The Ugandan government has described as “hastily issued” and “misplaced”, U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac’s concerns over freedom of expression in the country amid plans to amend the Constitution to scrap the presidential age limit of 75 years.
Security forces yesterday sealed off and searched premises of Action Aid and GLISS – civil society institutions opposed to the constitutional amendment.
Police would later arrest several opposition leaders and university students for reportedly planning and participating in unauthorized public assemblies.
Malac would later issue a statement, saying the United States was “deeply concerned” that recent arrests and raids “stifle the Ugandan people’s right to free expression and tarnish Uganda’s global image.”
She added: “We are disturbed by reports of raids on NGOs. Infringements on protected rights under Uganda’s Constitution will impede the country’s development.”
This appears to have rubbed the Ugandan government the wrong way, with the Media Centre boss Ofwono Opondo issuing a scathing rebuttal.
Opondo said the affected Non-Governmental Organisation have been “linked to receiving financial support from foreign sources with the intention committing illegal activities” in Uganda.
“Firstly, these under the laws of Uganda, and in accordance with international protocols, it is illegal to receive money from undisclosed sources as those sources could be part of terrorism networks around the world, and also the need to disrupt money laundering,” said Opondo.
He added: “While the Government of Uganda notes her concern, it is our considered view that they are misplaced because those so far summoned or held as a preventive measure are well-known to have been making statements over the last couple of months on various public media (Radios, TVs, and social media) threatening violence over what should otherwise be a civil and democratic process and debate in the parliament of Uganda.”
Opondo said some of those summoned by police have made recorded statements and posted them on the media threatening to kill those they disagree with together with members of their families which cannot be tolerated.
“We therefore ask for patience as law enforcement conducts its investigations,” he noted.
The U.S. government’s next course of action remains unclear as it funds several civil society organisations opposed to the constitutional amendment.
“We call on the Government of Uganda to guarantee all its citizens freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, without fear of intimidation,” said the U.S. Mission in Kampala.
But Opondo said government of Uganda through its law enforcement agencies “cannot sit back as misguided people especially opposition politicians and civil society leaders intimidate elected Members of Parliament and the wider public simply because they don’t hold the same views as theirs on any matter.”
Several opposition leaders have since warned of a protracted battle with government over the age limit amendment.
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanya was compelled to suspend Thursday’s plenary session without touching a single element on the order paper due to chaos originated by opposition MPs.
MP Ibrahim Ssemujju says today’s event signal what lies ahead.
“This red ribbon on our heads means we are ready to defend the Constitution and shed blood for this country,” said Ssemujju.
Opondo said the on-going debate in parliament and within the country with regard to possible constitutional amendments, and electoral reforms must be conducted by all sides to the debate in a civil, cordial and peaceful way however contentious the issues may be in an effort to build consensus.
“Should consensus fail, then the matter shall be decided by parliament as the elected legitimate body as the constitution provides,” said Opondo.
Government reiterated its “firm commitment to observe and protect the enjoyment of all their rights and freedoms to peacefully assemble in order to, express, associate, and petition government on any matter without threatening the lives or property of others including those of the people with whom they may disagree.”
Opondo said in doing so the Government of Uganda will spare no effort in promptly dealing with and neutralizing criminal minded people including political leaders who think they enjoy the “misguided protection from some foreign missions.”
Only Ugandans through their government and elected representatives know and shall decide how best they want to be governed and by whom, he added.
“While we value diplomatic relations with all the countries of the world, Uganda is not very keen to take unqualified lectures from foreign agents.”