By Frank Tumwebaze
Once again our debating platforms and the news outlets are awash with deliberately skewed commentaries about the recently passed Public order management bill. Just like it was with the then ill informed land bill amendment debate, so it is now. The majority of commentators talk either out of hearsay or outright ignorance about the bill either in its part or as a whole.
I wonder why our media investigative reporters never come in as impartial umpires to feed the readers on researched –objective content and thus mediate and guide the debate properly.
Our political biases notwithstanding, let logic about the actual content of the bill and not deliberate falsehoods, be the basis of our debate and judgment. Some of us however cannot tire to tell the true story of all these issues that
Our colleagues in the opposition tend to skew deliberately and peddle so much lies about for their own political advantage. Gradually logic will triumph over falsely induced emotions.
What exactly is the Public order management bill about in broad terms?
The Public Order Management Bill is simply and exactly about Public Order Management. At the heart of any free and democratic society is the ability to co-exist in peace. Society only thrives when it is governed by law and regulated by order. The duty to do all that lies with government. Public Order Management therefore is not anti democracy but rather an essential prerequisite for building a democratic culture.
Prevention and detection of crime is a duty given to the police by the Constitution of Uganda under article 212(c) and its part and parcel of public order management. It cannot be achieved successfully without regulating public order and ensuring safety for the benefit of the entire citizenry.
The said bill however has been met with a lot of misunderstanding and deliberate misinformation. It is alleged for example, falsely of course, that if three people sit together and discuss politics they require a permit. That Political Organisations and even civil society actors require the permission of the police to engage in their civic duties. All those assertions are not true and far from forming part of the bill content. These and more false hoods have been carefully hatched to stir a wave of discontent among the unsuspecting members of the public and thus mobilize them on wrong sentiments to oppose what they have not even read. This is the trend that most of our colleagues in the opposition have taken over time on some many issues for just politicking sake and nothing else! Eventually however they get discerned and rejected.
The right of Ugandans to demonstrate “peacefully and unarmed” is not affected at all by this law. A Ugandan who wishes to demonstrate “peacefully and unarmed” does not require the permission of anyone. However, he must inform the police in advance to ensure public order management. And he cannot demonstrate in every place. You cannot for example hold a political rally inside the Parliamentary Chambers.
In the recent past we have seen attempts to demonstrate inside the courts or even at the Mulago Heart Institute. Surely there are places which should be out of bounds for the so called demonstrations? Why do we have in world capitals gazetted squares and grounds for such assemblies? And why would Uganda be an exception to the general principle? One cannot simply wake up and decide to demonstrate at the Jinja road traffic lights and block the road there without having the Police co-ordinate the traffic.
In enjoying your rights, why should you interfere with the rights of others? Public Order law simply allows the Police to regulate the conduct of public meetings in public places. The Police, under this law has no power to refuse you to meet, instead, they can inform you that the venue in which you intend to meet is not available or appropriate or has already been booked by another group so as to enable and facilitate you in time to reorganize your program and avoid last minute inconveniences.
The question here perhaps to ask is whether it would be necessary for the police to intervene in such scenarios? The logical answer here is Yes and justifiably so. What If two groups of meeting organizers or conveners clash over a venue with their programs conflicting and a quarrel or a fight ensues, who should regulate here to maintain peace and order? Certainly the Police. The chosen venue could even be inappropriate for the proposed meeting for a number of reasons like traffic control. So the Police should be specifically enabled by force of law without any lacuna or ambiguity to handle all this work that directly links with their constitutional mandate of crime prevention and detection.
The bill is not about stopping organized groups from organizing. It is about ensuring that we all live and let live. The business man interested in selling his goods should not be stopped by the Politician interested in pursuing power.
