The government has been waging a quiet, insidious but brutally effective war against civil society organisations in the country. It is time more people paid attention and mobilised resistance.
The attacks are not new. In the late 1990s state functionaries and intelligence officials routinely broke up seminars organised by the Uganda Young Democrats and the Foundation for African Development, which were both linked to the Democratic Party (DP), and, less frequently, with the Young Congress of Uganda, which was aligned to the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC).
Such was the tension between state and civil society that the death of Anthony Ssekweyama, the FAD head, in a car-crash in 2000 was considered by many to be “suspicious” although no evidence has been brought forward of foul play, or involvement of state agents, for that matter.
But the attacks on civil society only continued. In August 2012, Human Rights Watch, a civil society group, warned in a report of growing intimidation and threats to civil society in Uganda.
HRW noted a series of tactics used by officials to control or restrain civil society groups through closing meetings, public reprimands, occasional use of physical force, as well as threats of administrative sanctions.
In the last decade these sanctions have crystallised from threats into law and regulations. On the face of it, these seek to regulate the conduct of civil society organisations but, in reality and application, are designed and implemented to control, choke and contain them.
Today civil society organisations in Uganda have to navigate a smorgasbord of bureaucratic restrictions that require them to detail and seek approval for their activities, their sources of funding, their governance structures and their employees.
By simply making compliance very onerous, it provides opportunities to punish CSOs and key actors seen as dabbling in areas the state would rather have them not operate.
The arrest of Nicholas Opiyo on trumped-up charges of money laundering and the indefinite suspension of 54 other NGOs accused of non-compliance of these rules are just two of many examples.
CSOs are big fat targets. Many of them have significant budgets that allow them to operate independently of the state. In a state where control is everything, this kind of power is seen not as a virtue to be celebrated, but as a threat to be managed.
Secondly, well-resourced and properly conceptualised CSOs can effectively mobilise and drum up citizen agency on all manner of causes, from agitating for sanitary pads to keep girls in school, to getting citizens to register to vote.
Again, in a state where it is better for citizens to know as little as possible about their rights and power – for instance by refusing to translate the Constitution into local languages – such mobilisation is frightening.
In addition, after many foreign development partners cut budget support away from the government after the grand larceny of the last two decades and turned this money over to civil society groups, the CSOs came to be seen as calves competing for the same teat as the government.
Thus it became imperative to bring the redirected umbrella funding, primarily under the Democratic Governance Facility, under closer scrutiny – if not control – of the state, and to ban or choke off NGOs seen as giving money to young and restless populations.
This isn’t just an attack on civil society organisations. This is a war against civil liberties. We have seen curtailment of the freedoms of assembly and association, we have seen the decimation of older class structures such as farmer cooperatives, and the co-option of religious movements to look the other way.
We have seen the dilution of the Legislature in form and function, and armed raids on Parliament, the courts and the filling of the benches with cadre judges. The media struggle to breathe through necks bearing the weight of militant boots, and now it is the turn of civil society to kneel, blindfolded, and await the strike of the whip.
Each of these developments should concern us. Together, they should frighten and jolt us into action. The liberties we seek to defend are inherent and not granted by the state.
If we don’t push back against this erosion of civil liberties we could as well kiss our constitutional order goodbye. We should not say that we were not warned.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.
[email protected]; @Kalinaki