NAIROBI, Kenya – A bid to limit the tenure of Uganda's longtime president looks set to fail, Ugandan politicians said Wednesday, as ruling party officials argue he needs more time than the 26 years he has already served.
But critics and opposition politicians say the ruling party's reluctance to limit President Yoweri Museveni to two more terms is a sign he is interested in ruling for life. Museveni originally seized power in the East African nation in 1986. His term ends in 2016.
Presidential spokesman Tamale Mirundi said those who want Museveni gone are merely afraid to compete with him.
"What they are saying is that they want to give the president 10 years," Mirundi said. "He needs more time ... This is not the most important issue at the moment. What does it solve to remove term limits?"
He said Museveni had brought peace and prosperity to Uganda.
He said: "Why should I remove the padlock that has protected my house in a neighborhood where there are robbers?"
Museveni removed the two-term limit in 2005, a year before he sought his third term. He said the limits were an obstacle to democracy since he was still popular among Ugandans.
"The question of term limits is quite important because Uganda has never seen a peaceful transfer of power," said Frederick Sempebwa, a Kampala-based constitutional lawyer who in 2001 led a review of the constitution that preserved term limits. "Our fear is that if this president goes on and on you never know what will happen. There may not be a smooth transition."
Museveni is now one of Africa's longest-serving rulers. Only four have been around longer: Paul Biya of Cameroon, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.
Museveni has not said if he is interested in another term after 2016, but critics say it is clear he will run again. They point to the brutality of the police, who have made it impossible for opposition groups to hold rallies in Kampala, as well as his reluctance to discuss the question of succession.
Parliamentarians who support the bill say it would allow Museveni to redeem his record as a democrat while at the same time be able to seek 10 more years in office — by which time he will be in his late 70s.
Gerald Karuhanga, an independent lawmaker who is presenting the bill, said he was disappointed that Museveni's circle did not find the prospect of 10 more years good enough. The bill has not yet been introduced in Parliament.
"That would mean that he wants to be president beyond 2026," he said. "We are watching to see if these (parliamentarians) are for the party or for the country."
Museveni's party holds an overwhelming majority in the national assembly, and parliamentarians are compelled to vote as a bloc. Those who resist face the risk of being alienated.
Bills seen as potentially hostile to Museveni or unfavorable to his political interests struggle to gain momentum and eventually die. A recent move to impeach Museveni quickly gained popularity and then faded after its proponents failed to get enough support among parliamentarians.
"It is difficult to hold free and fair elections when the incumbent has no limits to the number of times he can run for office," said Livingstone Sewanyana, who runs a Kampala-based rights watchdog called Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.
Western diplomats have warned that Uganda is sliding backward on democracy and good governance, and some opposition politicians increasingly accuse Museveni of behaving like former Ugandan dictators. They say he has successfully manipulated institutions of government to the point where his interests must be considered before important decisions are made.
This month, Uganda's attorney general banned a political advocacy group called Activists for Change, which had been organizing popular street demonstrations against official corruption and the high cost of living. The official also decreed it was illegal for journalists to report and write about the group's activities.
A police officer was suspended this week for fondling and then squeezing the breasts of the group's founder, Ingrid Turinawe. She has since said she was a victim of "sexual terrorism."
"There is a desire within the political class for Museveni to have his last term," said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, who teaches political history at Makerere University in Kampala. "But this bill has little chance of success if Museveni does not want it. Museveni does not believe in liberal democracy."