On October 9, 1962, the Union Jack flag was lowered and the Uganda national flag was hoisted – bringing to an end of the 68 years of British colonial rule.
The agitation for Uganda’s independence began in the 1940s through demonstrations. In 1952, farmers who had had enough of the manipulative pricing of their cotton and other cash crops formed the first political party in Uganda – the Uganda National Congress (UNC) – under the leadership of Ignatius Kangave Musaazi.
The hope was that with independence, the ‘Pearl of Africa’ would not only mark an end of colonial rule, but it would also usher in true self-rule based on democratic values and attainment of dignity and fulfillment.
It was hoped that people from all walks of life would be able to exercise their individual and political freedoms, especially for critical thought and dissenting views, and that there would be fairness, accountability and justice for any violations that occur.
Indeed, over the years, Uganda has made progress in a number of areas.
In 1995, the country adopted a progressive Constitution that appeared to mark a new path from the many false starts on freedoms and accountable leadership. While recalling our history which has been characterized by political and constitutional instability, the Constitution provided for the protection and promotion of fundamental and other human rights and freedoms under Chapter Four. The supreme law further provides for other pillars of a democracy.
Today, that Constitution is a shadow of its former self.
Controversial amendments on presidential terms and age limit have crippled key safeguards in the Constitution that the very supremacy of the law is now in question.
We also continue to see a proliferation of repressive laws that are littered with unconstitutional claw back clauses on the guarantees of the Constitution. Impotently, the Constitution fails to cure the inconsistencies. Few positives by the courts such as reforming police powers on peaceful assemblies have been thwarted by new legislation by Parliament.
As Uganda marks 57 years as an independent state, civil liberties – largely in the context of political freedoms – remain an illusion.
Whereas there is a sense of tolerance of divergent views, many individuals and groups are often targeted, harassed and blocked from exercising freedoms. The rights to the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to a fair trial remain most contentious.
Uganda, for example, continues to have insult and criminal defamation laws on the law books. The colonial era laws are enforced with devastating consequences on individual freedoms, leaving chilling effects on free expression. Repeated calls to repeal the laws remain unheeded. Today, sections 179 and 180 of the Penal Code Act are being challenged in the East African Court of Justice in Arusha, Tanzania. Insult laws under the Computer Misuse Act (section 24 and 25) are also being challenged before the Constitutional Court of Uganda.
Press freedom, especially coverage of assemblies and other political freedoms, remains a risky affair. Radio stations have been switched off, journalists have found themselves in trouble for hosting opposition figures and others have been brutalized by police and army officers in the course of their duties.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) also continues to demonstrate increased stranglehold on freedom of the press. A few days ago, the UCC ordered five media houses (NTV, NBS, BBS, Bukedde TV and Radio Sapientia) to show cause why UCC should not revoke their licenses. The media houses are faulted for live coverage of police brutality and exchanges between rioting crowds and security personnel during a Bobi Wine convoy. UCC contends that the media houses breached the controversial Minimum Broadcasting Standards under section 31 and schedule 4 of the Uganda Communications Act, 2013.
Police continues to block Bobi Wine from holding music concerts at his private property, One Love Beach in Busabala. When he announced his 2019 Independence Day Concert, police and army was heavily deployed at his home and the beach to ensure no concert takes place. In sharp contrast, music concerts in support of the ruling party go on uninterrupted with heavy political messages.
Violations of personal liberty and the right to a fair trial also remain major concerns. Police continues to illegally detain suspects beyond 48 hours and incommunicado detention is also on the high. Prolonged detention on remand is also common. The 2018 Uganda Prisons Service report revealed that at least 9,100 inmates had overstayed their remand period. Of these, 3,844 are charged with petty offences.
We have made reasonable progress on a number of fronts. That said, respect for political freedoms is one of the greatest tragedies that we must pay attention to as we celebrate Uganda At 57. If we fail to do so, we shall be preparing yet another chapter of turbulent times in Uganda’s history. True independence means individual freedom and economic control.