President Museveni has directed top bureaucrats and resident district and city commissioners to closely monitor and “get involved” in the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) within their jurisdictions.
The order, which has shaken civil society leaders worried about whittling down of the space for free expression, follows the government decision last month to suspend 54 NGOs over alleged non-compliance with the laws and improper financial filings.
Majority of the affected groups are those involved in defending human rights, good governance and accountability.
Mr Yusuf Kakande, the secretary in the Office of the President, in an August 25, 2021 letter, noted that “… the President has directed all MDAs (ministries, department and agencies) and district authorities to exercise vigilance and get involved in the operations of NGOs operating within their mandates and jurisdictions.”
He asked recipients to “keenly take up this matter with the urgency it deserves”.
The latest Museveni directive derived from an August 9, 2021 Cabinet resolution, which preceded the President’s interview last week with France24 in which he described the civil society actors, as he has done before, as “foreign agents” hiding somethings from him.
He was responding to a question about the suspension of Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a heavy donor kitty, which has been bankrolling more than 100 NGOs and government institutions.
In the interview, Mr Museveni dismissed the vitality of civil society as defenders of human rights, arguing that no one knows and protects the rights better than him because he fought to restore them in Uganda.
Describing the latest presidential directive as “unfortunate”, Ms Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCI), yesterday said it is aimed at gagging NGOs and stifling the exercise of civil liberties.
“Gradually we have seen the civic space for engagement closing and people close to power closing in on NGOs [yet] the NGO Act is clear on who is supposed to monitor the NGOs,” she said, citing over zealousness of some RDCs.
A resident district/city commissioner is a presidential appointee holding a constitutional office, whose mandate under the supreme law, includes representing the President in area of jurisdiction, monitoring implementation of government programmes and chairing district/city security committees.
Under the NGO Act, the entity mandated to regulate and oversee the operations of non-governmental organisations is the National NGO Bureau domiciled in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Civil society leaders yesterday questioned under what law the President was assigning top bureaucrats in all ministries, departments and government agencies alongside RDCs to monitor and “get involved” in operations of NGOs.
One of the reasons that President Museveni advanced in his letter to Finance Minister Matia Kasaija, ordering a freeze of DGF activities was that the government was excluded from providing oversight over the multi-million Euro Fund.
However, most NGOs submit their budget and plans to local governments in areas of operation besides an annual financial filing with the National NGO Bureau and Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA), the latter whenever required.
It is on the basis of what government alleges as non-compliance with the above process that it suspended the 54 NGOs.
Mr Moses Isooba, the executive director of the National NGO Forum, the umbrella body that brings all the NGOs across the country, did not answer how the forum will respond to the latest presidential directives.
Officials from the Office of the President, the authors of the directive, were unavailable to offer explanations on the order will be enforced and what exact role RDCs will play.
Dr Chris Baryomonsi, the ICT minister and Presidency Minister Milly Babalanda Babirye, could not be reached to explain why Cabinet approved an additional layer of oversight over civil society, which would be a duplication of the mandate of the National NGO Bureau.
“NGOs merely complement the work of the government … but the challenge is that we are now being looked at as enemies by the state because we are talking about corruption, which to me is very ironical,” Ms Kagaba said.
According to Mr Dickens Kamugisha, the executive director of Africa Institute for Energy Governance, the latest directive is a continuation of increasing executive overreach marked in the past by the formation of a number of committees at the district and sub counties, specifically to “spy on and intimidate NGOs”.
“When they told us to apply for permits every year, we knew that they were intimidating us and did not want us to ask questions about accountability, question corruption and all these other vices. So, when you see a directive from the president’s office directing RDCs to do this and that, you know that it is part of what they had already started because they are scared of Ugandans knowing the truth,” he said.