A militarised police force, weak opposition and power-hungry president are no laughing matter
THE BRAWL that convulsed Uganda’s parliament on September 27th was widely considered the worst parliamentary scrap in the country’s history. Lawmakers threw punches, hurled chairs and brandished microphone stands as weapons. The images were replayed around the world, including on “The Daily Show”, an American comedy programme. “We can go into the reasons they’re fighting,” said the host, Trevor Noah, chuckling at the chaos, “but the truth is you don’t really care.” And yet the reasons are important. Last week’s mêlée was neither a comic interlude, nor an accidental flare-up. Instead, it occurred during a raid on parliament by state security forces, itself a symptom of Uganda’s broken politics. What has gone wrong?
The immediate cause is an attempt by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to remove presidential age limits from the constitution, allowing the 73-year-old leader, Yoweri Museveni, to run again in 2021. He has won five imperfect elections since 1986, when he seized power at the head of a rebel army. But the army has never fully disentangled itself from politics. In the incident last week, plain-clothes security operatives violently ejected 27 opposition MPs who had been disrupting discussion of the motion on age limits. The raid was led by the national police chief, himself an army general, and was followed by accusations that it involved members of an elite army unit. The broadcast regulator warned television stations not to show live coverage of any violence. Many Ugandans were reminded of events in 1966, Uganda’s first tumble into dictatorship, when soldiers were deployed outside parliament and MPs passed a constitution they had never read.
The parliament’s speaker defended the expulsion of the opposition MPs, which she said was necessary to restore order. The previous day, which also saw fistfights, they had drowned out proceedings with defiant singing of the national anthem. These politicians have resorted to such tactics because they lack the one-third of votes necessary to vote down the constitutional amendment. The state makes it fiendishly difficult for them to organise. Those attending opposition rallies have been teargassed, and state resources get used in ways that help NRM candidates. Furthermore opposition politicians are disunited, have little clear strategy, and are overly focused on winning the presidency (itself hugely unlikely), rather than building their strength in parliament. Kizza Besigye, the main opposition candidate, officially won 36% of the vote in the last presidential election. If his party had garnered the same proportion of seats they would be able, at least on paper, to block the age-limit bill.
The furore around the age limit seems remote to many Ugandans, who see little prospect of anything being done about it. They are more worried about another amendment, which would make it easier for the government to acquire land. Unlike some of its neighbours, Uganda remains a largely peaceful place. But its politics are increasingly about one thing: keeping Mr Museveni in power. He has long distrusted party political contests, on which he blames the divisions of Uganda’s violent past. And he makes a habit of bypassing institutions to intervene personally on all sorts of matters. The more that institutions are eroded, the more indispensable he can claim to be. With an eye for satire, Ugandans have parodied the parliamentary brawl online, or made calendars portraying MPs as action heroes. Their humour is tinged with resignation.