Sometime in August 1994, renowned writer Wole Soyinka interested some of his fellow Nigerians to march ‘One Step for Freedom’.
A month later (in September), Nigerian security agents paid him a visit at his Abeokuta home in southwest Nigeria.
They wanted to know how the march would be organised.
Prof Soyinka told them some people would walk for a few metres and return to their homes. A main column would take off from wherever they were based and proceed along designated routes.
“…the climax will be the convergence at the outskirts of Abuja, when we’ll march en masse on Aso Rock,” Prof Soyinka said. Aso Rock is Nigeria’s state house.
The march was intended to dislodge president Sani Abacha from power.
The security agent’s team leader told Prof Soyinka that the government thought the march would lead to a breach of peace.
“It is, therefore, the firm intention of the government – in fact, the government considers it its duty – to prevent your march at all costs,” he said.
Something similar is playing out in Uganda.
Between September and October, the government banned lived broadcasts of some events, claiming they do not meet the minimum broadcasting standards.
The standards require broadcasters to ensure programmes for broadcast are not contrary to public morality and do not promote a culture of violence.
In the case of news broadcasts, they should be free from distortion of facts and should be the kind that will create insecurity or violence.
The directive came on the heels of the ejection of 24 Members of Parliament (MPs) opposed to the amendment of Article 102(b) of the Constitution from Parliament on September 27.
Police also blocked MPs from attending consultative meetings outside their constituencies.
The government has dispersed rallies, such as one organised by Manjiya County representative John Baptist Nambeshe called to discuss the cons of amending Article 102(b) of the Constitution.
In Rukungiri Municipality, police dispersed a gathering of FDC supporters and it was even accused of having shot to death Edson Nasasira, 22.
It would later arrest Rubaga South MP Kato Lubwama, Butambala MP Muwanga Kivumbi, Budadiri West MP Nandala Mafabi and FDC presidential contender Patrick Amuriat Oboi who were consulting voters on the age limit Bill. They have since been released.
Many lesser known Opposition activists remain police custody.
In late September, the government sent security agents into the Chamber of Parliament to eject legislators who were opposed to tabling of the age limit Bill removal.
Uganda Police Force (UPF) arrested the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC’s) 2016 presidential candidate Kizza Besigye on suspicion of attempting to murder police officers. Section 204 of the Penal Code Act prescribes life imprisonment for persons who are convicted of attempted murder.
The same UPF banned Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi from staging music concerts. The police argued that his music is political and promotes hate speech.
On October 16, UPF’s director of operations, Mr Asuman Mugenyi, wrote to regional and district police commanders.
Mr Mugenyi’s letter came on the heels of the tabling of the Constitution Amendment Bill, 2017.
The Bill proposes repealing sub-clause (b) of Article 102 of the Constitution to do away with the 75 years old cap for presidential candidates.
When Sunday Monitor asked constitutional lawyer Peter Walubiri to explain the significance of the government’s actions, he said – going by the hostility towards those in support of lifting the age limit – the government has decided to force through the amendment.
That, he said, is worrying since it is a step towards chipping away at the constitutional order.
“The Constitution can only be amended lawfully and peacefully. [However] what is happening [now] is a violent process, which is treacherous. That is cause for alarm,” Mr Walubiri said.
“It is like a robber: if a robber comes and says ‘hand over your wallet’ and you refuse, the robber will take it violently.”
Mr Walubiri said before the Constitution can be amended, the people’s representatives should enjoy their liberties to consult the people they represent.
“If you restrict them, it is illegal, if you beat them, the process of amending the Constitution does not meet the standards set for peaceful and lawful process,” he said.
He said the citizens have a duty, according to Article 3 of the Constitution, to resist and illegal and violent overthrow of Uganda’s supreme law.
In September, the Delegation of the European Union to Uganda expressed concern about the build-up of tension that might lead to infringing the fundamental freedoms of Ugandan citizens and damage Uganda’s international reputation.
