It is the first time that Museveni and his party have met formally to discuss an antidote to the nagging opposition whose face is Dr Kizza Besigye. The leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), like many of his supporters, has been arrested three times in the past month on charges of unlawful assembly, disobeying lawful orders and obstructing traffic. On all three occasions, he has been released on court bail.
But President Museveni has been vocal in his rejection of bail for a certain category of suspects. Initially, it was murder and treason, but in light of the walk-to-work protests, he has added rioting and economic sabotage to the offences where bail should be denied.
The team, according to a source that attended the seven-hour meeting at State House Entebbe on Friday night, comprises Security minister and NRM secretary general, Amama Mbabazi; the Attorney General, Khiddu Makubuya; Local Government minister, Adolf Mwesige; and MPs Jacob Oulanyah (Omoro county), Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa West), and Elizabeth Kalungi (Woman, Kanungu).
The team’s task is to look at how to amend the Constitution and include the clauses that Museveni is keen on. The committee was set up after members failed to agree on whether or not a constitutional amendment is in order.
The President feels that people who participate in demonstrations are economic saboteurs because they paralyse business. He is also angry with the media coverage of the protests, calling it unbalanced.
Besigye, who was badly injured during his latest, much publicised, arrest in which he was sprayed with pepper before being bundled onto a police pickup truck, has vowed to continue with the protest, a move that will expose him to violation of the new, more serious legal regime if Museveni gets his way.
“When I see the reporting in papers, radios or television, the reporting is malicious or wrong. I advise you to stop this because this country belongs to Ugandans, not institutions or radios,” Museveni recently told journalists at his home in Rwakitura.
“I will put before the incoming Parliament an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting bail for the following cases: murder, treason, rape, defilement, child sacrifice, rioting and economic sabotage, except if the six months are exceeded. I will also seek to put in the Penal Code a section on economic sabotage.”
We have been told that those in favour of amending Article 23 were mostly the new, young MPs, apparently too eager to impress Museveni.
“They were elected in February and the first thing they do as MPs is to come to State House to meet the President. Some of them were falling over themselves because the President mentioned them by name,” one NRM caucus member told The Observer on condition of anonymity.
We have further been told that lawyers like Mbabazi and Oulanyah supported the President’s proposal. Oulanyah was chairman of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee in the 7th Parliament, which orchestrated the constitutional amendment to lift term limits.
“We told them that the laws you make today may turn out to be monsters tomorrow. None of us here is immune to them. We need to think hard about it,” the source said.
Article 23 states that nobody shall be deprived of personal liberty, except in specific legal circumstances. Although bail is a court matter and is at its discretion, the Constitution, under Article 28(3), states that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed to be innocent until proven guilty or until that person has pleaded guilty.
Also, the freedoms to associate, assemble and demonstrate peacefully are civil liberties spelt out, not only in Uganda’s constitution, but also in international instruments to which Uganda is a signatory. Some members of the NRM caucus are concerned that a constitutional amendment will affect these liberties.
Those opposed to the amendment, the source said, would prefer that the Attorney General comes up with a new Public Order Management Bill instead of tinkering with the Constitution and risking opening a Pandora’s box.
Contacted for a comment, Prof Fredrick Jjuuko, a human rights lawyer who lectures at Makerere University, expressed reservations about the planned amendment, saying it is politically motivated.
Referring to the presumption of innocence, Jjuuko said whoever alleges must prove, adding that one should be free from incarceration while appearing in court because one is still presumed to be innocent.
“They can go ahead and make the law but it will be unconstitutional to the extent that it doesn’t take care of those concerns,” he cautioned.