Here is the Uganda that Abu Mayanja so desired

Abu Mayanja (right) and his wife Mariam Mayanja. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The state’s primary role is to protect and enhance the welfare of the individual. This means eschewing detentions without trial and other human rights violations. This is the vision that Abu Mayanja had for Uganda as the fifth instalment of the serialisation of Prof ABK Kasozi’s book shows. 

Abu Mayanja thought that the primary reason a state exists is to enhance the good of the individual. He pointed out several times in Parliament that the state exists for the sake of the individual.

For him, therefore, the state’s primary role is to guarantee each citizen’s life and well-being. If a state, through its government or any other agency, violates the reasons for its creation, it loses its justification to exist. 

Mayanja defined a state as a large family of nuclear and extended families occupying a designated geographical space united for their common good.

Accordingly, the aim of living together in the same state was to protect and enhance happiness for all. As the state exists for the sake of the individual, the latter must also realise the importance of the state in protecting him and enhancing his survival and happiness by obeying the laws of that state. However, these laws must be based on agreed values, norms, and rules. 

According to his writings in the press, speeches in Parliament, letters to friends and the many interviews I had with him in the early 1980s and 2000s, any state has two functions executed by its agency called government. Its first primary function is to protect and enhance the lives, liberties, rights, and freedom of its citizens.

For him, these include the right to life as a free person, the right to own property, the right to vote and select one’s leaders and associated freedoms, including freedom of speech and communication, freedom of association and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention without trial and freedom of movement within and outside the country. 

The second primary function of the state, through its government, is to enhance the welfare, and, therefore, the happiness, of the citizens.

Actions that can improve the welfare of citizens include raising the standards of living of the people through the establishment of peace and an environment in which economic activities can take place, putting in place moderate governance systems, managing the finances of the state well, and above all, establishing a just society. 

Liberal democratic state
The state performs these functions through an elected government according to terms contained in an agreement between the people and the state called a constitution.

He, therefore, imagined the government to be the instrument and power of the state. For postcolonial Uganda, he imagined an African liberal democratic state built on a blend of accepted European and African concepts of justice. 

He constantly reminded the postcolonial governments that the significant reason independence was sought was to give people the freedoms colonialism was believed to have denied them. To his disappointment, African governments became more autocratic than the colonial administration they had replaced.

He told Members of Parliament, as well as the public through the press that any constitution must assume that the state exists for the individual. However, while providing security, the state should guarantee the liberties and freedoms of the individual. 

Mayanja, like other politicians of his generation and the general population in Uganda, thought that independence would bring more freedom and prosperity to African peoples than they had while living under colonialism.

They felt that the aim of autonomy was Uhuru or freedom. For that reason, he spoke vehemently against injustices committed by colonialism and, later, by African managers of the Uganda postcolonial state.

These injustices included detentions without trial, trials of civilians in military courts or tribunals, violations of the rights of citizens by government workers, abuses of personal rights and secrets by the state, undermining individual property rights, curtailing the right to access information, undermining freedom of expression and failure of managers of the state to accept government’s vicarious responsibilities. 

Detentions without trial
Protesting detentions without trial, Mayanja felt that since the ultimate aim for the state’s existence was to guarantee the rights and freedoms of the individual, arbitrary detentions by the government violated the mandate for which the state existed. For him, the indictment against colonial rule was that it restricted and denied peoples’ fundamental rights. 

The struggle for independence was not for replacing White masters with Black rulers. It was to gain more freedom, including the freedom to choose leaders, freedom of association, freedom to disseminate ideas, and freedom to own property. He felt that detention without trial was wrong. 

Violations of human rights
Mayanja protested the violation of human rights by government workers such as the police, the military and paramilitary. He thought these violations negated the reasons why postcolonial Uganda was “struggled” by Ugandans. First, he felt that the government was liable for [the] actions of its workers. 

Secondly, he protested giving excessive powers to government workers and operatives, which they might use to abuse the rights of civilians. Further, he felt that civilians should not be tried in military courts.

If civilians commit crimes triable in both military and civilian courts, they should be dealt with in the latter courts. If there are legal reasons to try civilians in military courts, they must be allowed to have lawyers or advocates. General Court Martials should not infringe on personal liberties by keeping defendants for days or months without trial

Freedom of assembly
While discussing the Police Ordinance (Amendment) Bill, 1965, Mayanja objected to giving the police the power to deny Ugandans the freedom of assembly if the police felt that the expected meeting might disseminate views contrary to those of the incumbent government. He emphasised that if such powers were given to the police, Parliament would be facilitating the emergence of a dictatorship in Uganda. Such a development would undermine the reasons for the existence of the Uganda postcolonial state. 

He emphasised that the amendment to the Police Ordinance (which was initially enacted in 1939) would take away even the little freedoms the colonial state had given to the people of Uganda.

He lamented that instead of giving Ugandans more freedom for which the struggle for independence was justified, the African-managed government was, through the Police Amendment Bill, undoing the freedom of speech and assembly the people of Uganda had struggled to get from the colonial state. 

He complained that it seemed the government was afraid of the people, so it did not wish them to hear contrary views. He felt that under the then existing statutes, the police had power under Section 32(2) to prevent an assembly after meeting certain conditions, including judges’ opinions.

Nevertheless, the amendment suggested the elimination of the role of the judges to overrule police objections and allow the holding of public meetings, which the latter might have tried to prevent. 

Controlling public opinion
Further, he pointed out that the government had not given incidences of failure by the existing law (the Police Ordinance) to serve the needs of law and order. If the government did not give examples of failure, then it would be assumed that the purpose of the amendment was not to maintain peace but to control public opinion by gagging ideas presumed contrary to the ruling party’s views. 

He warned the government that it could not force people to like or accept it as legitimate by legislation. Instead, the government should develop mutual trust with the people, for when the people are muzzled, they operate in underground spaces.

Moreover, he added, the police to whom the government was handing extreme powers had not always acted professionally (as the Nakulabye incident had shown).

He added that freedom of thought and speech were the basis and drivers of progress. The Ugandan postcolonial state needed to tap into the minds of its citizens in order to move forward. He reminded Parliament that the world would have been the minor beneficiary if the Church’s silencing of Galileo had triumphed over his truth.

He claimed that the Ugandan police personnel were often less learned than the politicians and speakers they were called upon to silence. If Uganda gave police power to silence ideas produced by learned men and women, the young Ugandan state could fail to develop. 

He then warned the [Milton] Obote government that although they may not listen to what he was saying, they were driving the new state into darkness. He said: “When the people of this country will be suffering, perhaps including Members of this House”, (he) would have a clear [conscience] that he warned the government. He felt that it could be a matter of time before the country would cry “twenty or a hundred” years from then.

Mayanja felt that the purpose of the Bill was to prevent people from gathering at meetings to exchange ideas and hear people speaking to them if a police officer at the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police had not agreed.

He added that when a government does not allow people to meet together to exchange ideas, it is trying to control their minds, which is an impossible task because people will find other ways of doing so. The following was the encounter in Parliament over this issue.

The book
The book, Abu Mayanja MP: The intellectual star of Uganda’s ‘‘Struggle’’ for independence and the search for a liberal democratic state, 1929-2005, is a biography of a brilliant African politician, a history of a country and a continent told through the lens and activities of an individual politician.

The book breaks new ground in how Uganda and Africa have been viewed by academic and popular opinion.