New Wave of Political Change Blows Through Eastern Africa

Rwandan President Paul Kagame greets supporters during a campaign rally in 2017. Despite a recent change of guard in the ruling party Rwanda Patriotic Front, Kagame remains the party chairman, and hence the presidential candidate in the 2024 elections. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

A wave of political change is blowing through East Africa, with the ruling parties battling to garner the support of the younger generations to stay in power.

A growing agitation for change — and the permission for it — is returning to the region in what may signal progress in democracy.

The latest trends in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda upend pre-Covid-era developments in which critics and opposition figures were detained or forced into exile.

There is also an urgency within the political parties to trigger generational leadership change in an effort to maintain a grip on power.

Rwanda in transition

In Rwanda, the ruling party Rwanda Patriotic Front, RPF-Inkotanyi, has recently seen a change of guard in its National Executive Committee, bringing in a relatively younger secretary-general and its first woman vice-chairperson.

President Paul Kagame, however, remains the party chairman, and hence the presidential candidate in the 2024 elections.

The RPF, which is 35-years-old, has been facing a challenge of maintaining stability and popularity among voters born after the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Government figures show that 65.3 percent of the Rwandan population is under 30, meaning that they were born after the genocide.

Changes in party

It is perhaps this realisation that informed the changes in the party at its 16th national congress last weekend, which saw diplomat Wellars Gasamagera handed the reins as secretary-general, to replace François Ngarambe, who had held the position for 21 years.

Consolee Uwimana was elected vice-chairperson at the congress, which also marked RPF’s 35th anniversary.

The congress attracted more than 2,000 party members and was also attended by invited guests from local political organisations and representatives of friendly parties from different countries. Some 25 commissioners were elected, with 10 having been forwarded by the party’s youth league, signalling the RPF’s transition strategy to ensure continuity.

The committee’s tenure is five years, which indicates a shift from the old order where some positions became synonymous with some individuals. The RPF constitution also stipulates that of the 28 members of National Executive Committee, 30 percent be women.

Party mobiliser

Mr Gasamagera, who until last month served as the Rwandan ambassador to Angola, is a known party mobiliser and was the commissioner in charge of political mass mobilisation and the party spokesman. The new job is therefore right up his alley.

Analysts see this as President Kagame’s preparation for his exit, although he is largely expected to contest next year’s election. The President recently indicated that he may run, but he has made deliberate efforts to consolidate the party ahead of the polls.

Yoweri Museveni's son Muhoozi Kainerugaba

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba who has expressed his desire to vie at the next presidential election in 2026.. PHOTO | FILE | PETER BUSOMOKE | AFP

Uganda youth agenda

In Uganda, the son of President Yoweri Museveni, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is roiling political waters with his Twitter campaign for 2026. This campaign cost him his job as Commander of Land Forces, but that he continues to tweet without another reprimand means Ugandans are debating the Museveni succession.

The laws remain the same, though: No term limits nor age limits, but his tweets have seen Gen Kainerugaba bicker with opposition leader Bobi Wine and his supporters. The two, however, agree that the National Resistance Movement is no longer the image of today’s Uganda, suggesting it has lived beyond its sell-by date.

Recently, Gen Kainerugaba tweeted — and deleted — his desire to vie at the next presidential election in 2026. He said that, by that point, “it will be 40 years of the old generation in charge,” suggesting he represents Ugandan youth. He is 48.

He says the NRM is “probably the most reactionary organisation in the country” — adding that it “certainly does not represent the people of Uganda.”

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing his supporters in Nairobi on March 30, 2023 during mass demonstrations. Kenya remains the ever-boiling pot of politics PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Kenya’s tinderbox

Of the East African countries, Kenya remains the ever-boiling pot of politics. Last week, veteran Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga seemed to take President William Ruto’s olive branch for bi-partisan talks after two weeks of economically costly anti-government protests across the country.

But his raft of new demands has not gone down well with the Head of State and his Kenya Kwanza Alliance, who accuse Raila of seeking a coalition arrangement through the backdoor.

Mr Odinga who leads the main opposition coalition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya alliance, has listed at least eight issues that he argues should form terms of reference for the joint task force he insists should deliver a report within 30 days.

The former premier argues that the joint team of negotiators must deliberate on measures to lower the cost of maize flour, fuel, electricity and school fees, conduct a review and forensic audit of the servers used by the electoral agency before, during, and after the 2022 presidential election.

Electoral commissioners

They should also review the appointment and dismissal of commissioners, including their tenure of office, and recommend institutional, policy, legal, and constitutional mechanisms, restructuring and reforms of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Mr Odinga’s demands touch on electoral laws amended after every election since 2007, but which seem to satisfy no one who loses – largely himself.

The former premier suggests the negotiations should mirror the country’s 2008 talks under the frame work of the National Accord, that created the 2008 post-election-violence government of national unity.

