Threats by government to deregister non-governmental organisations involved in what it calls “negative political activism” have again been dismissed as an exercise in futility. Reacting to renewed pressure on NGOs, civil society leaders have told The Observer closing their bodies would achieve nothing, because the issues they raise can be articulated without any formal organisation.
“NGOs are by nature citizen organisations. One can close them, but you can’t close causes they espouse. These can continue even without an organisation,” said Richard Ssewakiryanga, executive director of the Uganda National NGO Forum.
Discomfort with NGOs has been growing, with the Internal Affairs Minister, Hilary Onek, recently saying some agencies were bent on undermining the government.
“This is a critical moment and NGOs that are portraying us as those dictatorial regimes of Amin are going to be weeded out,” Onek said. “They want to destabilize the country because that is what they are paid to do. Those that are engaged in activities for which they were not registered are in trouble. They are busy stabbing the government in its back yet they are supposed to do humanitarian work”.
Onek’s remarks are not in isolation. The Uganda NGO Board recently warned the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) against involvement in political activities in Uganda. The board also accuses ACODE of carrying out research without clearance from the National Council of Science and Technology.
Earlier, the government demanded an apology from Oxfam and Uganda Land Alliance, following their damning reports in which they accused government of violently evicting an estimated 20,000 people from a government-owned forest in Mubende and Kiboga districts to pave way for a British forestry company. Civil society activists like Dr Zac Niringiye, however, see this as a sign of reducing democratic space and increased fear by government.
“The real issue is the narrowing of the democratic space. We have a president who wants to decide what to discuss, by who, where and when…” said Niringiye, the retired Anglican assistant bishop of Kampala.
To Niringiye, this is the underlying factor behind the Public Order and Management Bill now before parliament and President Museveni’s incessant chides at religious leaders to desist from commenting on political issues.
“It has to do with the longevity of leaders. The more one stays in power, the more they feel indispensable. Autocratic states kill state institutions and thereafter they kill non-state institutions. This is what is happening now.”
Ssewakiryanga attributes the mounting threats to NGOs to the wave of protests, strikes and civic organisations since the February 2011 election.
“It seems leaders are uncomfortable about all these civic actions and are moving to deal with anyone they think might be creating them.”
Some protests have been championed by groupings like teachers’ and traders’. For instance, under their umbrella body (UNATU), teachers have been combative with government over their remuneration and work conditions.
They have also since enlisted the support of NGOs to enhance their lobbying. Their recent two-day strike was supported by organisations like ActionAid International Uganda, Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda, Uganda Joint Christian Council and Uganda Muslim Education Association.
Jacqueline Asiimwe-Mwesige, a lawyer and women rights activist, says threats to NGOs are a replica of threats that agencies like the media, political parties, cooperative movement and trade unions have grappled with.
Asiimwe-Mwesige notes that the mobilisation power and influence has since waned. Like Niringiye, Jacqueline Asiimwe also links the renewed threats to longevity in power.
“The nature of the state is authoritarian. The longer one holds onto power, the more you want it and want to squeeze it from the people,” she says, citing attacks on civil liberties in countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia that have previously had a history of closing NGOs and violating people’s rights.
In July 2009, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe who has been in power since 1980 attacked NGOs, describing them as “a type of government in the background of a formal government”. Mugabe further lambasted NGOs for exceeding what he classed as “their terms of reference”.
Earlier, on June 4, 2008, Mugabe banned all NGO operations in Zimbabwe, excluding those dealing with HIV/AIDS, children, the disabled, and the elderly. This was before the presidential run-off vote that pitted him against his political nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai.
The ban was lifted on August 29, 2008 after Mugabe was re-elected unopposed to the presidency. So, how should NGOs respond to the latest threat? Asiimwe-Mwesige says NGOs should unite and make a joint response.
“We now need to realize that the threat or monster is bigger,” Asiimwe-Mwesige said. “If we fight it in our small way, we will fail. It will overpower us.”
Ssewakiryanga and Prof Jassy Kwesiga, the Chairman Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform, see the solution in dialogue.
“We have reached out to the NGO board and we have agreed to continue with the dialogue,” says Ssewakiryanga.
The Uganda National NGO Forum recently met Prof Kwesiga and assured him that investigations would be carried out before deregistering any NGO. Kwesiga was also told that there were no actual plans to deregister any NGO.
“We asked them to tell us what we have done wrong before we could react. We can’t react before knowing what went wrong. That is what we are trying to find out and we are still debating with them,” Kwesiga said, adding, “We presented our case and we are still debating with them”.