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No democracy without dissent

Arrest of Makerere University students protesting tuition increment makes a joke of our democracy

COMMENT | MICHAEL ABONEKA | The right to dissent is by and large an extension of the freedom of conscience, expression, movement, religion, assembly and association enshrined under Article 29 of the Constitution of Uganda, 1995.

Uganda also signed the African Charter on democracy, elections and good governance (ACDEG) in December 2008, which espouses the right to dissent and holding opinion important for any democracy. The charter, under Chapter 4, further enjoins states to protect such freedoms and, under article 27(8), enjoins states to protect and promote the freedom of expression, opinion and the press and media.

Now that Uganda has committed to promote and protect these freedoms, why is the right to dissent in this country becoming increasingly an offence?

Recently, a group of students in Makerere University Kampala were opposed to the arbitral increment of tuition to which they took to the “streets” of the university in a peaceful demonstration. They were exercising the right to peaceful demonstration and opinion under Article 29 of the Constitution of Uganda and 27(8) of the ACDEG. But to the surprise of many; especially, those who live in Uganda, they were pounced on, harassed, assaulted, arrested, and carted off in police trucks.

Over 30 students were arrested and bundled to Wandegeya Police Station. They were denied access to lawyers and even food. What crime did they commit? Is having a different opinion a crime?

Be that as it may, we also learned later that the arrested and assaulted students were suspended while they were in the cells. This is the worst joke of democracy I have ever witnessed. How do you arrest a student for speaking out on the arbitral increment of tuition? What happened to the great Makerere University where we promote intellectual debates? What happened to the right to fair hearing under Article 28 of our Constitution? Is the Makerere University administration and the state murdering our own Constitution once again?

We need to stop pretending. If we are indeed a free democratic state as we call it, then the practice of the same should be seen. Dissenting views must be respected all the time because that is what democracy is about and as long as we do not respect them, then we are a pretending democracy.

It has further become increasingly difficult to hold a different view than those in power. It seems only government people in positions of power in the state have monopoly of opinion. We have had a series of events; such as the amending of the Constitution to remove the presidential age limit period, where all those that were opposed to lifting of the age limit under the campaign famously known as “togikwatako” were pounced upon, beaten, detained; including our own MPs. Several rallies were reined in and stopped because they were opposed to the lifting of the age limit. One wonders why there was public consultation in the first place only to be suffocated by the state militia. We have recently had a journalist assaulted, arrested and detained for his beautiful writings, most of which some people in power thought was not good reading. In a democracy you don’t arrest, intimidate and detain “brains”, you rather engage in an intellectual contest-you write back and honourably disagree.

No amount of tear gas or heavy deployment of militia can change a mind; at least not mine. So when the state deploys such means of harassment, assault on dissenting views it is attempting to hold water in a basket. It will not succeed in taking away our opinions or minds.

To those who feel we should not have dissenting views, where should those with dissenting views go? How should we live without debate? How should we live with only one opinion? As a country, we need to think critically about these issues because as a citizenry, we shall always speak out our minds. That is what I am doing in this article and it is always our right to do so. Whoever feels disturbed by our opinions, before they procure teargas or order brutal arrests, they should invest in reading and writing intellectual rebuttals to our opinions-this is what they call democracy.

Moving forward, our leaders must respect our views whether in agreement or in dissent because they are our views and they matter too. Secondly, public participation in all affairs of the state is a right guaranteed under Article 38 of the constitution and, for that reason there will always be different views and opinions on different policies and decisions. It is still our right as citizens to challenge any undemocratic and arbitral policies that do not reflect our will and power for the leaders are our servants and must at all times respect our views. As we move towards elections (which are supposedly the means of change of government for a democratic state), we need to respect all views. And if the right to dissent is abused further, I think elections will be meaningless for Uganda.


Michael Aboneka is the Project Coordinator of African Governance architecture (AGA | Uganda)

One comment

  1. With all these assaults and detentions am made to believe that even the elites we think are in the ruling government are no longer elites but………. However, much you force a hen to hatch by locking it inside the poultry house it will still not hatch. so no amount of force will change a dissenting mind unless or otherwise. I would have loved this government to learn that we are past the times of oppression but rather in times when we need to be accommodative to divergent opinions and ready to challenge with intellectual integrity.

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