When the police arrived to break up the protest, Muhammad Ssebuuma and his fellow students knelt.
“We put our hands up and started singing the national anthem,” said Ssebuuma (23), who is studying education at Makerere University in Uganda’s capital Kampala.
It was meant as a gesture symbolising peace in a country where many believe the veteran president, Yoweri Museveni, whose political future dominates the national agenda, has brought them to their hands and knees.
“We thought the police would sympathise with us. Instead, we were beaten and arrested. I was beaten on the back with a baton,” said Ssebuuma.
The students are not alone in expressing fears that Museveni, in power since 1986, might be overstaying his welcome.
This week, chaos over an age limit debate broke out in Parliament. MPs hurled chairs, shoved each other and came to blows, while protests once again took place across the East African country.
Uganda’s Constitution bars candidates under the age of 35 and over 75 from running for president, which means that Museveni, who is supposedly 73, would be ineligible for running in 2021 elections.
The president, one of Africa’s longest serving, came to power after the civil war that unseated Milton Obote, and won a fifth consecutive term in an election last year.
Now the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) wants to scrap presidential age limits altogether. The controversial motion, introduced by NRM MP Raphael Magyezi, was due to be debated on Tuesday, but the vote had to be adjourned after scuffles broke out between Museveni’s supporters and opposition MPs, who donned red headbands to symbolise their struggle.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda (44), who has been in Parliament since 1998 — first as a reporter and now as an MP with the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party — told the Mail & Guardian: “There was pandemonium, something I have not seen in my life. I saw chairs flying, chairs turned into weapons. People hit each other. One MP fell on the ground and I saw people stamping on him.”
There has been talk of amending the Constitution for months, and the controversial motion was originally expected to be raised in Parliament on September 21. It did not come to fruition then, but led to demonstrations across Uganda on the day, with the biggest protests held at Makerere University. Police fired teargas and rubber bullets at students.
“It was very, very bloody,” said Brian Katana (24), a law student at Makerere. “The people are tired of this dictator. The future of this nation belongs to us, not to the 70- and 80- and 90[-year-olds]. These guys will be dying soon.”
Uganda’s police chief Kale Kayihura had issued a statement on September 20, claiming there were “groups who intend to cause violence and mayhem particularly in [Kampala] targeting Parliament”.
He said, although “police recognises and has always facilitated the exercise of the right to demonstrate peacefully and unarmed”, the authorities had to “keep law and order [and] prevent crime, as well as protect life and property”.
But the defiant protesters the M&G spoke to, including Katana and Ssebuuma, estimated there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people scattered across Makerere the next day, and blamed police for an over-zealous response.
Katana said he set off from the university’s Freedom Square to Parliament in a group of about 150. Some students carried placards reading “k’ogilkwatoko”, which means “If you touch, you are likely to get in trouble with us” in the Luganda language, according to Katana.
But they only walked about 1.5km before the authorities appeared.
Two students were shot, according to Katana and his fellow protesters, and about 45 students were arrested.
There were reports that students had hurled stones at the police.
Katana said the police also broke into dormitories, sprayed teargas, undressed some students and bundled them on to police trucks.
Local media quoted police as saying 48 students had been arrested, but one newspaper said the figure could be higher, with scores of people arrested around Kampala.
Many, including Ssebuuma, spent the night in jail.
Some Ugandans wondered how the police could be so effective in breaking up this protest, yet so ineffective at preventing crime — such as the murders of at least 23 women over the past few months.
Magyezi, who introduced the controversial age Bill, condemned police violence, but reiterated his support for the motion to scrap age limits.
The 57-year-old politician said Uganda’s Supreme Court had ordered electoral reforms, and that this particular reform applied to all Ugandans and not just the current leader.
‘It’s not for Museveni [to stand again] at all. Power belongs to the people to elect a leader of their choice,” said Magyezi, although he did admit he admired the president.
On Wednesday, during another Parliamentary fracas, Magyezi’s motion to introduce the Bill was approved with a resounding “aye” from ruling party MPs. Magyezi said he already had “adequate numbers” to push the Bill through, and that it could be passed — with the necessary two-thirds majority — between December and March next year.
Kizza Besigye, the leader of FDC, told M&G that it was “quite likely that Parliament, largely procured by Mr M7 [Museveni] with state funds, security machinery and a controlled electoral commission will pass the amendment”.
He said the FDC, Uganda’s biggest opposition party, would pursue a “nonviolent struggle for democratic transition”, which would involve mobilising Ugandans to “paralyse the National Resistance Movement politically, economically and socially”.
Besigye was arrested on Tuesday, when he attempted to rally supporters in downtown Kampala, who opposed the removal of the age limit.
Meanwhile, Museveni has appeared uninterested in the debate — at least publicly — branding it “idle talk” and saying he was “busy”, according to local reports.
In early September, while speaking at the launch of an inaugural Nelson Mandela memorial lecture at Makerere, the president said it wasn’t good for a country to have leaders who ruled for a short time.
“Mandela did not have time,” Museveni was quoted as saying. “Some people think being in government for a short time is good. I think it is a bad thing.”
While many Ugandans were watching the Parliamentary melee on TV on Tuesday, Sulaiman Matovu (40), a motorbike taxi driver was working.
“Uganda developed. We are working. We are at peace. Before we were sleeping,” he said of Museveni’s time in office. “The president is good,” and “of course” he wanted Museveni to stand for another term.
But lawyer and youth leader Andrew Karamagi said moves to scrap the age limit represented the ongoing shrinking of space for civil society in the Great Lakes region.
Museveni, he said, had “certainly mentored ballot thieves and tomorrow’s despots”.
“You cannot point to a single country in the region that doesn’t bear his footprints or at least fingerprints.”
But, Karamagi said, Museveni is “running out of tricks and money to buy off allies and time”.