The actual meaning of the recently passed Public Order Management Bill began to be felt this week, as police blocked a press conference and vowed to even block family meetings.
Kampala Metropolitan Police Operations Commander Sam Omala, while blocking a press conference called by civil society organisations (CSO) and a group of opposition politicians, on Monday, said: “As the police, we must know about every meeting even if it is in your home.”
The press conference had been scheduled for 10am at the Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA) offices at Makerere. It was delayed for more than an hour, as organisers argued with police.
“Was the police informed about this meeting?” Omala asked DENIVA’s Justus Rugambwa, who had no immediate answer. Rugambwa was joined by MPs Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi (Butambala) and Wafula Oguttu (Bukooli Central) to challenge Omala on the law.
The press conference had been called to launch a coalition of civil society organisations and political party leaders dubbed the Citizens’ Alliance (Call Uganda), which is a campaign against the Public Order Management Bill.
A public address system that had been setup for the function was confiscated by police and scores of university students on the premises, mainly from Kyambogo and Makerere, were arrested.
Omala told journalists that 10 students had been arrested and taken to Wandegeya police station. But Sandra Nabasirye, the president of Makerere University College of Education and External studies students Association, said that 20 of her colleagues were in police custody. Two other student leaders were injured during arrests.
“We got intelligence information that the students were planning to join their (lecturers) strike for a pay rise, many of them were holding placards criticising the government, and I cannot allow that. I am now in charge of Makerere, and those (lecturers) should know that I will not entertain their lugezigezi (provocation),” Omala said.
Several NGOs and professional bodies like the Uganda Law Society and FIDA, members of the academia, religious leaders and opposition political parties, are part of the alliance that kicks off its campaigns on Friday in Latif Ssebaggala’s constituency, Kawempe North.
The campaign will then move to Mukono municipality on Saturday and Gayaza (Kyadondo East) on Sunday. Next weekend, it heads to Mbale and Jinja, then to Masaka municipality, Mbarara and Kasese.
Sheila Kawamara Mishambi, the chairperson of the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), said the alliance should not be seen to be representative of only opposition politicians but democracy seeking Ugandans, including NRM supporters although she did not introduce any.
“We saw the prime minister (Amama Mbabazi) trying to explain certain issues about this law, we don’t want to seek so much into the legal technicalities of the bill but the intent to curtail freedoms,” she said.
Bishop Zac Niringiye was away, attending a funeral in Kisoro; but the head of the clergy in Kabale Catholic diocese, Fr Gaetano Batanyenda, was on hand to bless and urge the alliance on.
“Article 3(4) of the Constitution gives Ugandans the right and duty to defend the Constitution, and to resist any person who abuses that constitution,” he said.
Fr Batanyenda had no kind words for the government, which he described as satanic.
“This is our Uganda, it belongs to us, let us wake up and stand up against this government; evil can’t defeat good,” the clergy added.
The statements were based on a joint statement issued by Rugambwa that castigated the Public Order Management Bill, as a draconian law that which infringes on Article 29 of the Constitution.
“By legislating to control, as opposed to regulating, public assemblies and meetings is unconstitutional. In sum, the Public Order Management law grossly undermines constitutionalism and the rule of law in Uganda,” Rugambwa said.
They also argued that the law makes it risky and expensive to question government excesses which may ultimately lead to a total ban on demonstrations and public gatherings.
DP President General Norbert Mao weighed-in: “We want to make a statement to the sycophantic NRM caucus and police, and the overzealous Gen Aronda [Nyakairima, Internal Affairs minister] and all those in positions of authority, that we will not avoid a violent avenue to bring about change if the peaceful avenues are suppressed.”
Midway Mao’s address, riot police moved in and took positions around the premises. Moments later, the armed policemen were withdrawn, before Omala returned with some unarmed policemen.
And when the focus of the address changed to direct attacks on Omala, whom they threatened to drag to court in his personal capacity, he withdrew from the DENIVA premises, and in fact withdrew the police personnel that had surrounded the premises.
Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said in a phone interview that DENIVA was not going to change anything because the law was passed by Parliament.
“But they are free to peacefully challenge it (law) by either going to court or holding public meetings, it is within their democratic rights,” Opondo said.
Activists’ concern is that police officers like Omala will block such public meetings.