Many NGOs suspended in 2021 remain in limbo. There have been allegations that the organisations’ suspension was because they were critical of President Yoweri Museveni’s government and policies. Graphic Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS
By Issa Sikiti da Silva
Kampala, Jul 18 2022 (IPS)
Nearly a year after the Ugandan government suspended 54 NGOs for allegedly operating illegally and failing to file accounts, most civil society organisations (CSOs) remain shut.
Analysts say this is because President Yoweri Museveni sees them as a threat to his 36-year regime.
Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), told IPS: “The two court cases we filed against the NGO Bureau for illegal actions against AFIEGO are still ongoing in court. But we know that the NGO Bureau knows their actions toward the affected CSOs are wrong. This is why it has continued to make endless phone calls to AFIEGO and others for informal discussions. We have asked them to put their invitation in writing, but they haven’t done so perhaps to avoid implicating themselves.”
Before its suspension, AFIEGO was one of four Ugandan organisations involved in legal action to stop the $10 billion oil project by TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Its opposition is based on environmental concerns.
At a recent signing of the agreement between the government and the oil major, Museveni said that the “associations that criticise this project are people who don’t have a job. They have nothing to do, so let these idiots continue to wander aimlessly. They are only good at drinking tea and eating cookies”.
However, Kamugisha asked: “What’s wrong with fighting against anything that worsens the impacts of climate change, such as this risky oil project, the deforestation of the forests of Bugoma and Budongo, the safeguarding of Nile River and Lake Edward, of Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth NPs, and so on?”
Kamugisha said the government’s actions towards CSOs showed that the civic space in Uganda was not getting any better.
According to Amnesty International, in the run-up to the January 2021 elections, Museveni critics bore the brunt of the security forces.
“In 2020, dozens of people were killed in the context of electoral campaigning ahead of the January 2021 general election, most of them by police and other security forces…The rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association were severely restricted. The authorities targeted organisations working on human rights and shut down the internet,” the human rights organisation said.
Many observers believe Museveni deliberately targeted the organisations for challenging his policies and undermining his rule.
Justice climate activist Robert Agenonga told IPS from Germany that the government’s decision to suspend NGOs was retaliation for their critical role before, during, and after the elections.
“So many violations occurred during the electoral period, whereby people were detained, killed, and tortured. And organisations such as Chapter Four, for instance, provided legal support to opposition politicians, ordinary people and activists that were intimidated and prosecuted during and after the electoral period.”
Museveni believes NGOs act as agents of foreign governments and are supported by outsiders to undermine the government, Agenonga said, adding that this is done to reduce the capacity of CSOs and their ability to influence communities.
Another reason behind the suspension is that the Museveni administration has accused NGOs of replacing the state’s role by receiving money for state institutions.
“Over the years, donors were becoming increasingly unhappy with Museveni’s overstaying in power. So, they have resorted to channelling money they were giving to the state through NGOs. That’s what might have angered the government.”
Before the mass suspension of 54 NGOs, the government cracked down on the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a multi-million-dollar fund assisting local organisations that focus on democracy, human rights and good governance.
In 2019, the authorities banned the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), an election monitoring coalition.
In January 2021, the authorities also banned the National Elections Watch – Uganda, a coalition of local organisations, from monitoring national elections.
Kamugisha categorically denied the government’s allegations that the suspended NGOs were operating illegally, stating that it was all about intimidating, harassing and instilling fear in the CSOs sector.
“You know that the Executive Director of Chapter Four spent weeks in prison, and later his case was dismissed due to lack of prosecution. The government lost interest in the case, and later the man left for the US apparently on study leave but heard on study leave, but his organisation is as good as closed,” he added.
“Even the AFIEGO issues with the police, the police do not have any evidence of criminal offences. We are legally registered, and the NGO Bureau knows it very well.”
Chapter Four Uganda applied to the High Court Civil Division to challenge its suspension.
In May 2022, High Court Judge Musa Ssekaana called the decision to indefinitely suspend Chapter Four “irregular”. This was because there was no timeframe for comprehensive investigations into the NGO’s operations to enable the bureau to determine whether or not to revoke its permit and cancel the registration.
In June, Chapter Four was allowed to resume operations.
Another affected the NGO Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), had its suspension lifted in late June. The NGO, funded by Denmark, Ireland, Austria, the UK, Sweden, Norway, and the European Union, was suspended in January 2021. It supports projects for poverty eradication, equitable growth, and the rule of law.
Gideon Chitanga, a political analyst with the Johannesburg-based Centre for Study of Democracy, told IPS that NGO suspensions were a draconian violation of civil liberties and human rights by the Ugandan government.
IPS UN Bureau Report