A meeting between leaders of government and political parties on April 25 to discuss how the Uganda Police is implementing the Public Order Management Act (POMA) went badly for the Leader of Opposition in Parliament (LoP), Betty Aol Ochan, according to sources.
Three days before the meeting, on April 22, police claiming to be acting under POMA had fired teargas and sprayed water on supporters of rising opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine at his One Love Beach Busabala, near Kampala in Ssabagabo-Makindye sub-county of Wakiso district.
Bobi Wine who is the Kyadondo East constituency MP and a popular musician was arrested and kept under house arrest by police who barricaded his house in Magere-Gayaza on the other side of the district.
So when Ochan headed to the Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo for the meeting organised under the Inter Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), she thought it would be the perfect opportunity to raise the issue at the highest possible level; with the Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.
Rugunda attended the meeting together with Ministers Gen. Elly Tumwine (Security), Jeje Odongo (Internal Affairs), Mwesigwa Rukutana (Deputy Attorney General), Mary Karooro Okurut (General Duties) and Charles Engola (Minister of State for Defence).
Representing the parties was Secretary General Justine Kasule Lumumba and Women League chairperson Lydia Wanyoto for the ruling NRM, Secretary General Nandala Mafabi and his Deputy, Harold Kaija, and Salaamu Musumba, the vice president for eastern Uganda, for main opposition party FDC, and Secretary General Fred Ebil for UPC. Secretary General Gerald Blacks Siranda and Samuel Lubega attended on behalf of DP. Siranda is also the current chair of the IPOD Council. Each party delegation had other members.
Ochan who attended in her capacity as LoP reportedly attempted to bring up the issue of the incarcerated Bobi Wine but the government side cut her off. She was reportedly told the meeting was not to discuss specific cases.
Sources that attended told this website on condition of anonymity that the meeting got heated up as the opposition representatives were denied chance to air out their concern on the ongoing Bobi Wine and Besigye brutality. But it appears that the government side had planned ahead for that.
Although the meeting was initially set to be at the more accessible Imperial Royale Hotel in the middle of Kampala city, it was shifted at the last minute to the more reclusive Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo, about 16km away on the edge of Lake Victoria.
Sources told info256 that Rugunda and Lumumba decided that holding the meeting in the city would attract a lot of attention to it from journalists.
Even as Munyonyo was deemed far enough, it was also decided that any journalists who ventured out there would not be allowed to cover the proceedings. Instead, they would be locked out and given a polished communique of what supposedly was deliberated at the end of the six hour meeting.
In the end what emerged officially was that some common positions were reached and assurances made on others. It was agreed that a subcommittee comprising the attorney general and the five secretaries general of the political parties in IPOD report back to the IPOD council in 10 days with draft regulations for streamlining and smoothening the implementation of the POMA.
“I am very happy about this meeting, this is the understanding we must champion. We have agreed to set up regulations,” said Salaamu Musumba.
“I feel happy that there are no hard positions. There is a change of heart,” she told our reporter after the meeting.
Rugunda who chaired the meeting as Prime Minister did not say much in his usual style.
“We have had a vibrant, candid and productive discussion on POMA,” he said.
Frank Rusa, the executive director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), which is behind the national dialogue process, “the main takeaway from the meeting was getting the ministers to sit and have a discussion with the opposition on the interpretation and implementation of the POMA”.
“NRM is serious this time, they are involved a lot in preparatory processes and even on the regulations of the POMA, and they have shown commitment on forging a way forward,” he said.
However, unofficially, the take away was that POMA as a law remains contentious.
Since POMA was enacted in 2013, it has been used to break up rallies, make arrests and cancel any meeting or assembly organised by any opposition party or individual.
Mainly it has been Dr. Kizza Besigye, a veteran politician who has been targeted but police attention appears to have turned to Bobi Wine. A day after the IPOD meeting, on April 26, Besigye and other FDC leaders and supporters were teargased and dispersed as they celebrated the opening of their office in Kitgum town in northern Uganda. The next day similar scenes were repeated in Lira town. On April 29 Bobi Wine was arrested as he drove from his home, with a huge crowd of supporters in tow, to Kibuli Police CIID headquarters to answer summons over the Busabala incident. He was locked up at Nagalama.
Ochan has since told journalists that “the police has made its own interpretation of the law”.
“The implementation has been the problem. The police turned the notice into permission. And even then when you want to notify them, they do not respond and then teargas follows after,” she said.
Sources say even the government side is “a divided house on this law”.
Some government officials reportedly believe the police brutalization of the opposition hurts the image of the government and should stop. But the other side, which is reportedly led by President Museveni, believes opposition figures have a mission to cause anarchy with the hope of inspiring an insurrection and should be blocked at every opportunity.
The problem starts with Section 5 of the POMA. This states that “an organiser of a meeting shall give notice in writing to the authorised officer of the intention to hold a public meeting at least three days before the proposed date of the public meeting”.
That appears clear enough. However on many occasions, leaders of opposition parties say they write notices to police but it does not respond. Sometimes police deny receiving the notice. Both appear deliberate ploys by police to frustrate the opposition.
Daniel Ruhweza, a lawyer and law lecturer at Makerere University agrees with those opposed to the law. He argues that the implementation has turned out to be totally different from the intention.
“It says notify the police of your intended activity. It does not say seek permission, to the best of my understanding. When you notify the police, police provides guidance and security if you require it.”
He says the law was not intended for what it is being used for and it is the reason why it is only used to curtail those with alternative views.
He says the way the police is implementing POMA goes back to Constitutional Appeal no. 09 of 2005; a prominent case filed by Muwanga Kivumbi against the government.
Muwanga Kivumbi argued that Section 32 of the Police Act did not give police permission to prohibit political activity and was unconstitutional if it did. He won. But POMA appears to have resurrected the police’s impunity.
“Right now where an activity is not in the interests of the powers that be, it will be prohibited,” Ruhweza told our reporter.
The issue of contention is that Section 8 of POMA grants an authorised officer the right to stop a public meeting.
Section 8(1) reads: “Subject to the direction of the Inspector General of Police, an authorised officer or any other police officer of or above the rank of inspector, may stop or prevent the holding of a public meeting where the public meeting is held contrary to the Act”.
Section 3 of the POMA has also become contentious. It says, “The Inspector General of Police or an authorised officer shall have the power to regulate the conduct of all public meetings in accordance with the law”.
If those opposed to POMA say it majorly talks about notification of the police, those on the government side can as well say the IGP has powers to regulate public meetings and it is well within the IGP’s right to interpret the broad powers as to grant or deny permission for the meetings to proceed.
Critics have argued that the POMA was in many ways a replication of Section 32(2) of the Police Act which was declared null and void by the Constitutional Court in the ruling of Muwanga Kivumbi vs the Attorney General in 2008.
One of the judgments read; “It is my considered view that section 32 (2) of the Police Act gives the inspector general of police excessive powers that which he may use a he wishes to curtail people’s rights and freedom of conscience, speech, association and assembly…”
It adds that “In case the inspector general of police sees any possibility of a breach of peace at any assembly, the police should provide protection.”
Ruhweza says as long as the Constitutional Court does not come out and declare clearly once again the significance of POMA, there is going to be an increase in the number of events and public engagements that are being frustrated by the misapplication and misinterpretation of this law.