Ugandan authorities postponed a bill to extend leader Yoweri Museveni’s rule after protesters took to the streets against it on Thursday, confronting police who fired teargas.
Parliament speaker Jacob Oulanyah told lawmakers during a raucous session that the legislation due to be introduced on Thursday afternoon was “bringing tension” and would come back on another, unspecified date.
Activists, campaign groups, religious leaders and even some members of Museveni’s own ruling party have objected to the proposed change to the constitution, saying it is undemocratic.
Groups of students at Makerere, a public university in the capital Kampala, rallied to start marching toward parliament before police dispersed them with teargas. Protesters regrouped through the morning, throwing stones back at police.
“We are not going to allow anybody to hold protest marches. The teargas was to deter that,” police spokesman Asan Kasingye said.
Museveni, aged 73, has already been in power for more than three decades. The change to the constitution would have removed a rule banning anyone older that 75 running for president that currently bars him from running for re-election at polls in 2021.
The move to amend legislation mirrors similar tactics used in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic Congo to extend limits, a trend that has alarmed democracy watchdogs.
Museveni won plaudits in the early years of his rule for restoring stability after years of turmoil, and became a key Western ally who sent Ugandan troops to fight Islamist militants in Somalia.
But accusations of rampant rights violations, entrenched graft and dysfunctional public services have since fueled opposition to his rule.
Police have also raided the premises of at least two pro-democracy organizations in Kampala, including that of the local unit of Johannesburg-based ActionAid International.
Security personnel blockaded staff inside their offices late on Wednesday and conducted searches, staff members of the organizations told Reuters.
“There was intelligence that we got that they received funding for people who are planning to cause chaos and violence,” police spokesman Kasingye said.
Local media said Kampala’s mayor Erias Lukwago – an opposition party member – was detained early on Thursday, though Kasingye said he was unaware of the reports.
Museveni’s bid has also met increasing denunciation from some members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) Party, exposing cracks.
The NRM counts about three-thirds of all parliament members.
“Ultimately… Museveni has ample patronage at his disposal and, when push comes to shove, few lawmakers will be prepared to risk political exile by not backing the president,” said Charlotte King, a Uganda analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The U.S. Embassy in Kampala condemned the raids on pro-democracy groups.
“The United States is deeply concerned that recent arrests and raids stifle the Ugandan people’s right to free expression and tarnish Uganda’s global image,” it said in a statement.