The unsightly and despicable scenes of police brutality playing out on the political scene ahead of the 2016 elections may look familiar and indeed involve the same protagonists who grab our attention every election season, However this time around the fulcrum of the power struggle as the polls fast approach is a repressive law that has become a common talking point as the ruling party unleashes wanton terror on its opponents to uneven the playing ground in favor of the incumbent.
The public order management act has now become a recurrent source of contention and conflict between angry opposition activists and the police.
Enacted amidst controversy and dramatic scenes in parliament in 2013 the act was a deliberate and sinister ploy by the NRM regime to shackle opposition activities and render political parties and their sympathizers immobile.
Many opposition activists have rightly argued ad nauseam that the law infringes on the fundamental right to freedom of assembly and association as spelt out in Article 29 of the constitution, the proponents of the law argue that those rights need to be regulated to maintain peace and order.
No one is disputing that line of debate but any regulation must not repudiate the inalienable rights of citizens.
Without going into specifics the law gives the Inspector General of police sweeping powers to determine, decide and rule if and when or where a public meeting will take place.
And even though public meetings by organs of registered political parties and convened in accordance with the constitution of the party were excluded from the definition of the term public meeting in section 4(2) e of the act, the government has characteristically targeted political parties in an uncompromising vicious crackdown on gatherings.
Following his unconstitutional arrest in Njeru Presidential aspirant Amama Mbabazi was wrong when he claimed the police have no right to halt a meeting, they do have the power under this unfair act. Advocates of this law will say there is no violation of freedoms and that all there is, is a requirement to seek permission to hold any public gathering or assembly or if unable to, consider another date and venue. I have always thought that this ‘permission’ is akin to me seeking authorization to write this article and only if said permission is given can I go ahead to publish.
You cannot put a caveat on freedoms, if any regulation is necessary it must be seen to facilitate rather than eliminate one’s civil liberties. The police must not be allowed to bar one from carrying out a peaceful demonstration but they can bar any protestor from accessing certain roads or buildings for the purpose of maintaining order. Just about the only useful aspect of the law is Section 12 and 13 that gazette restricted areas.
Of course this opinion has always been disputed by NRM party Loyalists who view any demonstration or protest as a threat to the their continued stay in power, The NRM more than anyone else knows the power of movements and just how potent effective mobilization for a common cause can be. Their morbid fear of demos was only compounded by the Arab spring and more recently the overthrow of Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore’ by popular revolt late last year.
Kate Byom wrote on the Freedom house blog in August last year that the laws like Uganda’s POMA are so broadly worded and frequently misused that they effectively deny or restrict the ability of citizens to demonstrate.
She goes on to say “Public order acts are common across the continent, partly as a holdover from colonial rule but the governments of Uganda, Zimbabwe and Swaziland are modern pioneers of sorts, demonstrating to their peers how these laws can be adjusted and employed to limit the opposition’s ability to mobilize support.
As a heavily militarized police continues to do the NRM regime’s bidding, the ugly scenes currently being witnessed will only accelerate into an ugly climax with no winner. Playing with loaded dice the NRM will claim victory none the less in 2016, ushering in another five years of doom and gloom for lovers of civil liberties and transparency.