Debate on the removal of presidential age caps from the Constitution has sharply split MPs within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
Among those who have broken ranks with the establishment, is Kabarole Woman MP Sylvia Rwabwogo, a single-minded first-termer who publicly rejected Constitution Amendment (No 2) Bill, which seeks to amend Article 102 (b) to remove the lower and upper presidential age limits of 35 and 75 years.
She spoke to Olive Eyotaru about her stand and why the NRM must not impose its position on legislators.
You have expressed strong views against the lifting of the age limit, even defying the NRM caucus position on this matter…
My view is that Uganda is speaking and the voices out there need to be heard, listened to and considered as well. Although we know there are other contrary voices to what has been proposed, both sides need to come together because at the end of the day we don’t need to be divided by our divergent views. Nobody is willing to listen to dissenting voices from within the NRM and the opposition. This is not about opposing the government but a Constitution, which concerns every Ugandan, irrespective of their age. It will affect us either today or tomorrow, whether we are there or not. I don’t think we should handle it as an internal NRM thing; that I should be loyal to my party and forget that at the end of the day, it is about Ugandans and the future of all of us.
You were one of the NRM MPs who were kicked out of the party caucus over your dissenting views. Had you anticipated that?
When we were invited to that caucus, I knew it was time for us to communicate to our colleagues who we do not agree with on the age limit issue. I thought we would be listened to. Right from the beginning, the NRM has never discussed this issue but forced it on the people. A few people sat down and made their resolution to support the [Igara West MP Raphael] Magyezi bill and then they want to force it on everyone. I thought I was fighting with my mind on one side because my conscience tells me that it [bill] is not right for the future of this country. We cannot say we want to be in Uganda and not have standards for people who want to govern this country. We thought we would talk about these issues. It is not about opening up for the youths because it is more than that. How many youths will be able to stand for president? Will they deal with the other issues hindering youths from running for president like funds? We need to remain with safeguards in the Constitution. The people who came before us in 2005 removed the term limits and one of the strong arguments I understand they put up was that the age limit is there. Now that the age limit may be removed, what next? Power belongs to the people and I have listened to people in my area and outside. Those voices should not be ignored because it is about their future. I am not forcing my idea on them but I want their views to come out, unlike the manner in which we are being forced to take a position in NRM. The consultations are not about convincing people. Some people are paying money to people, sometimes taking people to sign for it like they did with veterans in my district. If the people of Kabarole are left free to decide against my stand, I shall bring their views to Parliament.
Aren’t you afraid that your stand will be used by the party to fight you in the constituency?
Some members of parliament are really scared. I did not know it would come to this and I wished it had come at the end of the term. We are standing at crossroads; the demand from our party; then the fight with our conscience and the will of the people. If I follow my conscience, I will live with it forever. I would not lose it and lose my soul for anything because we are here in parliament in passing. Maybe I will be here for one term but I would not want to tie my decisions to the interest of coming back to parliament. Most people are actually afraid and think that if they say something contrary to the party position, they will be fought in the constituencies. Who says that people who have lost elections have been fought by government? We have seen people who have returned to parliament when they have taken decisions contrary to government positions.
So, are you persuading some NRM members you think are quietly opposed to the removal of age limits to join you?
We are talking with these people. We are not enemies and those we are talking to are willing to support us but still fear being torn between listening to their people and listening to the government. That is the dilemma they are faced with. If we are going to divide ourselves for every decision, at the end of the day Uganda will not be one. We must enjoy our country irrespective of our tribal and political inclinations. I still belong to the NRM party and don’t hate it or my president. When I say this, people think I am trying to hide my decision but it is firm and I am not doing it in hatred. I am not even looking at any other party but I want to serve NRM objectively, and not against my conscience. I have been in this party for the last 10 years; so, when I disagree with them objectively, I think I have the right to do so. If you are vulnerable to anything, you will not be able to make a decision. There are many women who think like we do but for one reason or another, they fear to come out. Being a journalist by profession, it is within my training that you have to be objective at all times.
The NRM issued guidelines calling on its members to consult small, carefully chosen groups of people. Is that workable for you?
The regulations we are getting from the party are that we call party and religious leaders. I don’t want to be selective and I am not a delegate. I am a representative of [all] the people, not a selected section of the people. I do not only represent women, but represent all. These are matters for all Ugandans; so, we are going out to consult the general public. I am not campaigning or holding general rallies and speaking against this matter. I will educate them about the advantages of either decision. Depending on the majority’s decision, I will reserve my personal views in their favour. I have already held some meetings in light of these proposed amendments and it is overwhelming that the people do not support the removal of the presidential age limit. I have people from neighbouring districts backing me.
On Monday, parliament disbursed Shs 13 billion to legislators (each MP allocated Shs 29 million) to hold consultative meetings on the age limit bill. Are you going to take it?
We have discussed so much about the money and our colleagues in the opposition say that when we take that money, you are being bribed. The money for consultation is a right to every member of parliament, irrespective of their party. So, if I say I will not take the money and consult the people, whose money am I going to use? This is not a personal Constitution like I am doing it for my family. I am doing this because I am an MP and it is one of the roles that are facilitated outside the normal facilitation that we get. I have spoken to my people about the money and they have told me to use the money because how will I hire the tents, mobile system and run radio announcements on the consultation meetings. I must take the money as a right, not because I am going to decide otherwise, but to facilitate my trips because these are extraordinary [meetings]. I have been telling my colleagues that we take the facilitation because it is from parliament, not from anyone.
Written by Olive Eyotaru, in The Observer, 25.12.17 © Congoindépendant 2003-2017