Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Powers of the president need trimming
Just like many African tyrants, Zimbabwe’s strongman, Robert Mugabe’s larger-than-life ego came full circle last week when he decreed that only God can remove him from power!

Mugabe, 84, is so powerful that at most times he seems immortal. But the truth is, there comes a time when we all have to leave the stage. This is not alien to politicians either. What is of essence, however, is how our leaders opt to give up power. Do they want to be carried out on a stretcher like Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda or to die a lonely life with a dollar stuffed briefcase like Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga?

Whatever the scenario leaders need to be cognisant of the fact that in this new world order where democracies are sprouting across the globe they can’t use extremism as a tool for any purpose. Mugabe has on many occasions locked up his chief political rival Morgan Tsvangirai- denying him a chance to campaign for his ideas on how to take Zimbabwe out of its current predicament .

It’s not surprising therefore, that Tsvangirai who won the March general elections is now weighing his options; whether to pull out of this week’s Zimambwe presidential run- off which is widely expected to be a travesty. Tsvangirai’s MDC has stated that 70 of its supporters have been murdered by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF rampaging militias.

Amnesty International says most of the victims appear to have been tortured to death by their abductors. Soldiers commanded by generals loyal to Mugabe are also going about threatening villagers with guns, instructing them to vote for Mugabe on June 27.

Much of what is taking place in Zimbabwe, a once upon a time food basket of Africa, is not new to Ugandans who have suffered under dictatorial regimes for decades.

The events in Zimbabwe though, seem to have led our own President Museveni to have a personal reflection and express a change of mind ( at least for now) when he told the media on his recent trip to the UK that his old friend should prepare to leave power once he loses the June 27 elections.

This is the same Museveni who like Mugabe had in the past vowed never to hand over power to the opposition even if they had won the presidential elections. And to put this whole question of presidential handover in perspective; should Ugandans trust that Museveni’s word alone will drive a tired senile Mugabe from power if he loses the vote? And should the country’s destiny be left to the swing moods of a leader? This cannot possibly be the best approach to good governance and empowerment of the ordinary people to choose their leaders in a free democratic environment.

As a country we need to encourage development of viable institutions around which politics can be organised. One of these institutions is the Electoral Commission whose independence must be guaranteed by our electoral laws and respected by the incumbent regime.

Sadly though, with the 2011 presidential elections just around the corner, there seem not to be any move by our parliament to clean up the electoral process by amending our laws to measure-up to the present challenges.

Already, the Supreme Court has pointed out numerous loopholes in our electoral laws which, if not corrected, can breed political turmoil in the future. For instance, parliament should amend our constitution and the attendant subsidiary laws to drastically reduce the powers of a president waiting to hand over power to a successor after elections.

Such a president should lose the power to unilaterally declare a state of emergency or suspend the constitution– which powers have been employed by military tyrants to rule by decree and reverse the gains of a growing democracy.

The out going president should also be barred from dissolving parliament and reshuffling the government . These and many other reforms are needed to establish stability in our electoral process. And time might not be on our side.

The writer is a journalist and lawyer

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Police should protect, not impede liberties
The recent Constitutional Court ruling on the role of the police force in organised public assemblies and demonstrations has attracted mixed reactions and varying interpretations from the public.

Various interested parties have made differing interpretations presumably to suit their competing agendas. Sections of the society have the misconception that the court ruling generally rendered the broad functions and role of the police in maintaining public order and peace redundant.

As a result, both the public and the leadership of the police force are at loggerheads over whether the police have any role left in policing public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations.

This misunderstanding can also best explain the events of last week when opposition members of Parliament walked out of theBudget presentation session in protest of police brutality. The MPs’ action was justifiable given the manner in which highhanded police officers bundled wo female legislators in a very indecent manner.

From press reports and television images, surely the police officers involved in the fracas with the MPs acted unprofessionally. The Constitution Court specifically examined the powers of the police under section 32 (2) of the Police Act which hitherto, allowed the Inspector General of Police to prohibit (stop) the convening of public assembly or processions.

The petitioner in the case expressed worry that the police was becoming increasingly partisan by blocking the political activities of political opposition parties. The petitioners argued that the unfettered discretion on the part of the police contravened the freedoms of equality, expression , movement and assembly.

On the other hand, the Attorney General argued that the police powers as provided for under Article 212 of the Constitution read together with Article 43 allowed for restrictions on the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms in public interest.

Court rejected the AG’s arguments because Article 20 of the Constitution provides that fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual are inherent and not granted by the State. And that the rights and freedoms of the individual and groups shall be respected, upheld and promoted by all organs and agencies of the government and by all persons.

