A seller of plastic carrier bags has become a glowing face of Africa’s push to decriminalise petty offences after moving the Constitutional Court to strike off a colonial law neglected since 1934.
In March 2015, vendor Masauko Gwanda challenged his wee-hour detention by three police officers on his way to order fish at Limbe Market.
The arrest killed his fish business, but birthed a landmark case in which three judges in January last year declared Section 184 (i) (c) of the Penal Code unconstitutional and invalid, ending random swoops on rogue and vagabond suspects.
A two-minute video highlighting the case received an ovation on Tuesday at the International Conference on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Accra, Ghana.
Delegates from various nations, including Uganda and Sierra Leone, said Gwanda’s triumph over the laws has motivated them to challenge offences that unfairly victimise the poor.
A campaign is gaining sway across the continent to shed petty offences that lead to overcrowding in prisons.
Commissioner Maria-Tereza Manuela told delegates in the Ghana capital that the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights (ACPHR) will launch new guidelines, adopted at its 61st ordinary session last November, at the forthcoming human rights meeting to be held in Banjul, Gambia.
She stated: “Petty offences should be decriminalised as one of the strategies to reduce the number of people that are simply sentenced to prison.”
Like Malawi, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania still retain petty offences inherited from colonial masters.
Richard Quayson, Ghana’s deputy commissioner of the country’s Commission of Human Rights and Administration of Justice (Chraj), warned: “It will be a great mark of disrespect if we impose foreign principles on the people. We must decriminalise petty offences because the people see the need to do so,” he said.
A new study by the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions, to which the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is affiliated, shows convicts of petty crimes congest prisons in Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Cote Ivory Coast and Ghana.
MHRC has come under fire for being reluctant to repeal petty offences neglected by Parliament since independence 54 years ago.
However, MHRC deputy director of civil and political rights Peter Moto said at the meeting the commission has the power to challenge and examine laws and policies that impinge on people’s rights.
However, Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Advocacy (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango, who backed Gwanda’s cause together with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (Salc), said more needs to be
done as the police still swoop on the poor using outstanding laws.
He said: “We have had these colonial laws before I was born, but it is stunning that it took a vendor to realise that we needed to do something about repressive rogue and vagabond laws.
“After his victory, we knew we had just done part of the work, because Section 184 of the Penal Code still contains a number of provisions that criminalise petty offences. We need to do something about it.”
Chreea consulted Parliament to repeal the outstanding colonial laws and is working closely with the Directorate of Public Prosecutions to acquaint prosecutors with new guidelines on petty offences. n