The public order Act gives the police wide powers to control public gatherings. Once again, on the face of it, this appears to be reasonable and necessary.
The clause gives the police wide powers to control public gatherings but no obligation is placed on the police to facilitate a gathering. We have to bear in mind that we have the overriding constitutional rights to assemble, associate and express our views. During the past year, we have seen the specter of the police turning a blind eye to ruling party cadres’ demonstrations, the beating up of opposition politicians and the destruction of opposition politicians’ property. In contrast, we have also seen the police in the past year frustrating people’s constitutional rights to demonstrate peacefully. It should be made mandatory for the police to facilitate demonstrations and to act in a reasonable and fair manner in doing so.
Today the local commanding officer of the police may stop or prohibit a public gathering if he believes it is likely to occasion public disorder. This results in a drastic invasion of our constitutional rights and it is simply not satisfactory for a police officer who, especially in rural areas and small towns, is more likely to be susceptible to political pressure, to have the power to curtail these fundamental constitutional rights. No doubt, there will be occasions when people with evil intent will attempt to hold public gatherings with the intention of bringing about violence and destruction to property. However, we see no justification for a police officer to be given the power to terminate a constitutional right. Police officers do not have the experience or training to deal with constitutional issues in an adequate manner.
In the circumstances it would be better to give the power to curtail public gatherings to judges of the High Court. We say this because here, time and expense are of essence and can negate our constitutional rights.
Clearly, the public order Act is draconian and unacceptable. Those in government need to understand that it will not resolve the anger felt by the people of Zambia today by trying to control them. It appears that those in government believe that as long as they tighten strong enough the holding of public meetings, they would be able to control people and their thoughts.
It is in this regard that a quote from Martin Luther King is apposite: “The great masses of people are determined to end their exploitation. They are awake and moving towards their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village, street, in the houses, among the students, in the churches and at political meetings. These developments should not surprise any student of history. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells us the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried ‘Let my people go’.”
The same is happening in Zambia today. People are talking in every town, street and house. People are discussing in drinking places and there is a tidal wave of discontent. The process of change is inevitable. If those in government want to prevent disorder, they must tackle the fundamental complaints of the people, namely corruption, abuse of power and economic mismanagement than imposing draconian laws on the people which ultimately will not stop the process of change in any event.
The Patriotic Front government’s attempts to limit the political activities of the UPND have brought to the fore the weaknesses of public order Act and its administration.
Across the country, police have waved the law like a conventional flag in a war zone signaling ‘ceasefire’ to, especially, opposition political activities. Perhaps, more than any other law, the public order Act’s prominence is highest on the pecking order of public debate.
That means it has been understood and misunderstood, applied rightly and abused in equal measure.
The way the public order Act is being administered will achieve nothing but the weakening and destruction of the opposition in a manner is not in accord with the spirit and intentions of the Constitution.
As things stand today, it is impossible for the opposition to hold rallies, assemblies, demonstrations or protests that those in power do not want. And those in power generally would not want such things that undermine their hold on power to happen. And if totally left in their hands, as is the case now, these liberties die.
Lives have been lost over the administration of the public order Act. And more are going to be lost as people will not accept to be robbed of their fundamental liberties or inalienable rights in this crude way.