Can the government of Uganda force its citizens to own UTL SIM card?

UTL SIM cards to become mandatory for Ugandans – Anite”. That was the predominant story in my news feed mid this week. Interesting things happen mid-week, always. The said mandatory ownership of SIM cards according to State Minister for Investment and Privatisation, Anite Evelyn will take effect as soon as the telecom’s managerial woes are fixed. In her wisdom, owning a UTL SIM card will foster patriotism and pride for Ugandans. Outrage, shock and satirical ridicule at the Minister’s suggestions was all there was in the news.

A Facebook friend, Kakwenza expressed his outrage thus, “So what type of maggot was squirming in Anite Evelyn’s head to utter that every Ugandan must buy and insert a UTL SIM card into their phones unarguably?...” He wasn’t the only one outraged. The outrage, in my understanding, was because UTL is an unpopular telecom, and very little is known about it apart from the fact that it is a struggling state owned telecom.

But can patriotism really be fostered by buying a UTL SIM card? According to Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it” Does the government of Uganda, through UTL deserve the support of Ugandans?

But then again, can the government really force any person to buy a SIM card? The answer lies in the fact that Uganda is a free market economy.

Free market

A free market refers to an economy where the government imposes few or no restrictions and regulations on buyers and sellers. In a free market, the producers of goods and services determine the how, when, where and to whom their products and services are offered, and at what price. A free market is solely driven by the forces of demand and supply

However, a free market is rather theoretical. It does not exist practically. Most governments subject a free market to certain standards and laws. For example, despite the fact that Uganda is a free market economy, there is the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) established by statute which monitors the quality of goods produced. If a product falls short of the standards set by the UNBS, then the product will not be permitted to circulate in the market. Also, there is the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), also established by statute which forbids manufacturers from polluting the air, land and water.

These standards are usually meant to provide a legal framework within which the market is controlled. Minimum standards, disclosure of ingredients, licensing of professionals, intellectual property, safety standards, among others are for regulatory purposes alone.

However, those standards are usually set in laws which are passed by the citizens’ representatives in parliament. The laws therefore protect majority of the citizens and also reflect their values.

In autocratic governments, governments impose market decisions. These decisions are usually oppressive because they do not reflect the values of the majority population.

A free market economy is most prevalent in a capitalist economy while communist economies suppress free markets.

The case of Uganda

The government of Uganda is by constitution, a delegated government. All leaders are elected by the people and those appointed (appointed by a leader elected by the people) are confirmed (throughout the parliament’s vetting committees) before their positions are confirmed. As such the government is what it is because of the people. It is a delegated government. Every delegated government has limited powers.

For example, the constitution of Uganda does not give any public official the power to force private commercial transactions.

No law in a democratic government can even be sustained if it allows the government to penalize its citizens for refusing to buy a certain product. A statement about a possible requirement that all citizens purchase Uganda telecom SIM cards goes against the spirit and the letter of the law.

The requirement to buy something should be distinguished to the laws that require the purchase of something else such as third party insurance for a motor vehicle. The two are different in such a way that no citizen is required to buy a car. But for regulatory purposes, when a citizen buys a car, he or she must also buy third party insurance cover for the same vehicle.

Every organ of government must act within the bounds of the constitution.

So, can the government of Uganda make it mandatory for citizens to own a UTL SIM card?



This article appears in our digital law newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 6, Issue 4 of June 23rd, 2017

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