Wednesday March 5 2014

If only Ugandans could be as eager on the other laws

A typical scene at Naitakwae cattle market in Moroto District:

A typical scene at Naitakwae cattle market in Moroto District: The laws regulating movement of livestock which are either ignored or flaunted. PHOTO BY STEVEN ARIONG 

By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

Even before the ink on the Anti-Pornography Act (which was wrongly interpreted as an anti-mini skirt law) dries up, scantily dressed women are being molested in different parts of the country. Some Ugandans are that keen to enforce the law. Police have had to step in to stop “overzealous” citizens from taking the law into their hands.

For the anti-gay law, officially known as the Anti Homosexuality Act, impatient Ugandans had been demanding to know why the President was taking his time to sign it. The President’s trespasses over the last 27 years were all forgiven the moment he did so.

Even the opposition joined in the “celebrations”. Police again have to step in to save innocent men spotting earrings and plaited hair from getting lynched by angry mobs.

Constant reminder
It seems in Uganda, some laws are more important than others. That is why police has to restrain people from enforcing certain laws, while both police and the public need to be constantly reminded about the existence of the others.

For instance, are you aware that it is illegal to deliberately start a bush fire, handle certain agricultural chemicals and animal drugs without permission from the relevant authorities, or encroach on wetlands?

But when did you last see or hear of anyone getting arrested for doing any of the above? Since the beginning of the year, there have been reports of bush fires started mainly by hunters to trap animals or farmers to clear their fields, getting out of control and destroying property worth millions of shillings.

Failure to enforce
A few times the culprits are apprehended and charged with “malicious damage to property”, a flimsy charge that attracts a very light sentence. Because of the weak laws in place, bush fires have been become rampart in rural areas, where they have turned into weapons of mass destruction, used by people to settle land disputes. It takes just one match stick to destroy several acres of trees that have cost lots of time and money to establish.

During the colonial days, there were bye laws requiring farmers who cultivate on steep hill slopes to terrace their land. Local leaders would move around communities to enforce them. Today, those bye laws have been forgotten and the terraces have disappeared, replaced by deep gullies caused by soil erosion.

Failure to enforce such bye laws is partially to blame for the murderous landslides that wreck havoc in the mountainous areas of the country every rain season.

Necessary evil
One of the most abused laws is that requiring a movement permit for livestock in transit. The permit, issued by the district veterinary officers (DVOs) is supposed to confirm that the animals are not stolen and that they are in good health.

You would expect farmers to support such a law, since it is meant to protect their livestock from disease and thieves. But instead the farmers often connive with livestock traders and veterinary officers to forge travel permits for unhealthy or stolen livestock.

We may not like them, but laws are a necessary evil. One reason why the crime rate in some parts of Uganda is high is because some people consider themselves to be above the law, while others have decided to take the law into their hands. This is a dangerous trend.

Political inference
DVOs in certain parts of this country where farmers consider themselves to be above the law, often fail to execute their duties because of political interference.

For instance, they are supposed to suspend livestock trading and movement in their area of jurisdiction, whenever there is a disease outbreak.
But whenever they try to do so, the affected farmers seek redress from their political godfathers, who use their offices to reopen the markets and lift the ban on livestock movement. In the end “orders from above” will overrule the actual law.

Just a dream
That is how tainted livestock products end up on the local market, and that is why we have failed to break into the lucrative European market.
As a farmer, I often feel frustrated over the absence of strong laws to regulate the industry, and the general failure to enforce the few that exist.
Without the relevant laws in place, our dream to transform the country’s agriculture sector from subsistence to commercial farming will remain just that, a dream.

There is a need for strong laws to help regulate the agriculture sector, which employs millions of Ugandans. The farming landscape world over is rapidly changing, and we need new laws to address those changes.

Strategic importance
We need specific laws to address specific issues within the agriculture sector, such as finance, marketing, insurance, import and export, inputs, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pests and disease control.

At the same time, there is a need for specific laws for those sub-sectors considered to be of strategic importance to the country’s economy because they employ many Ugandans, or earn the country crucial foreign exchange.
These include coffee, bananas, maize, poultry and dairy farming. Our Kenyan neighbours already have these laws in place.

Push our interests
While some of these laws already exist in Uganda, they are rarely evoked, because very few farmers are aware of them. Some were made more than 50 years ago during the colonial era and need revising because they have become irrelevant.

It is the job of parliamentarians to craft new laws and overhaul old ones. But someone needs to push them. If you look closely at the anti pornography, anti homosexuality and other laws that have recently gone through Parliament, you will notice that they all had individuals or special interest groups pushing for them.

Can we farmers also organise ourselves into special interest groups and lobby our members of parliaments to come up with laws to protect our interests?

Big challenge
Of course we can, provided we can identify the common interests that need to be protected. The problem with Uganda’s agriculture sector is that it is dominated by subsistence farmers whose common interest is survival.
There are only a few commercial farmers whose common interest is to make profits. Getting these two groups to work together for the sake of a common interest is a big challenge.

Without strong laws in place, Uganda’s agriculture sector has become a dumping ground for outdated technology and deadly chemicals that have been rejected or outlawed elsewhere.

Direct impact
I wish the enthusiasm shown in implementing the anti-gay and anti-pornography laws can be extended to other laws in the offing, which are going to have a direct impact on our lives.

For instance, can we look forward to the same level of enthusiasm when the debate on the biotechnology (GMO) law resumes in Parliament?
It is a fact that the average Ugandan is more informed about gay rights than GMOs. To me, this only goes to show how we, as a nation, have our priorities upside down.

The author is a farming journalist and a consultant.