He received Kenya Kwanza flak for seeking a coalition government “despite losing the election.”

“We cannot hold talks outside the law, that is why I am saying we should allow our MPs to hold bipartisan talks in Parliament,” President Ruto said on Thursday. “If talks will not be held in Parliament, then they [Opposition] should wait for 2027 for them to [win power].”

Nonetheless, Mr Odinga held a Parliamentary Group meeting for his coalition, in which he named seven negotiators including secretary-general of his ODM party Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna and Senate Minority whip Ledama ole Kina to pursue the parliamentary talks. He stuck to his guns, insisting he would resume mass action should the President’s side scuttle the talks.

Political discipline

As the leaders continue to bicker over the issues on the table, their allies in parliament, which is expected to shape the dialogue, have equally maintained hard-line positions, further casting doubt on the possibility for a lasting truce.

With no one in government interested in coalition arrangements, the nation’s certainty now rests on how parliament goes about it. Mr Odinga’s coalition has recently lost some MPs to the ruling Kenya Kwanza, even though they did not quit the opposition ranks formally; a profit from lacunae on civil liberties and political discipline.

Tanzania’s way

In Tanzania, usually the most stable polity in the region, but where political clampdown had been rampant, they are trying to amend the supreme laws. The target? Immunity for top political officials. According to some religious clerics in Tanzania, lifting of immunity from prosecution for top political officials should be included in the ongoing judicial and constitutional reforms package.

The proposal by one of the country’s most respected groups comes amid growing calls for clipping of presidential powers in view of unprecedented excesses during the John Magufuli tenure.

Under the Basic Rights and Duties Enforcement Act passed by parliament in June 2020, the president, VP, prime minister, Speaker and deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, and chief justice all have immunity from criminal prosecution for any action undertaken in their capacities while in office.

Equal before the law

The Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) emphasised that before a presidential commission on criminal justice system reforms in Dar es Salaam on March 22 that the current constitution declares all people, including leaders to be equal before the law.

In that context, no one should be considered above the law simply because they are public leaders, the TEC said in its recommendations submitted to the commission which began its work in February, in line with the Samia Hassan administration’s legal reforms agenda.

According to TEC’s director of Human Dignity Rev Camilius Kassala, the immunity clause for leaders also defied Christian conventions that made all people “equal before God regardless of their earthly status.”

“That’s why there is this demand for a new constitution so the immunity is removed. Citizens have begun to understand that all humans are supposed to be treated the same before God, be they in prison, rich or poor, bosses, presidents, it doesn’t matter,” Rev Kassala said.

Hold officials accountable

He proposed that citizen rights to hold both the government and its officials accountable for misdeeds or failure to fulfil their obligations be restored to the country’s criminal justice system for the sake of accountability.

The bill for the law was rushed through parliament despite an outcry from civil society over its constitutional compatibility and approved under a certificate of urgency before the House was dissolved ahead of the General Election three months later (October 2020).

It protects the leaders of all three main pillars of state (executive, legislature and judiciary) from litigation in their individual capacities, allowing people aggrieved by the actions of any of those leaders to sue only the Attorney General as the state’s representative.

A coalition of Tanzanian civil society organisations said at the time the bill was being debated that the law would be “poisonous” to civil rights in the country and was aimed at “instigating blatant violations of the constitution”.

Online petition

The coalition’s online petition collected over 3,000 signatures out of a targeted 5,000 before the bill was eventually endorsed by parliament.

In a private write-up, prominent Tanzanian law professor Issa Shivji called the law “an attempt to amend the constitution through the back door” by abolishing public interest litigation.

He said an immunity provision for leaders had “severe implications for the rights of victims of unconstitutional and illegal acts of the organs and officials of the state at different levels”.

Magufuli and the ruling CCM party went on to win both the presidential and parliamentary elections by controversial landslides amid complaints of rampant cheating and ballot box manipulation by the opposition and democracy advocates within and outside Tanzania.

Events such as this served to refuel calls for the head of state’s powers to be whittled down. While they existed during previous movements for constitutional change in Tanzania, they have gained momentum since his death two years ago.

Magufuli presidency

According to former Legal and Human Rights Centre director Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, the issue has become more important in the wake of the country’s experiences during the Magufuli presidency.

“Presidential powers were also a big subject during the past Katiba Mpya processes, but no one really took it up seriously until after we witnessed in practice how such powers can be applied recklessly or even abused,” Dr Kijo-Bisimba said.

She added that although current President Samia was proving much more benevolent than her predecessor, fears still prevailed of another future head of state using the same powers in a “dictatorial” manner.

Former National Assembly Speaker Pius Msekwa, who is also a former ruling CCM party heavyweight, called on advocates for a reduction in presidential powers to point out specific areas that require modification in order to achieve this “rather than offer general arguments.”

Source: theeastafrican