The court noted that for the police to evoke Article 43 to limit individual freedoms, the grounds for such limitations must be sufficiently important and they should not be arbitrary, unfair or based on irrational considerations. The court also noted that a society, especially a democratic one, should be able to tolerate a good deal of annoyance or disorder so as to encourage the greatest possible freedom of expression , particularly political expression.

So, did the Constitutional Court ruling bar the police from exercising their duties to maintain order at public rallies and during demonstrations? No. In fact, the court noted that the right to a peaceful protest is not absolute. The police have a wide range of powers to control and restrict the actions of protesters.

But the court stated that the police’s powers should not be exercised in an unaccountable and discriminatory manner. In a nutshell, the meaning of the ruling is that the police’s powers should be regulatory but not prohibitive. This same notion is captured in international legal instruments that govern civil policing. In a democracy, the police should serve to protect and not impede civil liberties.

The police should work to create an enabling environment where civil liberties can be realised. Use of excessive force to a degree that police officers can attempt to ‘lift’ a female MP’s skirt is deplorable. However, the police-MPs fracas also exposed the lopsidedness of our Parliament in dealing with the problem of brutality of our armed forces.

Parliament should not wait for their own to suffer the excesses of the police and other related abuses by the State before it acts. The last thing Ugandans want to see is a violent police force.

Mr Sserwanga is a journalist and advocate

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Media crackdown? Bye-bye to democracy
Government has set up a special ministerial taskforce in what appears another move by the state to muzzle the media. This is not the first time hardline elements in President Museveni’s government have mooted unconstitutional machinations to clamp down on the independent media.

For all its acclaimed popularity, the NRM government has always been wary of free and independent media. But for all the government’s unconstitutional maneouvres to curtail free speech, Mr Kirunda Kivejinja, the minister of information should be the last person to orchestrate a state inspired media crackdown.

Mr Kivejinja was one of the few brave Ugandans who championed media freedoms and the citizens’ right to access information when he together with two other former cabinet ministers, Mr Bidandi Ssali and Mr Kintu Musoke, started the Weekly Topic, a weekly English newspaper that challenged dictatorship in the early 80s.

The Weekly Topic , just like Daily Monitorm, was an influential newspaper which largely survived on the good will of the people. The paper provided critical analysis of the affairs of the state and offered the last frontier of hope to millions of Ugandans at a time when everything else seemed to have gone to the dogs!

Mr Kivejinja knows too well that an independent free media is crucial for the survival of our young democracy. He should be addressing the damning reports that show an increased state persecution of journalists.

Government’s resolve to silence the media and free speech does not tally with a true democracy. The primary objective of freedom of expression is to empower people to participate in decisions that affect their livelihood. In other words, freedoms of speech, expression and the media are intendend to promote accountability and transparency in the governance of the state.

The Supreme Court has cemented this principle of the law by stating that ; “ in a free democratic society it is almost too obvious to need stating that those who hold office in government and who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to political censorship of the most insidious and objectionable kind.”

Among the tasks set for the cabinet ad hoc committee is to explore how the independent media has become a “ mouthpiece” of the opposition. But a democracy means that there will always be two or more competing views- political and otherwise- to allow those who are governed the freedom to make a free choice on how they should be led. The media is just a vehicle by which these democratic ideas are conveyed.

On the balance, government has the largest share of the media platform in this country. By owning two national newspapers, a national radio network and television, the government far outcompetes its political rivals in having its political philosophies and policies disseminated to the masses.

So the Minister of Information cannot make the argument that the state is threatened by independent radio, TV stations and newspapers because they give negative publicity to the government.

In any case, governments all over the world can only sell their policies to the public and the media for support. They cannot force people nor the media ‘ toe the government line.’

We already have a broad legal regime to govern the media in this country. The Press and Journalists Act and the Electronic Media Act are laws which provide for regulation of journalists in public practice and set ethical standards for their conduct.

The laws also provide for disciplinary procedures and measures that can be taken against errant media. The problem is that the state has done very little to enforce these laws to ensure fairness on part of the media and the aggrieved public.

The law should be employed to protect the public good and not political ambitions of a few in leadership.

The writer is a journalist and advocate

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Widening access to HIV/AIDS drugs in Uganda
15 May 2008

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By Moses Sserwanga in Kampala
Uganda has been widely praised by the international community for its openness and effectiveness in the fight against the HIV and AIDS. Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) – the main treatment, which can stop people from becoming ill for many years – are given to between 80,000 and 100,000 people, free of charge.

But that leaves at least another 100,000 HIV-positive Ugandans who do not have access to these life-saving medicines.

The background picture
First of all, many people do not even know they are infected.