When Sunday Monitor contacted the EU Delegation spokesperson, Emmanuel Gyezaho, he said the same conditions the delegation expressed concern about still exist.
The EU said it was concerned about reports of arrests and actions targeting NGOs and political activists. It was also troubled by the inflammatory language used in debating issues of national interest, pertaining to the democratic process in Uganda.
“We consider that major issues related to the national development should be debated in an open and inclusive national dialogue,” the delegation said then through a press statement.
“We call on the Ugandan authorities to guarantee the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution, which in particular provides the right of all citizens to fully express their civil and political rights without fear of intimidation.”
In some districts in Uganda, the sections of the public have not warmly received representatives who have openly voiced support for lifting the age limit. There have been cases of MPs being roughed up in areas they happen to be visiting.
For instance, last month, some youth in Mityana stoned Woman Representative Judith Nabakooba and Mityana North MP Godfrey Kiwanda Suubi when the two went to drum up support for lifting the age limit for presidential candidates.
In Rubanda District, Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa was booed when she tried to address mourners ahead of the burial of Abel Rwendeire, who was once a Cabinet minister.
It is such that prompted President Museveni to issue a veiled threat: he said the NRM is the master at disciplined and purposeful violence. It is because of such ‘hostility’ too that the NRM is reportedly planning to consult and seek the support of only a smaller group – district councillors.
When he directed police commanders to stop MPs from moving to support their counterparts or to consult outside their respective constituencies, Mr Mugenyi quoted no law.
Police spokesperson Asan Kasingye later, during an interview with NBS television, alluded to the Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA).
“We have not suspended the Public Order Management Act,” Mr Kasingye told NBS last week.
“Let the person who is inviting them consult the Inspector General of Police to say ‘I am a Member of Parliament of, say, Makindye West, I want to host somebody from Lwengo or Sheema’ so that we know who these people are,” Mr Kasingye said.
Still, according to Mr Julius Odwe, the former deputy Inspector General of Police, POMA does not allow the police to bar MPs from some areas.
“The sections most relevant to legitimise your policing guidelines are contained in Sections 2, 3, 4, 5,6,7,8 and 10,” Mr Odwe said through an October 25 letter to IGP Kale Kayihura.
“Section 3 outlines your powers, without any provision for you to curtail attendance of any party Member of Parliament. Your other powers are stated in section 7 to disperse a gathering based on the reasons and circumstance there instead, but not when they are peaceful.”
Mr Odwe added that where one is dissatisfied with the police’s actions, section 6 provides for appeal by the organiser of a gathering that was dispersed.
“This is an area where you or your subordinates may face legal action,” Mr Odwe said.
According to Article 29(1) (d) of the Constitution, citizens have rights to the freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition.
And according to Article 212, the functions of UPF are to protect life and property, to preserve law and order and to prevent and detect crime.
Additionally, the force is to cooperate with the civilian authority and other security organs and with the population.
The same Constitution, via Article 221, says the police and the army should respect human rights and freedoms.
Dispersing pro-age limit rallies
Why is the government dispersing anti–constitutional amendment Bill rallies?
One plausible reason can be got from The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics.
According to the book by Prof Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Prof Alastair Smith, free press, free speech and freedom of assembly make it easier for larger numbers of people to exchange information about how they feel about their government and to express objects to any policies they don’t like.
“…autocrats dislike freedoms because they make it easier for people to learn of their shared misery and to collaborate with each other to rise up against the government,” the two say.
With ordinary citizens now responding to police teargas with stones, there are fears that the matter could be settled violently.
“As sure as day follows night, unless President Museveni relents, we are going to go into full–blown violence. Every violent government, every dictatorial government is eventually brought down violently,” Constitutional lawyer Peter Walubiri says.
But that might not be easy since Mr Museveni has a firm grip on the coercive arms of the State – the army, the police, the intelligence services and informal organisations such as Bodaboda 2010.
The Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, a week ago pledged to spend the rest of his life working not to disappoint Mr Museveni.
And, with police now using live bullets, sections of the public might fear to subject themselves to military suppression.