Like we have seen, Dr Besigye and his squads selfishly destroying the daily small incomes of bamufunampola (low income earners) in markets in his desperate and dramatic attempts to capture crowds and visibility. Why go to food markets and not to open secure grounds like Namboole, kakyeka or booma if in any case that particular politician is confident of his followers/numbers? It’s illogical and only smirks of selfishness on the part of the political actors. To them it’s all about earning visibility at whatever cost and expense of others. Any responsible and democratic government cannot allow such madness to continue. That is the basis of this bill/ law.
Demonstrate freely and without hindrance, but do so in a manner that does not stop someone else from trying to earn a living. Why then would such a straight forward proposition in form of this bill be so controversial? Regulation does not limit rights. We all have a right to vote. However, we exercise this right on specific dates at specific times designated by the electoral commission and not by any Dick or Tom. We have a right to open companies to do business. However, those companies are registered and regulated. Surely all that is simple logic.
Regulation is not limitation and sometimes even limitation is necessary provided it is within the constitutional limits.
Is Uganda an exception?
Uganda is not alone in regulating public order. The United Kingdom does for example have a Public Order Act 1986. S.11 of that Act requires written notice to be given to the Police before a procession can be held. The Police must be informed where the procession will start and end. When it will be held. Their law is that detailed and strict. The route that is proposed to be taken must be specified in the notice. If a Senior Police officer is convinced that this assembly is likely to result in public disorder or damage to property then that Police Officer gives directions to avoid such a breach of peace. Our law is similar in every respect.
It’s therefore not a strange piece of legislation especially in the common wealth, where a lot of benchmarking among member states is done. I now wish to challenge all those that have been skewing the debate with a number of deliberate distortions to come out and tell us why they think the Uganda case/ legislation is different and therefore fatal? What common principles on public order management have been compromised, left out and/or are different in this bill?
Others say why this law and why now? The Police Act did give the Police broad powers under the law. In fact, the Muwanga Kivumbi case actually kept many of these powers intact, yet this law clearly defines the specific roles of the police in as far as public order regulation and maintenance is concerned. I am sure the lawyers can attest to this. The new Act is in line with our new realities, the Constitutional position and the need for clear lines. The Police needs to have its powers clearly and publically limited. Similarly, organisers of demonstrations and assemblies need clear, unambiguous and proper regulation to ensure no one has his rights abused.
Others will argue that this law is capable of abuse by public officials and the Police who can deny a citizen his rights. That is also not true. For the sake of argument however, let us assume this claim holds water. Is such a citizen not without any legal remedy? The decisions of the Uganda Police Force under the Public Order Management Act are all subject to judicial review. A person who feels that the decision of the Police is nothing more than an abuse of power is free to go to a Judge and have that power reviewed. Surely Public Order is not a ridiculous thing to ask for.
Finally, our colleagues in Parliament claimed that this law is unconstitutional just like they have always branded any motion or decision not in their political interest. That claim seems illogical and false. However, even if it is true, if certain provisions of that law violate the Constitution then one is free to Petition the Constitutional Court for an order striking down those provisions. They are free to do so. And they are always good at that, though sometimes they take frivolous claims to court for purposes of political posturing and end nowhere. This fuss is therefore nothing more than an unnecessary storm in a tea cup. Rights must go with responsibilities. No order is chaos
The people of Kampala especially many of those whose bread and butter is earned from their daily sales cannot continue to suffer at the hands of selfish politicians who are never confident of their political following and only resort to creating scenes in populous trade and business centers like markets, high streets and road junctions thus compromising the general trade order at the expense of all those In the trade chain (whole sellers, retailers and consumers). This is nothing else but real economic sabotage. Who said economic rights are not rights worth protecting? Which international convention allows derogation from these economic rights? And how best can they be protected without guaranteeing public order and safety?
I am proud as a member of the 9th parliament to have participated in the passing of this bill that seeks to fight economic sabotage, despite the comic attempts of our colleagues on the opposite side of the house to stifle the process in parliament but in vain. Political leaders should stand up for what is right, just and fair to all, as opposed to pandering populism or simply playing to the gallery.
The writer is MP and Minister for the Presidency and Kampala