Uganda’s 73-year-old president has a plan to rule forever

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“THIS is a generational cause,” says Bobi Wine, back in his studio after a long day in parliament. In June the singer and self-styled “Ghetto President” (real name: Robert Kyagulanyi) won a sensational victory in a parliamentary by-election. Now he is the spokesman for Uganda’s frustrated youth in a struggle to stop Yoweri Museveni, the actual president, from extending his rule. “All the power has been packed into the presidency,” he says. “We want to take it back to the people.”

Mr Museveni used to say similar things himself, blaming Africa’s problems on “leaders who want to overstay in power”. But after 31 years at the top he has changed his mind. Politicians in his ruling party are trying to scrap a clause in the constitution which says candidates must be no older than 75 to run for president. The goal is to let Mr Museveni, 73, stand again in 2021—and probably rule for life.

There were fist-fights and flying chairs on September 26th as Mr Museveni’s supporters tried to start the process in parliament. The opposition stalled things by incessant singing of the national anthem. The next day MPs such as Mr Wine were dragged out of the chamber by security forces and the proceedings began. The amendment needs a two-thirds majority to pass, and almost certainly will. The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has a thumping majority and most MPs are pliable. The legislature has helped Mr Museveni out once before, voting in 2005 to remove term limits. On that occasion MPs were each given 5m shillings (then about $2,500), officially to “facilitate” discussions with constituents.

Still, the state is taking no chances. Three-quarters of Ugandans want the age limit to stay, according to a survey in January by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network. Demonstrations have been banned. Police have tear-gassed protesting students and raided the offices of two civil-society groups. The mayor of Kampala, the capital, who opposes the bill, was arrested in the middle of a television interview and bundled into a police van.

This is not the “fundamental change” that Mr Museveni promised when he took power in 1986 at the head of a rebel army. He restored stability to most of the country, which had been torn apart by dictatorship and war. Simeo Nsubuga, an NRM MP, says Ugandans should be grateful to Mr Museveni for ending “20 years of turmoil, suffering and killings”. Many are. But four out of five Ugandans are too young to remember those days.

Instead, the young complain about crumbling services and too few jobs. For the first quarter-century under Mr Museveni growth in income per person averaged 3% a year; in the past five years it has been just 1%. Yet few dare take their grievances to the streets. Even the young “live under the canopy of history”, notes Angelo Izama, a local pundit. Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power, and few citizens think Mr Museveni would ever leave office without a fight. The old warrior sometimes dons his uniform, a reminder that this is still, in some respects, a military regime. Last November over 150 people were killed during army operations in the restless Rwenzori mountains.

Meanwhile Mr Museveni is the pivot on which power turns, intervening in everything from land disputes to the regulation of motorbike taxis. When a minister showed up recently to address local leaders, they hurled water and chased him away; only the president would do, they said. “There are no institutions,” sighs Anna Adeke, a 25-year-old MP. “Everything can be changed by a phone call.”

So “the old man with a hat” will carry on, at once the guarantor of stability and the greatest threat to it. The age-limit clause is “the last remaining check to ensure an orderly succession”, says Frederick Ssempebwa, a lawyer who helped draft the constitution. Without it, he adds, the president is “almost invincible”. Yet one day Mr Museveni will die and Uganda, its politics warped by the whims of one man, will face uncertainty once again.