The government issued two interesting back-to-back orders last week: all NGOs must validate their status, and online publishers and influencers must register and get a licence to operate.
The first order came from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the latter from the increasingly power-hungry Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).
At a different time, one would have considered such directives the benign business of running a country. Not quite in Uganda today.
The government is expanding its surveillance and control reach in service of power-retention by the ruling elite, although the official reason given usually relates to something about state security and societal morality.
The context is that the 2021 elections are on the closer horizon. President Museveni, as he always does, has already had a go at campaigning with his nation-wide tour ostensibly to promote wealth-creation. Incumbency is a real advantage, I tell you.
One feature of this election cycle is the emergence of People Power led by musician-cum-politician Robert Kyagulanyi (better known as Bobi Wine). There is also, of course, Gen Mugisha Muntu’s party, Alliance for National Transformation.
The government is interested in knowing the source of funding for entities such as People Power. The last time around, the government acted late: it raided NGOs ActionAid Uganda and GLiSS in September 2017 looking for evidence that the organisations were conduits of foreign money to groups opposed to the NRM government ahead of and immediately after the 2016 elections — especially in relation to the presidential age-limit controversy.
In the aftermath of the raid, the government ordered 25 NGOs to provide it with their financial information. According to The Observer, junior Internal Affairs minister Obiga Kania accused NGOs of under-declaring their income and spending the rest on “subversive” activities, including laundering. In a statement, the police warned NGOs to stop being “used by anyone who wishes to destabilise the peace and security of Uganda”.
This is an old angle of attack that has gone through different iterations since the colonial days. Only in June did Mr Ofwono Opondo, head of the government’s Media Centre, write: “The DGF political interests, especially regime change in Uganda, means there are favoured CSOs...” DGF is the Democratic Governance Facility, which aims at “providing harmonised, coherent and well-coordinated support to State and non-State entities to strengthen democratisation, protect human rights, improve access to justice and enhance accountability in Uganda”.
The DGF funders are seven European countries plus the EU. Now you can see Mr Opondo’s statement in the right light.
Denunciation of NGOs for taking foreign money is a form of delegitimisation of civil society: CSOs are foreign agents and don’t represent interests of Ugandans. Such rhetoric is one of many sure signs that the governmental is out to impose restrictions on much else.
Hence the requirement to have key online players to register, pay $20 (Shs74,000), get a licence and promise to not incite the public, promote immorality, traffic in misinformation, or otherwise undermine State security. Ugandans are being charged to talk.
President Museveni said Ugandans needed to be taxed for being on social media because they were engaged in lugambo (swapping rumours). Besides, the more angry and vocal ones were foreign agents.
The registration requirement now is to formally allow the government to improve its monitoring of speech by Ugandans on the Internet.
A report by Unwanted Witness, an organisation that monitors things Internet in Uganda, says that authorities questioned or charged more than 30 Ugandans with online communications offences between 2016 and 2018. That number will very likely rise fast. It is also probably not surprising that the pronouncement arrived one week after Dr Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to 18 months in jail for cyber harassment of President Museveni via a post on Facebook.
Ultimately, participation in civic life suffers.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.