KAMPALA, Uganda – A quiet debate over who will succeed Uganda's long-serving leader is getting louder as more Ugandans start to imagine a life after President Yoweri Museveni, who said last month that he does not wish to rule beyond age 75.
Museveni, who is in his late sixties, has held sway over Uganda since 1986 when he captured power by force as a guerilla fighter. He now faces fierce competition from an opposition emboldened by his old age and by his diminishing prestige within his own party. Even Christian clerics usually noted for their discretion have joined a popular campaign to limit Museveni's hold on the presidency, saying they constantly pray for his departure.
Museveni says in his autobiography that he was born "about the year 1944." He says he uses the word "about" because his parents don't remember the date of his birth. Some of Museveni's opponents say he is possibly older and should retire.
An opinion poll released late last month found that most Ugandans looked forward to the day Museveni goes. Ugandan pollster Patrick Wakida, whose firm Research World International released results of the poll, said on Monday that most Ugandans do not want Museveni to seek more time in office when his current term expires in 2016. Museveni has not said if he will run again.
"Within the National Resistance Movement people have outgrown the personality of Museveni," Wakida said, referring to Museveni's party. "They think that they can live without him. This is very interesting because now Museveni is less popular than his party."
Museveni told a television interviewer last month that he will respect a constitutional provision that prevents him from ruling past his 75th birthday, calming fears he would attempt to have the age limit removed from the constitution.
In 2005, in a corrupt maneuver slammed by diplomats as a backward step for democracy in Uganda, Museveni had presidential term limits removed so he could get more time in office.
Now a popular movement to restore term limits, opposed by Museveni, is gaining momentum. It is backed by clerics and independent activists who say Museveni's example is not good for Uganda. A prominent Anglican cleric named Zac Niringiye has been traveling around the country to bolster support for the restoration of term limits.
"There is hope for Uganda because this country does not belong to Museveni and his clique," said Miria Matembe, a former cabinet minister who parted ways with Museveni after he had term limits removed. "Uganda belongs to Ugandans, and I do believe that in Uganda there are so many people who can effectively steer this country to prosperity."
A new State Department report on human rights says Uganda's most serious problems are lack of respect for the integrity of the person, unwarranted restrictions on civil liberties, and violence and discrimination against marginalized groups.
Uganda has not had a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1962, and some critics say Museveni's violent crackdown on opposition activists makes him look like the dictators he once fought.
"People are no longer threatened by the past," said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of political history at Uganda's Makerere University, referring to the violent record of Uganda's former leaders that Museveni usually cites to justify sticking around. "Especially in the urban areas, there is a new atmosphere that suggests that the ground seems to be shifting."
Speculation on Museveni's possible successor has focused on First Lady Janet Museveni, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister, as well as House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who, according to recent polling, is the politician favored by most Ugandans to succeed Museveni.
Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a Kampala-based lawyer and political analyst, said Museveni is in a "difficult position" because his favorites are either tainted by corruption or would come across as terrible choices for national cohesion.
"I think Museveni would prefer to stay around," Rwakafuuzi said. "In the end he may have to fall back on his wife, but she carries the baggage of being Museveni's wife."
Most analysts predict the army would have a say over who would replace Museveni, especially if he left power violently, and that he would attempt to pick his replacement. Museveni has long been accused of grooming his son, an army colonel who commands the most elite unit of the Ugandan military, to take over.
Kalundi Serumaga, a Kampala-based political activist, said the challenge for Museveni as he considers retirement will be how to keep the interests of everyone in his close circle intact when he transfers power to someone else.
"If they wanted to save the country, as opposed to saving themselves, then they would form a government of national unity," Serumaga said.