appeasing part of the petitioners' demands.

However, opponents have threatened to appeal unless both amendments, not just one, are annulled.

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