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Uganda: ‘It will only get worse’, NGOs fear as government crackdown continues

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Wednesday, 8 September 2021 13:34

Elections posters of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni are seen on a street in Kampala, Uganda January 12, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

After a lull of eight months following Uganda’s election season that ended with a presidential election in January 2021, many civil society and NGO sector actors were hopeful that they would regain the breathing space that the government had stifled and access funds that had been withdrawn. Instead, it's only gotten worse. 

Hopes for respite were seemingly dashed when NGO Bureau – a government agency set up five years ago to licence and oversee operations of non-profits in the country – ordered 54 organisations to shut down on 20 August 2021 for reasons such as failure to submit annual returns, operating without a licence and operating with expired licence. Those ordered to close down their operations include:

  • Chapter Four: a top human rights organisation whose Executive Director, Nicholas Opiyo, spent Christmas in detention on money laundering charges.
  • Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CEEDU): a broad coalition of more than 800 organisations advocating for better electoral democracy.
  • Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS): an independent public policy research think tank based in Kampala with focus on democracy and rule of law; oil and minerals governance as well as climate change.

Election season suppression

President Yoweri Museveni’s suspension of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) – a $100m funding for NGOs and government actors established by development partner states – on 2 January 2021, five weeks before the presidential election, had been deciphered as the peak of the crackdown. Museveni argued that the funding was being redirected to “achieve the political objectives of the funders in Uganda.”

The DGF suspension hasn’t been lifted even after ambassadors of countries bankrolling it agreed to a raft of measures that would put it under the state’s microscope. The government was to have a representative on the board who would govern the facility.

On numerous occasions during the campaign season, Museveni accused his main challenger – Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine – of having the backing of foreigners. There were fears that funds were being channeled to Kyagulanyi through NGOs; and as a consequence, the government froze bank accounts of civil society organisations suspected to be friendlier to opposition parties. Some leaders of the non-profits were also deported.

We are being punched by the NGO Bureau today, tomorrow it will be the company registry, [the] next day it will be Financial Intelligence Authority.

When Nicholas Opiyo of Chapter Four was arrested in December 2020, he was accused of receiving $340,000 “knowing at the time of receipt that the said funds were proceeds of crime.” However, according to Opiyo, the arrest was connected to investigations into the November 2020 riots that were sparked by the arrest of Bobi Wine on the campaign trail. More than 50 people were killed by security agencies as they tried to quell rioters.

Opiyo has become a top target because he is viewed as ‘being too close’ to American officials. For instance, Kale Kayihura, a former police chief sanctioned by the US government, is said to have approached Opiyo with a request to get him off the sanction list.

It’s getting worse

Since 2010, the pattern has always been that government harasses targeted civil society sector players. The harassment later ceases after the election season is over; but not this time. “It’s getting worse,” Opiyo and Godber Tumushabe (Executive Director of GLISS) say. According to Human Rights Watch, “the ban is just the latest government action to undermine civil society in Uganda” and the “authorities have failed to investigate a string of burglaries and attacks on the offices of prominent rights organisations in recent years.”

Opiyo says numerous legislations previously passed by the government to stifle operations of the civil society sector are coming into full effect . “We are being punched by the NGO Bureau today, tomorrow it will be the company registry, [the] next day it will be Financial Intelligence Authority,” Opiyo says. The laws and government institutions are “creating a choking and unconducive atmosphere for the sector.”

A leader of an NGO based in Kampala who spoke on condition of anonymity says development partners who pump more money into government projects rather than the civil society sector haven’t pushed Museveni hard enough to allow non-profits to operate freely. This was in response to a brief statement from the European Union in Uganda and the US Embassy in Kampala following the closure of NGOs. “Civil society makes an invaluable contribution to all areas of Uganda’s development,” the statement says. “We hope any issues with registration of organisations can be resolved promptly so their important work can continue in the spirit of genuine partnership based on mutual accountability.”

The arrival of 51 Afghan evacuees in Uganda – even when government had accepted to take only 2,000 – gave Museveni some much needed respite, given that Americans had been on his neck for months after the election. In April, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the election Museveni won was “neither free nor fair”. The envoy also sanctioned a number of unnamed government officials for human rights violations and undermining democracy during elections.

Even when almost all organisations say the NGO Bureau is no longer an agency that promotes development of a transparent and accountable civil society, Stephen Okello – its executive director – thinks otherwise. He says the bureau is helping organisations to be accountable and law abiding. “We want NGOs to be accountable so that they become more vibrant,” he says. “That is when they can take on MPs, government ministers, ministries and agencies.”

Survive and thrive

One of the main challenges that NGOs will face, Godber Tumushabe says, is mobilisation of funds: donors don’t want to associate with organisations that are targeted by government. His organisation’s offices were first raided by security agencies in October 2017 as parliament debated a controversial bill that led to deletion of the age limit clause from the constitution. It was the last barrier that would have stopped Museveni from ruling past 2021.

Tumushabe also says organisations need to build resilience and inspire their staff to appreciate the hostile environment they operate in because “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Opiyo says civil society should never tire of reminding the government that the civil society sector is an important actor in the economic development of Uganda and demanding a better working environment. “We provide employment, we bring incomes to families across the country,” he says. “We are perhaps the second largest employer in this country after the government. We are not a security threat, we are a development partner to this government,” he says.

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