"Some people with disabilities cannot get ARVs because of lack of information," Francis Kinubi, chairperson of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda, recently told a meeting of the Africa Campaign on Disability and HIV/AIDS in Kampala.

"We don't have information about ARVs provided in braille form for the blind," he said. "We want HIV and AIDS services in terms of testing, ARVs, counselling and treatment."

In addition, despite numerous educational and information campaigns, stigma remains a problem. Some people are afraid to take HIV tests and register for medicine for fear that they will be shunned by their communities and work colleagues for immorality and accused of spreading the disease.

Others want to take the test, but are deterred by the cost and time of travelling to a test centre.

"It’s not easy, because you have to undergo a number of tests and counselling before you qualify for ARVs," says Gladys Bambola, a 44-year-old widow, whose husband died of AIDS in 1994 and who is herself HIV-positive. Bambola points out that a 15-kilometre journey by matatu (shared taxi) to a clinic will cost about 2,000 Uganda shillings ($2) – a sum equivalent to a rural family’s food and basic essentials, such as salt and soap, for a week.

"The testing itself is expensive," she says. It can cost Sh23,000, a month’s earnings for some poor villagers.

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An expensive business
The expense continues when you have to get to a clinic to collect your medicines. Madina Kayonga complains about the difficulty of making the 30 kilometre journey from home to clinic. "Apart from the long distances, the transport costs make it increasingly difficult for me, and other patients, to reach the health centre." The round trip by matatu costs Sh5,000 – equivalent to the cost of a week’s food.

Testing and qualifying for free ARVs may not be enough. As in most developing countries, Uganda’s health infrastructure is weak and disorganised. It is short of health workers and lacks storage facilities, laboratories, equipment, medicines and efficient data management.

"We can talk about the numbers and sites where ARVs are provided," says Beatrice Ware, an HIV-positive activist, "but as long as these centres don’t have enough storage facilities for the drugs or laboratories to carry out tests and there are no health workers to administer the drugs, we cannot achieve much."

Sometimes mismanagement keeps drugs on the shelves so long that their use-by date expires; sometimes poor record-keeping means that too few drugs are ordered. When this occurs, patients cannot get the drugs when they need them, as Andrew Luyombo of the Uganda National Health Consumers Organisation confirms.

"In one rural health centre we realised that orders were falling behind demand," he recalls. "So we talked to the district health officer to involve the community in the planning process so that they got all the drugs they need. Now we have talked to officers in other districts too."

Shortages are more common in rural areas, where it is harder for the Government to organise regular deliveries.

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Stamping out corruption
Asaph Byamukama, the Uganda finance and grants manager of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, says the Alliance is helping expand the role of networks of people living with HIV by training network members. It has agreed with the Ministry of Health that some drugs will be distributed through patient groups in order to reach as many patients as possible and reduce transport costs. The Alliance, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development, is donating bicycles and motorbikes to make drug distribution easier.

But there’s another bottleneck – one that’s harder to deal with: corruption.

Some ARVs are sold on the black market or diverted to private clinics. A healthworker who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of dismissal admitted that "at the district level we have a big problem because procuring the drugs takes forever and, at times, when they come they don’t reach the people waiting for them."

Asaph Byamukama says the Government is trying hard to deliver ARVs to people throughout the country, and undoubtedly much has been achieved. Nevertheless, poverty, travel difficulties, maladministration and a host of other barriers show how hard it is to ensure that patients access the drugs that will extend their lives.

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Note for editors
The newly launched Medicines Transparency Alliance (MeTA) will bring together government, business and civil society to share information and analysis about the problems around the supply of medicines in Uganda, including their quality, availability, price and promotion, and work together to explore possible solutions. This is part of a global effort, initially funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank to encourage greater transparency and accountability around the procurement, supply and use of medicines. MeTA will work initially in seven pilot countries – Ghana, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, the Philippines, Uganda, and Zambia


Govt got its media strategy totally wrong
Government has heightened its preparedness to clamp down on the independent media. President Museveni’s attack on Daily Monitor in his State of the Nation address last week was a clear signal that government was not about to respect press freedoms and freedom of thought in the country.

In fact, by the time Mr Museveni was venting his anger at the media, a group of middle aged state operatives were in communist China to acquire skills on how to muzzle the media.

The Uganda Newspaper Editors and Proprietors Association has rightly and promptly objected to the state machination’s to gag the media.

It’s a fact that journalism is no easy task at the best of times- especially when questions are raised about the workings of journalists and the capacity of the media especially those outside the realm of government- to provide accurate, reliable and timely information on the conduct of those who are in charge of running the government.

The role of the media in a young democracy like Uganda is very crucial in highlighting and exposing the wrongs/excesses of government officials and the widespread corruption in public service.

