By Daniel Ruhweza
Today I pray for this unfortunate lady whose life, like that of Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan, has not been spared by that bullet or whatever artillery was used to blast away at her decency – mercilessly ripping her insides apart http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/-/688334/1144540/-/c2q5gkz/-/index.html
I wonder what she thought of in those dying moments as her right to life was unceremoniously yanked away by an indiscriminate and callous act. I equally wonder what the trigger happy man or woman felt as the poor lady collapsed in a heap. Did that gunman jubilate? Was there a feeling that a contribution had been made to the socio-economic or political development of his or her country? I can only wonder.
My thoughts are then turned to the ‘walkers’. What do they hope to achieve when they ‘walk to work’? Will the economy suddenly be sorted out as they ‘protest against the sky-rocketing’ prices? Probably not. Why waste time walking instead of sorting out the economy directly? I then think about the police once more – Did they get it right when they assumed that by blocking a few politicians from walking, they would have the situation quelled? The answer is simply res ipsa loquitur ( the facts speak for themselves). More paradoxical however is that the policeman who stops the ‘walkers’ and the ‘walkers’ themselves -are all Ugandans. They have to go back home and look for a way to survive the economic storm sweeping over the country.. They probably walked back home together after the melee and shared the same communal water tap.
So, if that be the case, what is the way out of this vicious cycle?
First of all, the basics. For each human being, there are basic rights and freedoms. Some are absolute whereas others are not. Walking to work or merely walking is such a inherent freedom. Whereas it is true that the Constitution requires freedoms to be enjoyed in a way that does not infringe on the freedoms of others (Article 43), it does not in any way stop or prevent such freedoms from being enjoyed per se. As Mark C. Tonner of the US Department of State stated, ”freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights and a critical component of modern, functioning democracies. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/04/160528.htm. I agree with him in -toto. Thus, if we claim that Uganda is such a democracy, then walking to work, as chosen by any individual as an expression of displeasure at the current state of affairs in one’s country, in the same way that others choose to either refrain from food and drink or paints ones’ face or cars with words or symbols expressing such dissatisfaction -or approval- , should be respected as a way of expressing peacefully and without fear of intimidation.
The initiators of this the ‘walk to work’ therefore clearly asked those who wished to stand in solidarity with other struggling Ugandans or those who wished to express their grievances, to do so by simply walking to their various places of work. Period! Whether one lived two yards or ten kilometres away from one’s workplace, the simple sign of solidarity or expression was to walk – nothing more, nothing less. In itself of course, walking will not or would not change the economic situation in Uganda in the same way as carrying placards and hiring a band to march across the central business district would not stop domestic violence or HIV/AIDS. The idea here being to show one’s commitment to this cause. As I understand it it was and remains a voluntary exercise. It is always envisaged that not everyone will support one’s choice and that is expected in a free and democratic society. No one was forced or is supposed to be forced to do so participate. Besides, the ‘walkers’ specifically asked those who wished to support them, NOT to walk in huge groups or to engage in any acts that would breach the peace or the rights of others. Those walkers, who tried to force others to walk were wrong. Those who tried to block non-walkers from using the roads were also in the wrong.
It is therefore, in my humble opinion, unfair – and discriminatory, for some people to be prevented from walking to work simply because they ‘might’ or ‘will’ be followed by others’. I reiterate that it is discriminatory and unfair – contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to the Ugandan Constitution. It would be ridiculous to stop someone from accessing their means of livelihood and sustenance. Therefore, the situation in Uganda today – where the police force decides to make its own interpretation of which type of walking ought to be allowed and which ought not, is laughable, unfortunate, uncalled for and unjustifiable. Preventing a person from expressing his or her view in a way he or she has chosen merely because such expression might be abused by others is plainly wrong.
It was argued that the police should be notified officially when such expressions are being planned. However, not only was this a situation which didn’t warrant such notification, but even if it did, this information was and is so readily available in the media. In essence, it is a lame excuse which ought to and has indeed fallen on its face. It is legally known that notice may be either actual or implied. As seen this week, the police intervened in spite of not being ‘officially informed’. Therefore, stopping some people from walking because there was no official notice is to try to have one’s cake and eat it at the same time. Further, the insistence that the ‘walkers’ wanted to overthrow the government seems to be to be very out of touch with reality. The government has just won an election with a majority of 68%. How would the same government which has won this election be overthrown by a minority? The nexus is hard for me to place but that is a discussion for another day.
Therefore, the aforementioned reasons did not justify blocking some people from walking this past week or in future. Rather, it achieved the opposite result of inciting public discontent and triggering protests and riots. This is what happened during the demonstrations against the Mabira forest give-away. The police has the duty to maintain law and order – not to augment it. I have queried elsewhere that it is not for the police to choose ‘how’ people should express their views. The Police only provide security for those who are expressing those views.
That said, it would be unfair for me to assume that there would not be any ‘ likelihood that some people would still choose to walk in smaller groups. It is for these that the role of the Police is called for. The police would have provided the necessary deployment on the streets – probably of single file movement policemen as was the case during the just concluded presidential and parliamentary elections. The policemen would have been equipped to quell any acts of ‘actual breach of the peace’ rather than assuming that specific people will cause these breaches and thereby restricting their chosen form of movement.
It should also be noted that by arraigning the suspected ‘walkers’ in court (after long hours of confinement), on flimsy charges like blocking traffic or inciting violence, the police have contributed to the abuse of the court process. Precedent shows that the prosecution of such cases hardly comes to its logical conclusion. As with the case of the Alabama non violent marches in the 1960’s, the walkers are not bothered about their freedom – some have outrightly refused to apply for bail and have been granted bail ‘force’ – this shows that the fear of prosecution or gaol has waned. More so, the damage to our country’s reputation as such events are reported all over the world, is irreparable and our tourism and investment profile is affected.
Therefore, it is my strongest conviction that what the police did was wrong – and I am sure here are, within their rank and file, officers and men who agree that it was completely unnecessary. As such, the use of tear gas and rubber or real bullets was not and will not be useful since all it does in my view is ferment more frustration and anger among certain- but certainly not all – sectors of the public. One can only look for a more nuanced position – a win/win situation where human dignity and freedom is respected. Failure of which, we shall either see more people being shot at or clobbered by those supposed to protect them as we anticipate more and more walking to work or other such expressions in future. We should instead look to a more balanced approach from the Uganda Police Force – an approach that acknowledges that there is a correct interpretation of the law – despite its underpinnings- that rights and freedoms, when used in their proper place, can actually be used and protected for the benefit of all. Obviously I do acknowledge that no State will kindly look upon any form of protests of whatever kind. However, our Nation’s commitment to a free and democratic society envisages that dissent should not be quelled by coercion, intimidation or force. The history of our nation has enough stories already of such acts.
As for today, let me weep -for the fallen and the injured. My heart bleeds for the lady slain in innocence, I feel for her children, her husband – her family, her friends. She obviously, like most of us, has been feeling the pinch of the economic down-slide. She probably was trying to search for a way to feed her children that night – and God forbid that hers was a suckling baby.
Today, my heart bleeds for her – our Ugandan Neda Agha-Soltan- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8176158.stm
May Her Soul Rest in Eternal Peace
The author, Daniel.R.Ruhweza is an Attorney and Lecturer-at-Law and a PHD student at law.
Posted By Passions, Thoughts, Sights… to Sights and Sighs…