NAIROBI — This week, as lawmakers debated one of the country’s most important bills, Uganda’s parliament turned into an ultimate fighting ring.
Parliamentarians hurled chairs at each other and swung microphone stands like swords. Men were torn from the room by their blazers and women by their dresses. Some people wailed and cried.
That fight exposed the bitter rift between lawmakers who support President Yoweri Museveni’s efforts to extend his rule and those who oppose it. Museveni, 73, has been president for 31 years.
Uganda’s constitution says no one older than 75 can run for president, which would effectively prevent Museveni from running for reelection in 2021. Some parliamentarians want to introduce a bill that would change that law, allowing the president to extend his rule.
That bill has led to protests in Uganda and, on Tuesday, the parliamentary fistfight. The damage was still being assessed Thursday, when Uganda’s New Vision newspaper ran the headline, “Age limit fight leaves Parliament chambers in ruins.”
Museveni is among a growing group of African leaders — in Zimbabwe, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo and other countries — who are trying to stay in power by changing or defying their countries’ laws.
On Wednesday, in response to the violence in parliament, Museveni's government took its efforts one step further by announcing that it would ban live broadcasts of events “inciting the public,” including parliamentary debate.
Uganda’s Communications Commission said in a letter to broadcast media outlets that they should cease airing events that are “stirring up hatred, promoting a culture of violence.”
In interviews and on Twitter, Ugandan officials clarified that they were referring at least in part to the airing of the parliamentary hearings on efforts to extend Museveni’s rule.
“If you looked at those images coming from parliament and you’re a child, I don't think those were the most decent pictures,” Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission, told NBS Television.
In previous days, the police have issued memos banning protests of the constitutional amendment that would drop presidential age limits. Last week, police raided the office of Johannesburg-based ActionAid International, an NGO which has been critical of Museveni’s efforts to extend his rule.
Robert Ssempala, the national coordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, told Reuters that cracking down on live broadcasts was intended to “shut out Ugandans and keep them in the dark on the age limit debate.”
The bill is expected to pass because Museveni’s party and other supporting lawmakers make up more than two-thirds of the parliament. Those supporters say the bill is not specifically about extending Museveni's rule, but rather ending discrimination against older politicians.
Museveni won the 2016 election with 60 percent of the vote, but analysts say it is difficult to gauge his true level of support in the country, where security forces frequently intimidate or imprison the political opposition.