KATONGO LUMPA, Lusaka
STUDENT demonstrations have been a prominent trait of public colleges and universities since the beginning of higher learning in Zambia.
These protests have often been aroused by erratic water supply and poor sanitation at the learning institutions, delays in payment of student allowances and hiking of tuition fees, among others. The protests have always attracted attention of the police as the institution mandated to maintain law and order in the country.
And in the course of enforcing the Public Order Act and exercising freedoms of assembly and expression by the police and students, respectively, the two parties have often times come into conflict with each other.
On this premise, the Human Rights Commission recently convened a discussion forum for students from public higher learning institutions in Lusaka to discuss the Public Order Act and its implementation in relation to studentsâ€™ rights to freedoms of assembly and expression.
Attending this meeting were representatives of the Zambia Police Service, student bodies, the Human Rights Commission itself and members of the public.
In his opening remarks, Human Rights Commission chairperson Mudford Mwandenga outlined the roles of both students and the police in national development and security.
Mr Mwandenga said while students form a critical proportion of the citizenry, their participation in national affairs has often taken public demonstrations and riots as ways of exercising their rights.
The police, however, have stopped these processions to maintain law and order, as they are mandated to, and have done this through the administration of the Public Order Act.
Being a piece of legislation that was inherited from the colonial government, the Public Order Act has been the centre of debate for decades and has often been cited as an obstacle to social and political freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.
Nonetheless, under the guise of exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression, students and other citizens have time and again resorted to disturbing peace and have come into conflict with the police.
Acting as a â€˜mediatorâ€™ in such instances, the Human Rights Commission ensures that the Bill of Rights is upheld and protected by everyone in society.
â€œThe Human Rights Commission is duty-bound to promote a cordial relation between the bearer, the Zambia Police Service, and the rights of holders, the students,â€ Mr Mwandenga said.
He said the solution to addressing misunderstandings between students and the police in matters concerning the Public Order Act with regards to freedoms of expression and assembly is engagement and constructive dialogue between the two parties.
University of Zambia Students Union (UNZASU) president Adrian Matole acknowledged that the human rights, including those of students, should be enjoyed to the extent where the law permits.
Mr Matole said individual liberties are not absolute and that uncontrolled freedom could be the very definition of anarchy and could lead to infringement of the rights of others.
He, however, accused the police of not striking a balance between the way they execute their duties and the manner in which they protect individual liberties.
Mr Matole said in the name of preserving peace, the police overlook studentsâ€™ rights to speak out on issues affecting them, the situation that often results in battles between students and the police.
â€œWhenever students are gathered at the Monk Square to discuss matters affecting them, it is not rare to notice armed police officers closer, watching students like prisoners in a yard,â€ he said.
Zambia National Students Union (ZANASU) president Joseph Busenga also condemned police officersâ€™ conduct during student demonstrations and riots.
He lamented the physical force that police allegedly apply on students during demonstrations, which leaves the learners nursing wounds in hospital beds.
Mr Busenga, who is also National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA) studentsâ€™ union president, accused the police of failing to implement the Public Order Act due to political influence and lack of training regarding the implementation of the Act.
â€œStudents have a lot of brilliant ideas that can help to develop the country, hence it is vital to look beyond the mirror and see the intentions of students,â€ Mr Busenga said.
He called for the amendment of the Public Order Act saying in its current state, it grants the police absolute powers that make them infringe on studentsâ€™ rights and freedoms.
However, Zambia Police Service deputy director of operations Alfred Nawa said the police have already been stripped of the power that the initial Public Order Act lavished on them.
Mr Nawa said the Constitution Amendment Act of 1996 made the necessary alterations to the Public Order Act and that police officers now operate with full respect for individual human rights.
â€œThe police are one institution that protects individual basic human rights and without the police, people would not enjoy their rights,â€ Mr Nawa said.
Prior to the August 11, 2016 general elections, police officers underwent human rights training conducted by the Human Rights Commission and at the moment, every police officer has adequate knowledge of what human rights are.
â€œThe relationship between the Zambia Police Service and students has been sour because there is no communication between the police and students,â€ Mr Nawa said.
That is why the Zambia Police Service intends to get into institutions of higher learning to share with students what the Public Order Act entails.
He urged students to always endeavour to notify the police at least seven days before demonstrating, as outlined in the Public Order Act, to avoid breaching the peace.
KATONGO LUMPA, Lusaka