Ugandan constitutional coup: a regrettable sign of the times

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The coming weeks could represent a make-or-break moment for Uganda’s long-suffering political opposition – and for the political integrity of Africa as a whole. The country’s court is due to review a legal challenge to a recent amendment of the constitution which removed age limits for potential presidents. The amendment, passed late last year, could pave the way for incumbent Yoweri Museveni to extend his reign to almost half a century.

Regrettably, these kinds of legislative ruses are becoming all the more common across Africa. While the outright bloodshed of military coups may be on the wane in the continent, a more insidious method of power-grabbing has emerged in its stead: the constitutional coup. Museveni’s attempts to consolidate his power indefinitely mirrors successful ploys in nearby Burundi and Rwanda, as well as ongoing subterfuge in its western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Museveni’s machinations

President Museveni first came to power after helping to oust notorious dictator Idi Amin in 1979. In 1986, he seized control of the country himself, and has engaged in manipulation of the constitution ever since to ensure he remains in power. In 2005, he jettisoned Uganda’s two-term limit for presidents, allowing himself to win a third term the following year. Later on, in 2016, he circumvented a law preventing those aged over 75 from ruling by obfuscating his birth date. With his age starting to catch up with him, in December he addressed the troublesome issue head-on by removing the law which barred over-75s from the presidency.

In the months preceding its passing, parliamentary talks discussing the bill descended into physical violence, with several MPs being escorted from the building by security forces. Needless to say, the opposition is indignant at Museveni’s stratagems, which are especially frustrating given his previous comments on despotism in the region; writing in 1986, for instance, he blamed Africa’s problems not on its inhabitants, but on those “leaders who want to overstay in power”. Such a stance is more than a little ironic to say the least, given the current circumstances in which Uganda finds itself.

A continental problem

Sadly, the Museveni situation is far from an isolated incident in Africa. Indeed, statistics provided by the African Center for Strategic Studies show that in addition to the 12 countries which do not have any term limits for presidency, at least 10 others have successfully modified or eliminated those limits since their inception.

A prime example of this is Rwanda, whose incumbent president Paul Kagame is currently serving his third term and 18th year in power. Having steered the war-torn country out of the ravages of the 1994 genocide, Kagame is sometimes held up as a paragon of how modern-day African rulers should conduct themselves. If the country’s internal propaganda machine is to be believed, a 2015 poll to gauge support for Kagame’s removal of the two-term limit found only 10 opponents among millions.

However, anecdotal evidence from journalists who have worked in the country seems to support the idea that Rwandan citizens are petrified into acquiescence; from arbitrarily ordering rural residents to remove their roofing to coercing mothers into reporting their sons as traitors, Rwanda’s government appears to be one of the most oppressive on the planet. Regardless of whatever the 2015 poll might say, other sources indicate that roughly 75% of the African populace in 34 of its 54 countries support a two-term limit. Clearly, those in power do not – including Joseph Kabila in the DRC.

DRC on cusp of crisis

In 2014, following the example of so many of his peers, Kabila sought to prolong his rule by modifying the constitution, resulting in violent street protests and 27 deaths. Although he later quietly withdrew the proposition, he has still not relinquished power and does not appear eager to do so anytime soon. He was scheduled to step down in December 2016 but has repeatedly postponed elections, citing budgetary concerns and an insufficient electoral infrastructure.

To further consolidate his rule, Kabila has also engaged in attempts to marginalise the political opposition as much as possible. Most notably, this has involved efforts to sideline the charismatic former provincial governor Moïse Katumbi, who is widely believed to be the biggest threat to Kabila’s rule. Katumbi is currently in self-imposed exile after being sentenced to three years in prison in absentia for real estate fraud – charges which he claims are politically motivated. The government has also denied Katumbi a passport and raised his Italian citizenship in attempts to bar his candidacy, but Katumbi has vowed to return to the DRC by June notwithstanding such threats.

Katumbi’s resolve may be laudable, but there is a chance it may come to nothing in the end. Kabila’s ongoing efforts to both hinder his opponent and forestall the elections altogether are increasingly concerning for a country whose populace has been irreparably damaged by his obstinacy. At present, 13 million Congolese are in need of humanitarian aid, 7.7 million are facing severe food insecurity and millions more have been internally displaced. Regardless, Kabila has vowed to boycott an upcoming international fundraiser which aims to contribute $1.7 billion towards aid efforts in the country, claiming there is no crisis to speak of.

African democracy in the balance

Of course, Kabila’s continuing occupation of the presidency and his flagrant disregard for the health of his own citizens are blatant breaches of national and international law. Others in the region, such as Museveni and Kagame, are achieving similarly self-interested ends while still operating within the realm of legality. It’s perhaps this manipulation of both their own people and the international community which is the most concerning aspect of their behavior, representing as it does an abhorrent – but entirely legal – slide into political corruption and authoritarianism.