Kampala — Uganda's Public Order Management Bill (POMB) specifies that police approval must be issued for any "public meeting". This, in turn, is defined as a "gathering, assembly, concourse, procession or demonstration of three or more persons in or on any public road... or other public place". If interpreted to the letter, such meetings would include even casual conversations about politics that take place among everyday people.
"How are lecturers going to speak to us if they have to seek police permission to address a meeting of more than three people?" That's a question that Makerere University Guild president Anne Ebaju Adeke recently asked in response to Ugandan Parliament's decision last month to pass POMB.
The bill has been widely criticized at home and abroad by individuals and human rights bodies, such as Amnesty International. While the bill's exact contents have yet to be made public, police are already enforcing the new law.
On 19 August, students at Makerere University held a rally, which they say was meant as a press conference for the launch of a campaign against POMB. The police used teargas to disperse the gathered representatives from civil society organizations, as well as members of parliament.
"We were arrested for holding a rally that the police claim was illegal. They roughed us up and drove us to a police station where we were locked up," said Adeke, the university guild president.
Apprehended with 13 other students, Adeke said they would continue to resist the new law.
"Now more than ever, we have to prove that such a law has no place in this country. We must make this government face reality and stop using survival mechanisms such as curtailing our freedoms to stay in power," he said. "Implementing this law will mean institutions, such as Makrere University, will have to close down. For example, how is a political science lecturer going to avoid mentioning things, such as the recently discovered oil. Will he need police permission to discuss this subject in the classroom?"
Justus Harris Akampira, a student at Makerere University who also participated in the rally, was equally defiant. "Police stormed campus and started arresting us by saying that we were holding an illegal rally. They beat us up and broke my leg. I am still nursing severe injuries as a result of that arrest," he explained. "We have now come up with a counter measure by holding political discussions in hiding."
But Ibbin Ssekumbi, a spokesperson for Kampala Metropolitan Police, said that the bill does not require people to seek permission to hold public rallies. Rather, he claimed that POMB was about informing police in advance so that the meetings can be regulated.
"People's reasoning about the Public Order Management Bill is based on illusions because they have never had a chance to read it," said Ssekumbi. "It has not been publicized for them to understand it."
The Uganda Human Rights Commission recently issued a statement calling upon government to immediately release the full contents of the bill.
Critics say that the National Resistance Movement government under President Museveni is using POMB to entrench their power and stifle the opposition.
Proponents of POMB claim it's for crowd control, but others say it's being used by the police to regulate political activities. What do you think?