Arrest bad laws now or never
Posted Sunday, March 17 2013 at 02:00
Laws. We know what they [laws] are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government - Pierre Joseph Proudhon.
There is an old fairy tale where a wicked witch turns the handsome prince into a frog. As part of the curse, he has to be kissed by a beautiful woman in order to break the spell. Nowadays, the slogan is usually “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.”
In Parliament, a group of women and men tried to “kiss a frog”, in an attempt to cover up the dark side of The Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2009 and circumvent the malevolence of The Public Order Management Bill, 2011 in a manner that exposed the weaknesses in our lawmaking systems. These two pieces of legislation, made the news because the fundamentals of each unduly threaten the liberty of Ugandans.
From the hullabaloo in the House and the anger in public, the assumption is that Ugandans were not consulted before drafting these two bills. Again, from the President’s anti-Marriage and Divorce Bill sentiments expressed on Women’s Day, it looks like even at Cabinet level, there were no serious consultations on a matter of national importance; giving credence to reports that a group of overzealous individuals in government might have hoodwinked Parliament.
Speaking at the International Women’s Day celebrations in Nakasongola district on March 8, President Museveni said there was no caucus on the Bill, warning that some of the issues in the proposed legislation may lead to distortions in our society. While the President did not delve into the specifics of this controversial Bill, he was in a way asking Parliament to consult before rushing to pass the Bill particularly, on the relevance of this piece of legislation and whether MPs have a right to break peoples’ families.
The Bill distorts the institution of marriage by legalising cohabitation and encouraging divorce. There is also another toxic clause that seeks to vulgarise the institution of marriage by introducing marital rape.
We can leave the Marriage and Divorce Bill at that, after all Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, one of the advocates of this Bill, on Thursday sent MPs in an impromptu recess to consult further on a Bill that seeks to harmonise marriage laws in the country. Kudos Madam Speaker! However, it would have made a lot of sense if a similar decision had been taken on The Public Order Management Bill, 2011.
Certainly, asking MPs to go back to their respective constituencies and consult on a Bill that had reached the amendments stage is obviously an indictment on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee. After realising that Ugandans were not consulted, the committee should have recommended for further consultation, instead of behaving like parrots.
Regrettably, our gate-keeping process in the House is so weak to the extent that the so-called public hearings on critical bills have become a mockery. It’s a tedious process. One would imagine that any serious gate-keeping would tell between the good and the bad law. Because our MPs don’t take public hearings seriously, mistakes have been made in the laws Parliament passes and some have even been costly to the taxpayer.
For instance, glaring errors in the Excise Tariff (Amendment) Act have cost the government more than Shs50.9 billion in tax revenue. As a result of the errors, which were not detected by MPs, Uganda Revenue Authority has been asked to refund the billions meant for service delivery.
Mistakes in earlier legislations
I am reliably informed that the Excise Tariff (Amendment) Act 2008 was enacted but with two apparent errors of two commencement dates of July 1, 2007, and July 1, 2008. The amendment of a non-existent 2nd Schedule of the Excise Tariff (Amendment) Act, 2007 was also another blunder.
Arising from the errors, M/S Rock Petroleum (U) Ltd on behalf of Importers of diesel and petrol in Uganda sued government, for refund of excess collections on grounds that the Excise Tariff (Amendment) Act by which the URA levied and collected under the increased Excise Duty was void and did not have the force of law.
Unfortunately, we have such costly mistakes in the laws Parliament passed simply because ours is a funny system where stakeholders give their views but do not form part of the decision making process. Sometimes it’s politics at play. Proposing amendments here and there in a particular Bill does not mean that Ugandans should be sidelined. The people should be consulted to avoid making bad laws.
The sarcasm we see in Parliament these days must stop. Some Ugandans are even more knowledgeable than the honourable MPs on technical issues.
The Public Order Management Bill, 2011 described by legal brains as unconstitutional also appeared on the floor this week. To the politicians, this is a draconian legislation targeting free speech. The Bill, if passed into law, will negatively affect the enjoyment of human rights not only for the general public but also for media practitioners.
For instance, contrary to Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution which grants freedom of expression and assembly, this obnoxious Bill proposes to punish Ugandans who discuss government failures. With this, one wonders where such a nasty piece of legislation leaves the urge for public participation in decision making process envisaged under the National Objective and Directive Principles of State Policy.
What court said
In any case, the Constitutional Court has already ruled in Muwanga Kivumbi Vs Attorney General (Petition No. 9 2005) that the right to freedom of assembly and demonstrate together with others in a peaceful manner is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 29 (1) of the Constitution. Therefore, by prohibiting public meetings including political rallies or demonstrations, clause 8 (1) of the bill is in effect contravening Article 92 of the Constitution which stops Parliament from enacting a law that seeks to overturn a court ruling.