In the name of national security, or silencing civil society?

In 2017, days before Igara West legislator Raphael Magyezi could table his private member’s Bill that ultimately steered the scrapping of the constitutional age limits on presidential candidates, Louis Kasekende, then Deputy Governor of Bank of Uganda, wrote to the managing director of Standard Chartered Bank, ordering him to freeze accounts of ActionAid, a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

ActionAid wasn’t a lone ranger. Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), a think tank, had its accounts frozen and its offices pillaged by security forces and its principal Godber Tumushabe later summoned for interrogation. 

The two NGOs were accused of sponsoring youth groups to resist Magyezi’s amendment proposal which is now law. The organisations reacted by challenging in the Commercial Court the freezing of the accounts that apparently had more than Shs7 billion stashed on them.

That State was quick to unfreeze ActionAid’s accounts after a consent judgment was entered in court, but it took time to do the same in respect to GLISS’s account. 

“They first went through a number of documents,” Eron Kiiza, a human rights lawyer familiar with the case, explained. “And after quite some time, they unfroze GLISS’s accounts.”  

Three years later and with Uganda expected to hold next year’s elections, the government has once again moved to freeze accounts of four NGOS as first reported by the Daily Monitor of December 03.

The NGOs whose accounts have been frozen, according to sources, are Uganda Women’s Network, Uganda National NGO Forum, Women’s International Peace Centre, formerly Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, a feminist organisation, and Alliance for Finance Monitoring.

According to sources familiar with the standoff who, spoke on condition of anonymity, since the NGOs didn’t want the information known publicly such that they could negotiate with the State, the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) whose role is not only to monitor, investigate, and prevent money laundering in the country, but also to enforce Uganda’s anti-money laundering laws and the monitoring of all financial transactions inside the country’s borders, was moved to block the accounts after intelligence agencies claimed that the four organisations were bankrolling terrorism.

Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act stipulates that a person commits an act of terrorism “who, for purposes of influencing the government or intimidating the public or a section of the public and for a political, religious, social or economic aim, indiscriminately without due regard to the safety of others or property.”

The same Act under Section 17A gives the FIA power to freeze accounts, stipulating: “The Financial Intelligence Authority may cause the freezing or seizing of funds or property where it is satisfied that the funds are or the property is intended for terrorism activities.”  

Subsection 2 says, “Where the Financial Intelligence Authority causes the freezing or seizing of funds or property under Sub-section (1), the Financial Intelligence Authority shall, immediately inform the Director of Public Prosecutions in any case not later than 48 hours after the time of freezing or seizing.” 

Definition so wide
“The definition of terrorism is so wide and the State is using it to fight civil society organisations,” one of the lawyers who has been involved in meetings that aimed at unfreezing the accounts said, referring to a section of the Act that says a person commits terrorism if he or she willingly collects or provides funds, directly or indirectly, by any means, with the intention that such funds will be used, or in the knowledge that such funds are to be used, in full or in part, by a suspected terrorist or a terrorist organisation.

Intelligence agencies, according sources, pressured Sydney Asubo, the executive director of FIA, into freezing the NGOs accounts following several protests that broke out across the country resulting from the arrest of National Unity Platform presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, in the eastern district of Luuka on November 18. 

Intelligence agencies, according to two sources familiar with the investigations, in particular accused NGO Forum of giving out drinks and eats to demonstrators, an accusation the civil society organisation whose aim is to give all NGOs a platform which they may use to influence governance and development processes in Uganda, denies. 

Following the freezing of accounts, sources say there has been a flurry of meetings between Mr Asubo, the honchos of the NGOs and their lawyers and it’s understood that so far only accounts of Women’s International Peace Centre have been unfrozen.

“We are supposed to have more meetings because Mr Asubo hasn’t found anything criminal,” a lawyer familiar with the negotiations says. “Talks are still on going,” he adds. 
Though the NGOs have decided to remain reticent, the freezing of accounts is indicative of how the State has increasingly become hostile towards NGOs whose specialty is in good governance and electoral observation.

“It’s very clear that the State is panicking because of the political pressure we are having in the country,” said Prof Sabiti Makara, a lecturer at the Makerere University department of Political Science and Public Administration.

“We are going to see more of that as political pressure intensifies.”
But the purge on NGOs has long been in the offing the moment Gen Aronda Nyakairima, then minister of Internal Affairs, tabled the NGO Bill in 2016, which was later passed into law.

Government, it is said, had realised the growing political power of NGOs and had sought to curb civil society’s participation in governance issues.

In defending the law, Nyakairima, who has since passed on, said, “The rapid growth of NGOs has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which in turn undermine accountability and transparency in the sector.”  

Section 44 of the NGO Act stipulates that “organisation shall not engage in any act which is prejudicial to the security” and laws of Uganda. 

NGOs must also be “non-partisan” and must not engage in fundraising or campaigning to support or oppose any political party or candidate for an appointive or elective political office. 

“The [NGO] Board may revoke the permit of an organisation if the organisation does not operate in accordance with its Constitution... contravenes any of the conditions or directions specified in the permit,” reads clause 33(b) of the NGO law. 

But Norman Tumuhimbise, a leader of a youth group known as Alternative Movement, says: “When there is a contentious issue, or during election time, the State clumps down on all possible opponents.”

It was Mr Tumuhimbise’s arrest in 2017 that sparked off the freezing of ActionAid and GLISS’s bank accounts. A police detective had purportedly eavesdropped on communication between Tumuhimbise, Tumushabe and Arthur Larok, then country director of ActionAid.
The detectives, without evidence, claimed that ActionAid and GLISS were funding Tumuhimbise and his lot to carry our demonstrations around the country against the lifting the presidential age limit caps from the Constitution. 

“Do we really need money to demonstrate?” Tumuhimbise, who was subsequently arrested but never charged in court asked in a phone interview with Sunday Monitor. 

“We can organise ourselves as young people without the funding they are talking about.”  

The offices of the Alternative Movement then located at MM plaza, on Luwum Street in Kampala, weren’t spared. 
Security forces combed them in a futile attempt to gather evidence to make sense of their suspicions. 

“We were clever,” Tumuhimbise recalls. “We never kept our materials in our offices. So they didn’t find anything.” 
In the intervening years, the State has ratcheted up its scrutiny over NGOS it deems are critical of governance style. 

For instance, in 2019, the FIA asked Equity Bank for the account details of 13 non-governmental organisations to establish the source of their funding.

The NGOs included ActionAid International Uganda, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, National Non-Governmental Organization Forum, Human Rights Network Uganda, National Democratic Institute, and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies. 

Others were Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Democratic Governance Facility, Kick Corruption out of Uganda, National Association of Professional Environmentalists, and the African Institute for Energy Governance.  

“I don’t think the State will achieve what it wants, however much they try,” Kiiza, the managing partner of Kiiza and Mugisha Company Advocates says. 

“The law is on our side. We shall continue defeating government.”
The purge isn’t restricted to NGOs since the media has now also faced the wrath of the State and this was evidenced by the deportation of three CBC News journalists yet they had been accredited by the media council.

“The expulsion of a foreign news crew in the early days of an election campaign that’s already been marred by government security forces opening fire on opposition protests is extremely ominous,” said CBC News foreign correspondent Margaret Evans, who was one of three CBC News journalists deported.

While they were crying foul, Ofwono Opondo, the government mouthpiece, said the journalists had been deported because they had been accredited to cover “tourism in Bwindi Forest” and “Covid-19” instead, he said, they had and covered what he termed as “different things.”