Uganda's new NGO bill ensures 'survival of the regime': interviews
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Ugandan activists warn that a controversial new bill on Non-Governmental Organisations aims to silence government critics. Rights groups say the proposed NGO bill would grant sweeping powers to government, giving it the tools to clamp down on civil society who are critical of the government. The bill proposes fines and up to eight years in prison, warning organisations that they should not engage in any activity which is harmful to the interests of Uganda.
It is just part of a process of systematic repression of all civil and political activity in Uganda. It comes following another obnoxious law that was made, known as the Public Order Management Act, which makes it very difficult for ordinary citizens to hold meetings. It requires three or more citizens who want to hold a meeting to talk about politics to seek the authority of the inspector general of police. It comes on the heels of another law that was made to restrict media houses and journalists in their operations and requiring all kinds of licensing procedures. So it’s part of a systemic repression. This NGO bill gives the minister responsible for internal affairs very wide-ranging powers to supervise, to approve, to inspect and to dissolve all non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations. To impose all kinds of restrictions on them, all NGOs will function at the pleasure of the minister for internal affairs.
Why is the government so concerned with NGOs at this time?
I think the trigger has been some NGOs linking up with other political formations including political parties which are in the opposition, in demanding electoral reforms. There was a campaign for free and fair elections, which was conducted most of last year, in which some civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations were participant. I think that is the trigger, they believe that foreign bodies that fund these NGOs are now providing funding that is impacting on the policy processes of the country.
So what you’re saying is that the Ugandan government is concerned that reforms proposed by NGOs would loosen its grip on power?
The NGOs in Uganda play a key role. How will the government replace these NGOs because in many senses they provide key services?
That's the problem, don’t forget the regime in Uganda came into power through war. It was a five-year rebel activity that brought President [Yoweri] Museveni to power. So the basis of power in Uganda is the military. Today, the preoccupation after 30 years is not service provision to the people, it is regime survival. So regime survival takes precedence over the welfare of the citizens. It’s not the preoccupation of the regime to see that the services are being provided by NGOs, which are very wide-ranging services indeed because of the regime weaknesses. But that is not the preoccupation of the regime, the preoccupation is regime survival.
Interview: Peter Kamalingin, country director, Oxfam Uganda
For us as Oxfam, anything that seems to restrain freedom of thought and the freedom to express that thought is definitely a reverse. And it undermines the very cause for which we exist and the very cause to which we remain committed, in terms of overcoming injustice and poverty. We think that anything that restrains thinking, of course undermines a lot of things including the investment climate for a country such as Uganda.
How difficult will this new law, if it comes to pass, make your work?
Anything that constrains thinking, inclusion and participation of stakeholders, citizens on issues that affect them, it’s definitely very constraining and makes it much more difficult for us to attain development objectives including Uganda’s own vision 2020.
The Ugandan government has suggested that NGOs have been involved in criminality, is that true?
I cannot speak for all the civil society NGOs, but what we believe is that there have been considerable frameworks that governments and other actors could know which NGOs are involved in criminal activity. But I think in a space such as others, increasingly we know the development can also be a political issue in itself. It’s going to be difficult to just give a blanket rule that makes it difficult even for the genuine legally registered agencies to operate.
Why do you think the Ugandan government has decided to propose this bill now?
It’s difficult for us to understand why now, but it’s never right anytime anyway.