Uganda’s Constitutional Court Holds Vagrancy Laws Unconstitutional

On 2 December 2022, in a ground-breaking decision for street vendors and other informal workers, the Constitutional Court of Uganda in Francis Tumwesige Ateenyi v Attorney General found the country’s vagrancy laws to be unconstitutional. Vagrancy laws have come under the spotlight across the world because many define vagrancy in a vague way, which gives authorities free rein to arrest people in public spaces arbitrarily. Moreover, they are drawn from a colonial and elite conception of public space, which shapes who can and cannot use public spaces at a particular time or place. Because most people who are arrested under vagrancy laws are of low economic status, they effectively make it a crime to be poor.

Vagrancy laws can be used to evict or arrest workers such as street vendors who work on or transit through public spaces. Many vendors face arrest, harassment and threats of eviction from the state. This is what happened in the Malawian case of Mayeso Gwanda v The State (High Court) Constitutional Cause No. 5 of 2015. Gwanda was a street vendor who was stopped by police on his way to work early one morning. The police did not believe his explanation that he was on his way to sell plastic bags. They used the vagrancy laws to arrest him. Gwanda challenged their constitutionality. The court struck down the definition of vagrancy because it gave the police too much leeway to decide whether or not a person was a vagrant. The court also found that the definition violated the constitutional right to equality because authorities are more likely to apply and enforce it against the poor than against the rich.

The Ugandan decision coincides with Africa’s growing movement towards reforming vagrancy laws. Several organizations are collaborating on an Africa-wide campaign for the decriminalization of petty offences, which include vagrancy. In 2017, the African Commission adopted the Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa, which includes vagrancy-related offences. In December 2020, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued an advisory opinion which notes that certain definitions of vagrancy are likely to infringe the rights to non-discrimination and equality, dignity, liberty, fair trial, and freedom of movement, amongst others. The Court recommended that African states review all vagrancy laws and bring them in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. WIEGO’s Law Programme has analyzed how this opinion affects street vendors in its Law and Informality Insights.

Read full article: Uganda’s Constitutional Court Holds Vagrancy Laws Unconstitutional

Photo by Jonathan Ward on Unsplash

14 May, 2023
Type of Update:
In the Courts
Courts Systems
Human Rights
Petty Offences
Use of Public Spaces

The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.


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