In many African countries, governments have enacted or are considering onerous new laws to restrict independent activism of civil society, often led by NGOs and social movements. Uganda is one of them.
Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda. (EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)
Given the growing role civil society is playing across Africa in challenging kleptocracy and authoritarian drift, this is perhaps not surprising. Civil society mobilisation and innovative campaigning have also been seen to be decisive in supporting pro-democracy candidates in recent elections, such as those just held in Zambia.
However, in response to clampdowns that rely on rule by law (as opposed to rule of law), there are signs of increasing solidarity and coordination of activists across borders. For example, in an unusual statement of pan-African solidarity, African human rights organisations last week came together to issue a joint statement on the Uganda NGO Bureau’s suspension of 54 non-government organisations (NGOs) in the country. Their statement is carried in full below because of the promise we believe it holds for improved accountability.
27 August 2021
Uganda’s NGO Bureau, the country’s regulatory authority for non-government organisations, should immediately rescind the decision to suspend 54 organisations that they have classified as NGOs, which comes in the context of intensifying intimidation and harassment of civil society organisations. The suspension is intended to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association and stop the activities of independent civil society organisations that are perceived as critical of the authorities.
On 20 August 2021, the National Bureau for NGOs (NGO Bureau) ordered the immediate suspension of these organisations, claiming that they had failed to comply with NGO legislation, including by operating with expired permits, failing to file accounts or failing to register with the bureau.
According to the Uganda National NGO Forum, most of the organisations were not informed of the Uganda NGO Bureau’s decision or given an opportunity to respond in advance.
Uganda’s 2016 NGO Act imposes burdensome requirements for application for permits for NGOs with multiple layers of registration with periodic renewal applications, and organisations are required to have memorandums of understanding with the district they operate in. There is also a lack of clarity over which organisations fall under this regulatory regime.
The suspension of the organisations is arbitrary, as it goes against Section 33 (2) of the NGO Act, which requires the Bureau to give 30 days’ notice in writing to permit-holders to enable them to show cause why the permit should not be revoked. Suspension of independent civil society organisations simply for carrying out their work is an attack on human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association. Suspending civil society organisations also exposes those organisations to additional legal risks if they are unable to pay staff or suppliers.
Many of the organisations affected work in critical areas such as legal practices to help poor or marginalised people. Others work on accountability and transparency in the oil sector, and some monitor human rights in the context of the elections. To abruptly shut down organisations working so closely with Ugandans will hurt people who rely on their services or advocacy.
The rights to freedom of expression and association are guaranteed under Articles 9 and 10 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Uganda is a party. Accordingly, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued guidelines on freedom of association and assembly as provided for in the African Charter, that among other things prohibits states from compelling associations to register to be allowed to exist and to operate freely.
Further, informal organisations shall not be punished or criminalised under the law or in practice based on their lack of formal status. This decision by the NGO Bureau is a clear demonstration of the repressive nature in which Ugandan authorities have continued to clamp down on civic space and human rights.
The NGO Bureau is mandated to play a regulatory and facilitative role in creating an enabling environment for non-profit organisations in Uganda, but this has not been the case in the recent past.
We acknowledge the positive discussions held between the Minister of Internal Affairs and civil society leaders on 24 August and implore the minister to expeditiously follow through the commitments made to redress the anomalies in the suspension of some of the affected NGOs, and establish an Adjudication Committee as required by the law.
We further call on authorities in Uganda to ensure that civil society actors involved in promoting fundamental rights can freely exercise their rights consistent with the Ugandan Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
This article was published by Daily Maverick.