Do Ugandans Have a Right to Protest?

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Uganda police have banned demonstrations just as opposition groups call for peaceful demonstrations to protest the February 18 presidential election results.

The throngs of masses gathered in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and
Tunis have inspired millions of people all over the world, but in
Uganda, protests have been banned following the February
18 presidential elections, with Uganda's long-time President Yoweri
Museveni declaring there would be "no Egyptian-like movement"
in Uganda at a press conference just days before the elections.

The timing of the ban occurs just as leading members of Uganda's
opposition parties including the Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda's
People's Congress, and the Democratic Party, have called for mass protests.

Illustrating the readiness of the Ugandan government to crackdown on
protestors, Museveni explained: "We would just lock them up... in the
most humane manner possible, bang them into jails and that would be the
end of the story."

The move to ban protests was widely reported worldwide -- even the Wall Street Journal picked
up the story, running the headline "Uganda Police to Crush Opposition
Protests Against Poll Outcome" and the US government has openly
criticized the move, with US Assistant Secretary of State for African
Affairs Johnnie Carson emphasizing in a recent BBC interview that Ugandan citizens have the right
to freedom of assembly.

“I would appeal to President Museveni to allow the peaceful
demonstrations. Freedom of association in a peaceful manner is a clear
democratic right; it is a fundamental right” Carson said.

The Right to Freedom of Assembly?

Uganda’s
constitution
 and international law guarantees Ugandan citizens the
right to freedom of assembly, but Ugandan law enforcement seem to have
other ideas.

Kale Kayihura, chief of Uganda’s police forces issued a press
release
on February 26th, which declared demonstrations unlawful.
The release explained that police had learned about planned
demonstrations to protest the elections outcome and warned that they
would be shutdown immediately.

Kayihura went on to state that though Ugandans are given the freedom
of assembly, the police have a duty to keep the peace.

But while Kayihura insists he is merely upholding the law and keeping
the peace, a legal analyst familiar with Ugandan law says the police
declaration is unlawful and the police ban of demonstrations does not
meet the legal requirements which would allow the police to curb the
right of assembly.

In order to comply with Ugandan law, the police must have specific,
sufficient evidence that a particular group is planning to create
unrest, and the restriction must be narrowly formulated; it cannot be
a broad restriction against demonstrations in general.

By banning demonstrations, the Ugandan government is denying Ugandans
a fundamental right. The international community must protect and
advocate for the right to freedom of assembly for all Ugandans.

A Ready Show of Force

The continuing presence of heavily armed military units which
appeared weeks before the elections on the streets of Kampala, Uganda's
capital city, as well as in rural areas of the country, has intensified
an already tense and uneasy environment.

One Ugandan journalist, summarizing the mood during the
elections evoked a radio journalist's succint summary of the general
sentiment: "People were fearing the threat of war."

Viewed by many as an attempt to intimidate the population, European
Union election observers noted that the army's visibility created "an
atmosphere of intimidation" on election day and may have kept voters
away from the polls.

It is also important to note that several weeks before opposition
leaders publicly called for mass demonstrations, Ugandan police chief
Kale Kayihura claimed
police had evidence
that the opposition was planning to create a
"disturbance" during the elections period in an interview with the
Independent.

Kayihura explained in an early February interview: "We have evidence …
otherwise why would Besigye (FDC presidential candidate) want to have
his own tally of election results? If they think we don’t know, they are
mistaken.” However, the threat Kayihura referred to never materialized
during the elections.

In past mass demonstrations, Ugandans have experienced the
heavy-handedness of the Ugandan police. In the September
2009 demonstrations, which rocked Buganda and Kampala, nearly 30 people
were killed by the police, according to a Human Rights Watch report on Uganda.  Human Rights Watch noted that:

"Police and military fired live ammunition at rioters, bystanders,
and people hiding in their homes. The use of lethal force by government
forces drew criticism, but no one was held to account for the 27 deaths.
Government officials blamed the media and the rioters for inciting
violence. Hundreds were arrested in police operations marked by
brutality."

In 2007, during the Mabira Forest demonstrations aimed to preserve
one of the biggest national forests from destruction by a
government-sponsored developer, an otherwise peaceful demonstation
detoriarated quickly as teargas, riot police and rubber bullets
hastily scattered demonstrators.

If the Ugandan people take to the streets to peacefully protest and
exercise their democratic rights, the Ugandan government must not repeat
the events of 2009, where dozens of civilians were killed by police. 

Ugandans have a right to the freedom of assembly.  More importantly,
the Ugandan Constitution guarantees its citizens the right to defend
the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. In other words,
the denial of the freedom of assembly and other constitutional rights
has deep political ramifications for Uganda.

Editor's Note: For legal information originally included with this article including links to the Ugandan constitution please visit this link and scroll down to the bottom.

This article first appeared on Vote4Africa.org, and is
reprinted here with permission.
Vote4Africa is a not-for-profit
organization that mobilizes international grassroots support to ensure
the effective implementation of free and fair elections throughout
Africa. For more
information, visit Vote4Africa.org, follow on Twitter
@Vote4Africa or join the discussion on Facebook.

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