NOTHIN' BUT A NUMBER

Uganda has moved one step closer to having a president for life

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Over the past few months as Ugandans argue over a proposal to scrap age limits for presidential candidates, a joke has circulated on WhatsApp. Just change president Yoweri Museveni’s birth certificate. “This would save us lots of money,” the message reads. “Changing one’s date of birth doesn’t require [a constitutional] amendment.

Ugandan lawmakers this week agreed to table a bill to remove rules barring anyone over the age of 75 from running for the country’s highest office. As the joke implies, the measure is indeed aimed at extending Museveni’s tenure. The 73-year old president, already in power for more than three decades, will be two years over the age limit when the country holds its next general election in 2021. If approved, he could stay in office for the rest of his life.

The bill, to be introduced on the floor later this week, comes almost seven years after Uganda removed term limits in 2005, allowing the president to seek a third term. The president, a former rebel who helped topple the dictator Idi Amin, has been accused of suppressing political dissent, sanctioning government corruption, and ignoring human rights violations.

The gap between Africa’s young population and its aging leaders is by now a cliche. The world’s 10 youngest countries are in Africa, where the median age is just under 20 years old. By contrast, more than 20 African leaders are over the age of 70. During election season, longtime leaders from Uganda to the Gambia have cut the forms of communications most used by young people—social media and messaging platforms.

Still, some things are changing. Uganda’s age limit bill also proposes that anyone over the age of 18 be allowed to run for parliament and the presidency. In Nigeria, lawmakers voted in July to lower the age requirements to 35 from 40, and for governorships, to 30 from 35. Others are also tinkering with age limit rules. Gambia’s new president Adama Barrow, 52, who defeated long-time leader Yahyeh Jammeh, threw out a constitutional age limit in March to allow his vice president to assume office.

Museveni, born sometime in August 1944, according to his own research, says he doesn’t know the exact date of his birthday. Last month, his office posted photos of him crosschecking church documents showing his baptism date of Aug. 3, 1947. Critics accused the president of trying to suggest he was more than two years younger than he is, which would put him just within the existing age requirements, but Museveni said he was only celebrating 70 years of being a Christian. According to Museveni’s own memoir, Sowing the Mustard Seed, he was two years old at the time.

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