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Human Rights

Ugandans are fighting for the right to peaceful assembly—and it’s coming at a cost


Dr Kizza Besigye, the former president of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party watched the events of October 22, as Makerere University students staged a protest over tuition fee increment with keen interest.
On the 7pm TV news bulletin, he followed the day’s events from the time the young students—led by their female leaders marched on the university campus, up to the point when they were brutally arrested by the police, bungled onto a pickup and detained in a police cell.
Some of the students ended up with bruises or in hospital.
Dr Besigye, a four-time presidential candidate who has led several peaceful demonstrations in the country—almost all of them often ending with security agencies brutally arresting the protesters, said the events of October 22 did not come as a surprise to him.
On several occasions in the past, he has been a victim of police brutality for engaging in public demonstrations. The most prominent of them being in 2011 when he led demonstrations against the rising cost of living in the country. The events of that day ended with him being pepper sprayed, arrested and almost blinded.
Besigye says both his and the students’ experiences are an indicator of a country that has failed to respect people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to peaceful assembly as guaranteed in the Constitution.
“Parents send their children to a public institution where they end up being abused in the most disturbing ways. If Mr Museveni went to the university under these conditions, he would have demonstrated too because there is no way his father would have paid his fees. And then you send soldiers because the students have complained. That’s injustice,” says Dr Besigye.
He notes that the continuous stifling of citizen’s right to express themselves through peaceful protests is pushing the public to resort to acts of violence in order to have their grievances heard. Dr Besigye says when citizens opt to protest, the government ought to examine the underlying issues and address them instead of arresting the protestors.
Marion Kirabo, the Guild Gender Minister for Makerere University agrees. She is the student who led her colleagues in the peaceful demonstration that gave birth to weeks- long standoff between the students and the university administration agrees.
She also quickly became the face of the students’ protest.
Kirabo explains that the decision by the students to resort to a peaceful demonstration came as a last resort after repeated calls for dialogue with the University administration failed.
The students believed that staging a peaceful protest was one way through which their grievances could be heard and highlighted. Instead, they found themselves under detention—and in police cells.
However, all the students were later released without any charges preferred against them.
In Uganda, the government and law enforcement agencies are currently using the Public Order Management Act (POMA) to block citizens from holding peaceful demonstrations.
Article 5(1) of the Act requires those intending to organize public events to give the Police written notice–at least three days and not more than 15 days before the proposed date of such public meeting. They are also expected to give an estimate of the expected number of people for each gathering and the content of the meeting.
Although the Act, which came into force in 2013 is meant to ensure that there is maintenance of law and order during public gatherings, including when demonstrations are held, human rights campaigners say the law has been misunderstood and misused to mean that the public is required to seek permission from police before holding any peaceful protest, assembly or public gathering.
“You do not really need permission to exercise your right,” says human rights lawyer, Shamim Nalugemwa.
She says that the right to demonstrate is part of the right of freedom of assembly under Article 29 of the Constitution, which also spells out that citizens should have the freedom of assembly and to demonstrate alone or with others in a peaceful manner.
Nalugemwa says when citizens are allowed the right to hold peaceful assemblies, it helps to promote their participation in political and governance spheres. This is because these rights are also protected not just by the Constitution, but by international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, to which Uganda is a signatory.
The enactment of POMA, according Nalugemwa marked the demise of the freedom to peacefully demonstrate in Uganda.
But the law as it is being applied currently also raises questions of who has or does not have the right to hold a peaceful demonstration in the country. As it stands now, whether individuals or groups of people can or cannot hold a peaceful assembly is largely the discretion of law enforcement agencies.
In 2008, when the courts outlawed section 32 of the Police Act which gave powers to Police to regulate assemblies and processions, many believed this could kick start the process of citizens having the liberty to hold peaceful assemblies without interference from the State.
Nalugemwa says the thinking of the court then was that this section of the Act gave powers to the Police to violate public’s right to hold peaceful protests, since it depended on the force’s discretion to grant such permission for a demonstration to take place.
In the Makerere students case, Kirabo says they made two attempts at seeking approval from Police about their planned demonstration, which they never got.
“When we went to Police and gave them the letter, they refused to receive it. The police officer said they had orders not to receive it. You know they have to stamp it as an indicator of approval. We felt suffocated and remember we had tried dialogue with the Council and failed there too,” she says.
Nalugemwa reasons that rather than reject or accept written request to hold a demonstration based on their own discretion, the Police should instead be working to ensure that the time and place of holding such demonstrations is conducive enough, taking into account protection measures to prevent human rights violations in the process.
Police officials on the other hand insist that they often come in to guide and offer security during demonstrations, arguing that often times protestors do not abide by the agreed-on guidelines.
According Police spokesperson, Fred Enanga, it is only in such scenarios that law enforcers will come in to prevent the likelihood of the demonstrations turning violent, and inconveniencing the rights of other citizens.
Kirabo thinks the police are only using the excuse of trying to keep law and order to violate the rights of citizens, especially those that are pushing for better governance and accountability from the State.
She insists violators should be held accountable for their actions.
The Human Rights Enforcement Act 2019, would have helped to address some of the concerns that campaigners are raising.
The Act, among other things seeks to ensure that human rights, as enshrined in the Constitution is respected. It also outlines consequences for those who violate such rights.
However, since President Yoweri Museveni accented to it early this year, it has not been operationalized. It also hasn’t been published in the gazette and can therefore not be applied yet.
Kirabo says this will not stop her from going out to demonstrate—if the need arises.
Human rights lawyer, Dr Livingstone Sewanyana who heads the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) says for citizens to be able to reclaim their right to demonstrate without interference from the State, restrictive laws such as POMA should first be repealed. Secondly, he says, rights groups need to popularize the right to demonstrate as a general right to be enjoyed by every citizen regardless of their social or economic class.
What is happening now, according to Dr Sewanyana is that the right to peaceful protests has been politicized—making it difficult for citizens to look at it as a human right which they are entitled to.

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