By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Ugandan legislators voted late on Wednesday to amend the country’s constitution to allow 73-year-old leader Yoweri Museveni to extend his rule, potentially guaranteeing him a life-time presidency.
A provision in the current constitution limits the age of a presidential candidate at 75 years, which would have made Museveni ineligible to stand at the next polls in 2021.
At the end of Wednesday’s day-long House debate, which capped a protracted and violence-marred process to remove that age limit, MPs voted 315-62 in favour of the amendment.
“The bill passes,” said speaker Rebecca Kadaga after announcing tally results, prompting raucous celebrations from the mostly ruling party MPs who favoured the bill.
Earlier in the day, two lawmakers were dragged away and detained when they tried to enter parliament, as the divisive debate proceeded in the chamber.
Police had blocked some legislators from entering the building, and live television footage showed two of them being driven away in security vehicles. Both opposed the bill.
The legislators blocked by police were attempting to enter parliament to serve court documents on House speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who was presiding over the debate.
The document called on her to appear in court at 2:00 PM in respect of “the irregular suspension of our members of parliament,” independent lawmaker Wilfred Niwagaba told a local television station minutes before he was detained.
Six MPs - all opposed to removal of the age cap - were suspended from parliamentary proceedings on Monday for alleged disorderly conduct and refusing to heed the speaker’s instructions.
The bill to amend the constitution was introduced in parliament on October 4 by a Museveni loyalist, after two consecutive days of brawling in the debating chamber between those opposed and those in favour, supported by security personnel.
On the second day, security personnel who some MPs said were soldiers from an elite military unit entered the chamber and violently ejected at least 25 MPs that the speaker had suspended from proceedings for alleged misconduct.
Wednesday’s vote was the second time Ugandan parliament has changed the constitution to allow Museveni extend his rule. In 2005, they voted to remove a limit of two five-year terms, which blocked him from standing again.
The bill also extended the length of a term for MPs to seven years from the current five. The limit of two terms was also re-imposed for the president, although that only means Museveni would be limited to two more terms, starting with the 2021 election.
“Are you not seeing what happened in Zimbabwe, do we want his excellency to end like Gaddafi of Libya,” opposition legislator, Gilbert Olanya, who opposed to the amendment, said in Wednesday’s debate as he attempted to persuade colleagues to reject it.
Several African leaders have amended laws designed to limit their tenure. Such moves have fuelled violence in countries including Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Initially hailed for restoring political order and fostering economic growth, Museveni has lately come under mounting pressure fuelled by runaway corruption, and accusations he uses security forces to maintain his grip on power.
A combination of both military and police personnel were heavily deployed around parliament this week, which opposition MPs say was meant to intimidate members.
Reporting by Elias Biryabarema, editing by Katharine Houreld and John Stonestreet