Shrinking civic space is proof of struggle for democracy

Thursday February 25 2021
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Tricia Gloria Nabaye

By Tricia G Nabaye

Uganda’s election cycle suffered a violent phase with thousands of deaths during the campaigns and dozens of people abducted by the State armed forces. The government continued to deter freedom of expressions, assembly and awareness. The regime has continually bedevilled the events surrounding the General Election in Uganda. Indeed, the election process in Uganda is not one to reach the end goal of democratic processes, but a façade used by the regime to portray Uganda as a nation that holds routine mandatory elections.

In Uganda, there has been sustained attacks on civil society and NGOs with push back on the work that these organisations do. The oppression has come in form of break-ins into offices of more than 46 organisations, freezing of bank accounts and closure of some organisations. Consequently, the financial institutions and communication agencies have been turned into instruments of coercion and suppression used by the State to ban civil society groups.

The continued malfunctioning of governments and the death of institutions in the Great Lakes Region has led to a grotesque abuse of human rights provided for in the United Nations Human Rights Charter, the African Charter, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights as well as the constitutions of these countries. This has created many victims of the autocracies and curtailed civic engagement.

The Great Lakes Region, for a greater part, depends on a lot of foreign assistance. These funds are geared towards providing best alternatives in supporting government agencies and civil society in pushing democracy and human rights work. Organisations get funding in order to be able to strengthen citizen engagement for government accountability, improve civic engagement, advance access to information, increase civic and voter education, and expand civil society health.

The recent shutdown of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a major donor for many local organisations , is an indication of how small civic space is and how misinformation is costing regimes their credibility and ability to make sound judgment on issues that affect service delivery in the civic sphere. 

This is a mirror image of many regimes in the Great Lakes Region. Regimes are no longer receptive to logic of facts on issues concerning democratic governance and have availed limited civic space to those trying to advocate good governance and respect of human rights.

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In Kenya, there was a political crackdown against activities of the political Opposition in 2016, when the Opposition started organising street protests to press for its view on how the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should be handled. Also the limitations on the proposals in the Public Benefits Organisations Act, limitations and reduction of funding for civil society organisations to 15 per cent of foreign funding to cripple their operations. This was a target of donor agencies in supporting civil societies. The shifting face of regimes in association with foreign interests continues to suffer freedom of expression, association and assembly and in due process, stifle civic engagement and the civic space at large.

In Burundi, Ligue ITEKA was banned and deregistered in 2017 because it was deemed to be a threat to government for defending people against violation of their liberties and basic rights. Ligue ITEKA was collecting information on the situation of human rights in Burundi and sharing that information through publications, conferences and radios.

In Tanzania, Mwananchi newspaper had its online licence suspended and the media group was fined after they posted a picture of the President in a crowded market, sparking discussions on coronavirus and criticising government’s response.  Regimes in the Great Lakes region continue to curtail dissent in every form and reduce the space for civic competencies and awareness. It should be noted that the cyber space has gradually become a key highlight in the strategies regimes use to clampdown on civic space. 

Ms Tricia Gloria Nabaye is a Resident Research Associate at Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies

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