YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is always keen to celebrate his birthday, so when he skipped his 73rd birthday on August 4, many observers thought there must be a good reason.
Most assumed he was trying to not draw attention to his age, since he is two years shy of the presidential retirement age in the country.
The Ugandan constitution requires that the president must be between the ages of 35-75, and if the constitution is not changed, Museveni will be ineligible run during the next election in 2021, when he will be 77.
However, parts of the political machinery to change the constitution has been put into motion, and this has divided the nation, including the clergy.
“Those who are planning to change the constitution are ruining the peace of Ugandans when we want a peaceful transition of power,” Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, the president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, told AllAfrica.com.
Members of the ruling party met last week to discuss scrapping the term limits, and allow Museveni – who came to power in 1986 – to continue his over 30 years in charge of the country.
The opposition to the constitutional change cuts across denominational lines.
“I do not support removal of the age limit,” said Anglican Bishop Dan Zoreka, of the Diocese of Kinkizi. “We have been waiting to see President Museveni hand over power peacefully. Changing the constitution is not good for the stability and peace of Uganda.”
And Bishop Reuben Kisembo of the Anglican Diocese of Ruwenzori said that lifting age limits would be synonymous to locking out other potential rulers. He argued that Uganda has many qualified people who could be president, and therefore there was no pressing need to change the constitution.
But many clergy were more circumspect when asked by AllAfrica.com to comment on the issue.
Catholics Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of the capital Kampala, Bishop Charles Wamika of Jinja, and Bishop Callistus Rubaramira of Kabale refused to comment either way.
“We shall voice out our views in the right forum during our planned meeting for bishops in the whole country that is scheduled to take place soon,” Rubaramira told the website. “Giving individual comments on such a sensitive national issue might divide the Christians,” he added.
Anglican Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, the head of the Anglican Church in the country, also refused to give an opinion either way.
The fears of dividing the nation are not unfounded, as demonstrations in the country are growing more violent.
At the Makerere University on Thursday, police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of students who came out to protest proposed the constitutional amendment.
The students waved branches and chanted “K’ogikwatako!” – meaning “Don’t dare touch it!” in the local Luganda language – in reference to the constitutional clause on age limits.
Meanwhile, security forces have been deployed in Kampala in what opposition MPs have described as an act of intimidation.
“The regime knows how unpopular this move… for Museveni to rule until he dies is among the public,” Wilfred Niwagaba, an independent parliamentarian opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment, told Reuters. “He has now decided to use the army and police to instill fear in citizens and MPs.”
Yet support for Museveni is still strong among a large part of the population.
Compared to the political violence in many neighboring countries – Rwanda, Congo, South Sudan, and Kenya all border Uganda – the 30 years of his presidency can seem comparatively tranquil and peaceful.
“President Museveni is a good leader. From the time he has been president in 1984, I have never run out of my country because of instability,” Evelyn Anite told the Los Angeles Times.
Anite serves as Uganda’s Minister of Finance for Investment and Privatization, and a supporter of lifting the term limits, which she calls discriminatory and undemocratic.
“If people want to choose a blind person to lead them, they should be able to do it. If they want to choose an old person to lead them, they should be able to do that,” she said.
The push to let Museveni have another term in office is part of a trend in Africa.
Many countries enacted term limits in the 1990’s and 2000’s as an antidote to the dictatorial reigns which characterized the continent in the post-colonial era.
But there are still some holdouts.
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, 93, is seeking re-election next year. In Cameroon, Africa’s longest serving president – Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982 – removed presidential term limits in 2008 to run again for the 2011 election, and he is likely to run again next year.
In Togo, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests against maneuvers that could guarantee Faure Gnassingbe another run for the presidency.
In many countries, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the effort to protect constitutional term limits, as it is in Togo today
This is less the case in Uganda. Although the bishops issued a statement condemning abuses by security forces in August, they have yet to issue one on the proposed change to the constitution.
Museveni has hosted two popes during his rule: Pope John Paul II in 1993 and Pope Francis in November 2015 (Paul VI also visited Uganda in 1969.)
The timing of the visit by Francis was considered controversial by some, since it took place just two months before Uganda’s general election, which Museveni won handily. Members of the opposition accused the president of using the papal visit as a campaign prop.
Mohammad Nsereko, an opposition member of parliament, has called on religious leaders to imitate former Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, who stood up to to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970’s.
The archbishop was killed on February 16, 1977 – officially in a car crash, but his body was riddled with bullets when returned to his family. He is considered a martyr in the Anglican Communion.
“Religious and cultural leaders should come out. Don’t bury your heads in the sand,” he said.