Saturday March 15 2014

Parliament cannot make us love our country by passing a law

By David F. K. Mpanga

We heard this week that the Minister for the Presidency, Mr Frank Tumwebze, is drafting a Patriotism Bill which will make it mandatory for all Ugandans to love and defend their country. Many people, myself included, were left wondering about the wisdom of such a move.

The Constitution vests Parliament with power to make laws on any matter for the peace, order, development and good governance of Uganda. This power is subject to the express limitations set out in the Constitution itself and to the strictures of nature and common sense. So, put simply, Parliament should not pass a Bill that violates the basic human rights of the people of Uganda enshrined in Chapter 4 of the Constitution.

If it purports to do so, then the Constitutional Court is empowered to strike out such a law to the extent that it violates or is inconsistent with the Constitution. But if Parliament found that Uganda’s development is suffering for the lack of rainfall or a lack of daylight hours could it legislate for more rainfall or an increase of daylight hours? The answer must be “yes”. But would such a law actually lead to an increase in rainfall or daylight? The obvious answer is “no”.
When confronted with a lack of patriotism, such as manifests itself in the waste, misuse and theft of scarce public resources, it is instinctive for some people to say, “we need a law to make it compulsory for people to love their country”.

Parliament can certainly legislate against waste, misuse and theft of public resources, indeed that is what the Anti-Corruption Act 2009 is all about. This is because Parliament can clearly define those acts or omissions and pass legislation prohibiting them as well as providing a penalty for a violation. But Parliament cannot compel a person to love their country by legislation, any more than it can legislate for more rainfall or daylight, no matter how desirable that outcome may be. How would you measure the love or lack thereof?

There is also a tendency in this country to mistake calls for legislation for action. When confronted with any social, economic or political problem it is not uncommon to hear people asking the government to pass a law to solve that problem. Sometimes government officials also join the chorus calling for laws to hide a lack of capacity to address the real problems and the fact that even existing laws are unenforced for lack of capacity or poor prioritisation. So, by way of example, if the residents of particular locality complain to a minister about the menace of drunken youth, you may hear a minister saying that we need a law against drinking. In this way, the minister would have avoided addressing the real issue, the scourge of youth unemployment, and also ducked the need for an explanation as to why alcohol brewing, distilling and licensing laws that are already on our statute books are not enforced at all.

The limitations of the power of legislation are well illustrated by the story of King Canute who reigned over the North Sea Empire, that took in England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden from 1016 A.D. to 1035 A.D. Canute was a great king, who defeated all his enemies and conquered a vast empire. So great was he, that he soon began to believe that he had dominion over all things in his realm and that seeing as his word was law, everything would obey him.

One day, King Canute commanded that his throne be lifted and taken to the sea shore. This was done and Canute sat, majestically facing the rising tide, with his sycophantic courtiers beside him. Then mustering all the strength that he had, Canute shouted at the sea, “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord”. It came as a great surprise to Canute that despite his clear and unequivocal command, the sea carried on rising as usual and eventually soaked his feet and majestic clothing, despite his great stature.

Shocked by the sea’s unrelenting rise in the face of his clear command Canute came to his senses and his throne was carried away. It is said that he was so humbled by the experience that he ceased to wear a crown on his head and pledged his allegiance to God as the true King “whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”.
Patriotism and love of country are important but they are lacking now for a whole host of social, economic, cultural and political reasons and not simply because of the lack of a law. Parliament can do many things but it cannot make the people love Uganda any more than they do now merely by passing a law.
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