The 1995 Constitution under Chapter 4 provides for fundamental rights. Such core rights, some of which are deemed critical for the facilitation of democratic dispensation, include freedom of assembly, expression and association.
While one may credit the NRM government for facilitating an enabling environment through which a progressive 1995 Constitution was promulgated, it is indeed only sensible that by the same measure we continuously assess the extent to which the government applies and respects the said provisions and in so doing understand the protections afforded to Ugandan citizens as well as establish the reality of the extent to which these fundamental and inherent rights and freedoms can actually be enjoyed.
As we came to the close of a challenging 2020, yet another curve ball was thrown at the civil society and larger community of human rights defenders with the arrest of prominent human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, his crime allegedly facilitating money laundering through his organisation –Chapter Four Uganda. His eight-day detention was once again a test of the reality of the democratic values contemplated in the Constitution.
It is no secret that before his arrest, Opiyo was central to the defence of four NGOs whose accounts were frozen on December 12, 2020, by the State on allegations of money laundering and terrorism financing. The same NGOs were at the centre of NGO participation in the 2021 electoral process having facilitated the formation of a NGO led citizen domestic electoral observation network.
Unfortunately, the NGO Bureau suspended the loose domestic electoral observation network, further curtailing CSO ability to participate in the 2021 electoral process. This negates the fundamental freedom of these NGOs to associate for a common cause, in this instance electoral process observation.
The above disruptive actions come against the backdrop of an absurd narrative continuously peddled by the State that funding of NGOs by foreigners purposes to advance their foreign interests in Uganda. It should be recalled that historically, the rapid growth of the NGO sector was mainly due to the need to step in the gap to address various socio-economic needs within country where State intervention was limited or lacking. To date, the NGO world is the second biggest employer after government. Therefore, its contribution to our economy cannot be understated.
The NGO sector is highly regulated, reporting to four key entities with supervisory authority over their activities, namely; NGO Bureau, Financial Intelligence Authority, Uganda Police Force and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. These supervisory layers through which NGOs are obliged to disclose various material matters facilitate elevated levels of transparency with respect to the activities of NGOs, their partners and their sources of funding.
Article 38 of the 1995 Constitution provides that every Ugandan has the right to participate in the affairs of government, individually or through his or her representatives in accordance with the law. It further states that every Ugandan has a right to participate in peaceful activities to influence the policies of government through civic organisations.
The continued attack on NGOs/CSOs as they carry out their legitimate work, therefore, remains dumbfounding and, in my view, only seeks to frustrate their various activities through which State actors are called to account. Aside from NGOs/ CSO’s, human rights defenders in general have increasingly come under attack as Uganda heads to the 2021 polls. As we start 2021, we need to have a deep reflection on Chapter Four of our Constitution to reclaim the true meaning of the rights and freedoms guaranteed therein for all Ugandans.
Edward Serucca Jnr
The writer is a lawyer. firstname.lastname@example.org