And while media firms and journalists’ groups like UNEPA should promote higher professional standards among journalists, it’s also the duty of the press as the 4th estate to oppose abuse of power by those who are in authority.

It’s now an accepted international legal norm that a free media is essential for creation of democratic societies. This is a universal and fundamental right.

During his address, Museveni displayed a copy of Daily Monitor, which he claimed carried a false story about the sale of Dairy Corporation to a Thai investor for a nominal fee of one dollar.

But apart from bashing the newspaper for publishing ‘falsehoods’ no government official- not even the President- has come out to put the facts right on what transpired in that transaction.

Just like the secretive oil extraction contracts being entered into by government, the citizens have an inherent right to know what their government is doing. Because whatever government officials do, they do it or should do it for the benefit of the people.

That’s why government has got its media strategy fundamentally wrong. In the wake of enormous changes now overtaking the media; the advent of digital reporting, text news messages and global phenomena of the dot-com journalism, it’s futile for government to send its media brains for training in a communist country still buried in medieval times where rulers are the law.

It’s on record that China and North Korea are still the worst abusers of media and other human freedoms in the world. But they too are now feeling the pinch for sticking to the primitive draconian communist policies which were designed to stifle civil liberties and protect tyrants.

But being the hosts of the Olympic games set for August, China is now left with no option but to open up to the outside world and embrace a free world with a free media. North Korea is following suit.

The Uganda government therefore should be sending its media strategists for training in vibrant democracies in Europe, India and America to learn from their experiences on how to counter ‘negative’ publicity, but not to the restrictive/ undemocratic regimes like China.

Government should provide open access to official information and should train its spokespersons and media strategists on the need to provide media with up-to-date and reliable information on all matters of governance.

A media strategy that encourages intellectual discourse, openness on part of government, dialogue and tolerance for divergent views will go a long way to grow our democracy. Gagging the media is not a good idea and it won’t work.

The writer is a journalist and advocate


Kony’s safety cage rapidly getting narrower
Joseph Kony whose spent rebel outfit , the LRA has murdered about 30,000 people in northern Uganda has fooled the world many times. But not this column which has for a long time made the argument that Kony an indicted war criminal cannot escape justice.

The architects of the failed peace talks did not appreciate the fact that Kony, aware of the crimes he has committed, knows too well that he stands no chance of escaping trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC) together with four ofhis top commanders.

And unless he commits suicide (like Nazis’ Adolf Hitler) or dies fighting as he has recently vowed; he can at best run but not hide forever. The international community in unprecedented solidarity is now resolute in its pursuit of justice; to apprehend and prosecute war criminals and every person or group of people who commit crimes against humanity.

The recent arrest of former Congolese warlord, Jean-Pierre Bemba, after he was indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes serves as a clear example that those who take up arms and commit crimes against civilians in their bloody quest for political leadership, driven by greed, have no place in the civilised world.

Bemba is the 4th person to be arrested by the ICC which has also issued arrest warrants for Kony, Vicent otti, Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lukwiya who are all facing 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC is also looking for Bosco Ntaganda who is accused of commiting crimes in Ituri and Kivu and Ahmed Harun, the Sudanese minister who is accused of similar crimes in the troubled Darfur region.

According to the Rome Statute the law which provides for the arrest and trial of international war criminals, crimes against humanity include murder, sexual slavery forcible transfer of population (call it abductions in the case of Kony), which acts are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.

It’s on record that Kony has committed all the above crimes; he has for the last 20 years led a marauding vicious rebel outfit that has massacred thousands of people, maimed, raped, defiled and abducted thousands of others many of whom are still in captivity.

The ICC prosecutor has warned that army or rebel commanders can no longer order for murder of civilians or authorise commission of rapes and abductions and think they will escape justice.

The Rome Statute provides that member states, including Uganda, should not take any legislative or other measures which may be prejudicial to the international obligations they have assumed in regard to detection, arrest, extradition and punishment of persons guilty of war crimes.

Once a person has committed war crimes, domestic amnesty law can’t protect such a person or group. That’s why the billions wasted on a futile peace process to lure Kony out of his hideout in the jungles of DR Congo should instead have been spent on reconstruction and strengthening security in the war ravaged northern Uganda.

The millions of displaced people who are now returning to their homes need maximum security. This is because freedom and democracy can only flourish if there is security. In the meantime, the Uganda government should cooperate fully with the international community to have Kony and his co-accused arrested for trial.

This is the prudent thing to do especially that President Museveni is the key complainant in the matter.
The relative peace in the north should not make us rest on our laurels and deny the long suffering people of northern Uganda justice.

The writer is a journalist and advocate