As the Parliamentary Committee considered the then NGO Bill 2015, Pastor Joseph Serwadda and other faith leaders vehemently argued a case for the removal of Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) from the NGO law. He knew the House was on fire. NGOs were under unprecedented attack.
Well, after some engagements, he finally had his way. I must say I admire his resilience. He succeeded in getting FBOs away from the jaws of a ministry of guns, teargas, and prisons - where no civil society group should be.
In several of the Committee’s sessions that I attended, I was taken aback at how the man of God would seek to save ‘his own’ and watch his neighbours - the NGOs - being dragged to the slaughter.
Isolated, NGOs came under serious attack. You only need to address your mind to the original NGO Bill 2015. All the same, NGOs fought the good fight and salvaged what they would in the circumstances.
For example, they managed to reduce imprisonment for doing their work from eight to three years for NGO directors and staff for vague crimes - still a horrifying prospect.
The special obligations, which Minister of State of Internal Affairs James Baba rightly describes as ‘heart of the Bill’, was passed in the new law.
Civil society must now work together to challenge the restrictive provisions in the NGO Act, 2016 – either through dialogue or legal action leading to amendments.
Instead of standing with NGOs - if for no other reason, because their activities principally revolve around exercise of freedom - the faith-based groups sought to distance themselves.
As divine institutions, faith groups certainly deserve special consideration but they should have stayed with NGOs at the front line during the legislative process.
Now, the chickens have come home to roost. The Ethics and Integrity ministry has embarked on a process of putting in place a law for FBOs. The question is, will it be designed to regulate or control?
Would the State, for example, have interest to profile and investigate a church or mosque providing close spiritual support to FDC’s ‘defiance’ campaign?
I opine that the State has an equal interest in controlling faith-based groups because of the clout they wield. It is because of fear of a backlash – and God – that they gloss over and skirt around, often with patronage as the grease.
All said and done, FBOs engage in a wide range of activities that squarely fall under the NGO Act 2016. Inevitably, the currents will suck them from the shores into the storm.
What this new law can regulate are matters of God, Allah, and other matters faith, ceremonies such as weddings. Nothing more.
In fact, it may fall short of regulating traditionally well-established faith organisations such as the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
When freedoms are threatened, we must stand together and challenge the attack. To scatter is to weaken our resolve and allow an advancing oppressor to pick us one by one - without a fight.
For this, I will stand with FBOs and speak out to protect the freedoms of people who seek to associate as such.
Our strength in the defence of values and principles is in our collective will as a people. We cannot afford to walk away from an injustice.
When you stand by and watch a leopard eat your neighbour’s goat because yours is safe, remember that after it’s done, it will still need to eat.
Mr Masake works with Chapter Four Uganda, a civil rights group. firstname.lastname@example.org