Civic space restricted as age limit debate continues

As reported previously on the Monitor, the Ugandan government has been considering amending the constitution to remove presidential age limits through a private member's bill in parliament, which would allow President Yoweri Museveni, believed to be 73 years old, to stand again in the 2021 election for a sixth term. The proposed constitutional amendment would be the second major change to Uganda’s 20-year-old constitution that directly favours Museveni’s continued stay in power – a 2005 amendment removed term limits after his two elective terms. The plans to amend the constitution has sparked public debate and prompted protests among the general public, university students and opposition members. 

The ruling National Resistance Movement party planned to initiate a parliamentary debate on the constitutional amendment on 21st September; however, chaos in the parliament ensued as MPs began to threaten one another. The government’s decision to surround the building with security forces ahead of the debate also sparked outrage, with many MPs being frisked and all but denied access to parliament by heavily armed security officers. As a result, the bill was postponed and supposed to be introduced for parliamentary debate on 26th September, but chaos erupted again in the House when the Speaker allowed the motion, while MPs accused each other of having weapons and others threw chairs and threatened to exchange punches. The motion was again postponed. The Uganda Communications Commission then issued a statement warning radio and TV stations against broadcasting live content that "promotes a culture of violence among the public," saying it would take action against anyone violating broadcasting guidelines by suspending or revoking broadcasting licences. 

More violence erupted in the House the very next day on 27th September, as members of the Special Forces Command stormed the building to physically evict 25 MPs who were suspended from their roles by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga. Members used microphone stands, chairs, and fists to protect their suspended colleagues, some of whom were violently dragged out of the chamber. Kadaga then suspended House business with heavy military and police presence around the government building.

These events follow a trend that began in the lead-up to the 21st September debate over the bill in which the authorities cracked down on civil society and opposition party activities as well as any anti-amendment protests planned in the country.

Association

On 20th September 2017, police and state security officials stormed ActionAid Uganda's head office in Kansanga, Kampala. All staff in the office at the time were prevented from leaving, as the police thoroughly searched the premises, went through documents and confiscated some staff members' cellphones and laptops. The Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLiSS) offices in Ntinda, Kampala, were also raided and cordoned off by police officers, while GLiSS Executive Director Godber Tumushabe was not allowed to leave the premises. A group of 22 civil society groups gathered at the GLiSS offices in an act of solidarity and declared that: 

"We would like to send a reminder to (President) Museveni and all government actors in support of lifting the presidential age limit that it's [treasonable] to try to overthrow the Constitution as laid down in Article 3 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda and as such, is punishable by law". 

The mayor of Kampala city, Erias Lukwago, was arrested on 21st September 2017 at his home in Wakaliga, Rubaga district in Kampala. Lukwago and several other city officials planned to hold a procession on that day from city hall to the city square to launch their campaign 'Togikwatako Drive' against removing the constitutionally-mandated presidential age limit.

Peaceful Assembly

The authorities banned any anti-amendment protests (#agelimitug and #agelimit) on 21st September, when the parliament planned to debate the constitutional amendment to remove the presidential age limit. In a statement justifying the ban, Police Chief Kale Kayihura claimed that "the planned protest was intended to cause violence and mayhem", and instead Kayihura urged demonstrators to use "indoor meetings" to express their opinions. 

Hundreds of students at Makerere University who had planned a march to the parliament to deliver a petition defied the ban on 21st September. In response to violating the ban, armed police officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the students. According to Africanews, five students were arrested and police sealed off the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change's office to prevent a similar march to the parliament. 

Regardless of the ban, by the end of the day of the postponed parliamentary debate on 26th September, age limit protests had spread to Mbale, Arua, Mbarara, Masaka and Pader. Several key opposition members were arrested, including six members from the Forum for Democratic Change, four-time presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, and East African Legislative Assembly Member Fred Mukasa Mbidde. 

Expression

In the lead-up to the parliamentary discussion on the constitutional amendment, journalists - including journalists covering protests - were arrested, harassed and assaulted. On 13th September, police officers assaulted and confiscated the equipment of journalists in Entebbe covering the opposition party's campaign against the age limit amendment. Ssebalamu Kigongo of Bukedde TV station was manhandled by security forces, and Sande Ssebagala of NBS TV was assaulted, his shirt torn, and his camera confiscated. 

Police also arrested and detained five journalists on 20th September who were covering a press conference organised by youth activists, including Akatuhurira Nelson and Livingstone Matovu of B24 TV, Bulegeya Ronnie of Dream Television, Kyambadde Lawrence of Salt Media and Titus Jjemba of BBS TV.

Four journalists covering the protests on 26th September were also arrested: Denis Engena with NBSTV, freelance journalist Martin Ongom, Robert Kalibongo, and Isaac Otwii, a freelance journalist with the Daily Monitor.