It is intriguing the ease with which President Yoweri Museveni - and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Caucus - seems to have given in to Parliament on a bill that would have saved him from the demonstrators that have made his fourth term in office a living hell.
The NRM party caucus, summoned to discuss the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee report on the Public Order Management Bill on May 3 surprisingly agreed to adopt most of the report's recommendations.
The bill, which seeks to curtail public gatherings of the nature that has fuelled the opposition activist group A4C (now 4GC), was tabled in Parliament on Oct. 25 last year, by Internal Affairs Minister James Baba and handed to committee for scrutiny before its second reading, by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.
The committee's report was tabled in the house on April 25 but was not discussed, as Third Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of Government Business Moses Ali said the executive needed more time to take a position on it, especially its criticism of the draft bill as attempting to violate the constitutional rights of Ugandans.
In a rather surprising move, the Caucus, which met on May 3, agreed to support most of the committee's recommendations. . "A part from Clause 6 on which the executive wants further discussion, the caucus unanimously agreed to adopt the other recommendations of my committee,"Chairman Steven Tashobya told The Independent.
Clause six defines a public meeting as a gathering of three or more people in any public place, at which the principles, policy, actions or failure of any government or organisation are discussed; or where pressure groups are formed; petitions submitted; or other mobilisation or demonstration occurs to oppose the views, principles or actions of any person or institution, including government.
The committee proposed that the clause be deleted as it contravened article Article 21 of the Constitution as it not only restricted the scope of matters that can be freely discussed, it gave too much power to the Inspector General of Police, giving him license to discriminate against specific groups and ideas by making it possible to deny them permission to assemble.
"On the days of notice [for permission to assemble]," Tashobya said, "we all settled for 5 days of notice to the IGP." The bill had proposed that any person who intends to hold an assembly gives the police prior notice of 7 days, but the committee recommended 4, and the NRM Caucus resolved to support 5.
However, Caucus spokesperson Evelyn Anite differs from Tashobya on Clause 6.
"We have already agreed with the committee on everything," Anite told The Independent. "Clause six is about the definition of a public meeting and we agreed to make it open-ended as opposed to the bill which restricted it to 3 -7 people."
It appears the caucus agreed with the concern of the committee and stake holders consulted that a meeting of three persons cannot pose such a danger to the state that it requires police regulation.
Human Rights Watch and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative condemned the bill saying it gravely undermined the freedom of expression and assembly. FHRI Chairman Livingstone Sewanyana said responding to criticism by imposing overly restrictive laws was a dangerous step toward tyranny and dictatorship.
The caucus also resolved that the duty of the police be left at regulation, instead of granting permission, place and time of assembly, as the bill had proposed.
"Police will just come in to ensure that the assembly is peaceful and orderly, as opposed to granting permission and determining whether the assembly is held or not as the bill had suggested," Anite said.
Anite denied accusations that the bill targeted the opposition, arguing that no Ugandan would be immune to its provisions once it came into law.
"This bill affects all Ugandans that is why NRM members agreed to the amendments suggested by the committee," she said.
Kinkizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi warned NRM members a day before the party caucus that they should discuss the bill bearing in mind that they could also fall victims to it.
A taste of what could happen was the May 1 arrest of Workers' MP Sam Lyomoki, a member of the NRM, while leading a demonstration to protest abuse of workers.
The compromises on the bill were unexpected by many, especially because its draconian provisions were consistent with the regime's increasing repression of opposition, especially using the police, and would help silence the growing activism of the opposition through demonstrations, demands for re-imposition of presidential term limits and petitions like the one to impeach the president. That a predominantly NRM committee chaired by party loyalist Tashobya and an NRM caucus chaired by the President challenged the bill's human rights credentials had been unexpected.
There had been speculation that the president would persuade his party members, who make the House's dominant majority, to vote against the report when it comes to the floor of Parliament, but this is unlikely.
However, legal experts say both the committee and the caucus realised that the bill did not stand a chance, given the illegalities it contained, as it would have been open to constitutional challenge.
The committee, in its report pointed to Article 92 of the Constitution, which enjoins Parliament not to pass any law that alters the decision or judgment of any court. Yet Clause 8(1) of the bill, which empowers police to prohibit public meetings contradicted the Constitutional Court ruling in the case of Muwanga Kivumbi vs Attorney General pronounced such power unconstitutional and ruled that the right to freedom of assembly and to peaceful demonstration was a fundamental one.
The Committee argued that it was illogical to hold demonstration or meeting organisers responsible for loss or damage was caused by their participants as the bill proposed, as that responsibility belonged to the police. The caucus agreed that each individual take responsibility for their actions, not the meeting organisers.
The report will be tabled before Parliament for discussion, and given the NRM Caucus' majority the compromises reached with the committee will likely pass into law. For the proprietors of the bill - especially the President who had hoped to quiet the discontent that has sowed chaos in the entire first year of his fourth term in office - the Public Order Management Act that will pass will likely not satisfy their intention to sabotage critical meetings and demonstrations, and curb growing unrest that it spreading beyond the traditional political opposition into academia and the religious leadership.