On Monday, there was debate at Makerere University, in Kampala, on the implications of the Kenyan Supreme Court decision to nullify the August 8 presidential election result on Uganda and the region’s democracy.
Opinion was divided. Some saw the green shoots of new democracy. Several thought the Kenyan justices were downright reckless.
It was interesting that the question was asked at all.
The day after the debate, the parliamentary caucus of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) met and, except for one, voted to amend the Constitution and remove the 75-year age limit, opening the way for President Yoweri Museveni to become president-for-life.
It was reported that a formal motion would make its way to Parliament on Thursday.
East Africa rarely travels in the same direction politically. Yes, on things like HIV/Aids, creating revenue authorities ... those kinds of social and economic initiatives ... they learn from each other. But when it comes to politics, nah!
In December 2002, Mwai Kibaki won the election to end Kanu’s 38-year rule. His Narc coalition became the first opposition to win an election and take power in the East African Community (EAC).
In 2005, Uganda had a constitutional referendum that ended the “no-party” rule, allowing a return to conventional multiparty politics but, in a clawback, also scrapped the presidential term limit.
The country’s 1995 constitution had entrenched the “no-party” system — an elegant name for single-party rule, three years after Kenya returned to multipartyism in 1992.
Tanzania and Kenya have the traditional two terms for president. Burundi went up in flames in 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza forced through an interpretation of the term limit that was based on dodgy maths.
Basically, it was that he could not leave power because his first term was the equivalent of an appetiser at dinner. A kind of jaribu (taster). Only the next two, the main course, counted.
Now there are noises that they should get rid of the damn thing altogether.
Last year, there was a constitutional referendum that enabled Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to vie for another seven-year term — which he duly did in August and won with 99 per cent. Under the amended Constitution, all this ends in 2024. Then the country will shift to a two-term limit, now reduced to five years each.
Kagame will be eligible to contest, if he so wishes, and serve at most two terms.
Tanzania — or rather, the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) — has something none of the other EAC states do.
RULE FOR LIFE
Of the main governing parties, only CCM has a term limit for its leaders. Outside of Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), this is unlikely to become common practice.
In Kenya, there is actually no need for that: No party seems able to survive long enough any more for anyone to rule it for life.
South Sudan ... well, we shall do the merciful thing and not include it here.
East African leaders, then, seem to be very afraid of ‘political contagion’; therefore, we are likely see a pushback against judicial independence. It will be a while before another David Maraga gets appointed as Chief Justice elsewhere in the region.
The question, then, is why we have this asymmetry in the EAC. Strangely, it could be how the bloc succeeds, not how it fails. Rwanda’s capital Kigali is famed for a level of orderliness and cleanliness its regional peers can only dream of. But for Kigali to get a return on its investment in being a smart city, its peers need to be dirty.
For Nairobi to be the region’s leading financial hub, its regional competitors need to be a little backward in that regard.
When Uganda was shopping for a route for its oil pipeline, it was courted by both Kenya and Tanzania. In the end, it went with Tanzania.
With less political hassles over land, compensation, and freed of the free market ravenousness that bumped up the cost of the pipeline through Kenya, President John Magufuli was able to give Museveni a sweeter deal.
Were Tanzania’s economic and political set-up exactly like Kenya’s, Uganda would still have done a deal to build the oil pipeline. However, it would have paid a lot more to get it.
Tanzania is content to have presidential term limits. But perhaps it’s happier in the knowledge that Museveni will be around for another 10 or 15 years to ensure the pipeline pays off for Dar es Salaam.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com; [email protected]