KAMPALA – For long, the Ugandan government and Civil Society Organisations – CSOs have been parallel due to different reasons.
This was evidenced on August 20, 2021, when authorities announced without prior notification that they had halted the activities of 54 civil society groups, including human rights and election monitoring organizations, Human Rights.
The director of the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations Bureau, Stephen Okello, said that 23 of the organizations were found to be operating with expired permits while 15 others had “consistently failed to file annual returns and audited books of accounts.” Another 16 groups were “operating as NGOs without registering with the NGO Bureau.”
The accused organisations denied the claims and the court consequently ruled in the favour of some of them.
Recall also that in 2019, the authorities banned the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), an election monitoring coalition, from engaging in voter education or any election-related activity.
Also, on February 17, 2021, the government suspended the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) in Uganda, a European Union donor fund for nongovernmental groups, saying the government lacked oversight over the fund.
It is on this background that the Uganda Civil Society Strengthening Activity partners held a conference to forge a way to bridge up the clashes with the government.
Held under the theme: “Strengthening Civil Society Resilience and Sustainability in Uganda” at Golf Course Hotel, Kampala, the conference was officiated by the newly installed Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister – Norbert Mao.
Mao, also the Chairman-General of Uganda’s oldest political party – Democratic Party said that he was attracted by their (CSOs) focus on building alliances and inclusion of special interest groups in civic space initiatives, promising to be a strong ally.
“There are many people who are forgotten in this country and they need voices to unpack these terminologies like civic space inclusion, like compliance.”
He noted that apart from the state which stands in the way of enjoyment of some of their rights, there’s also culture, giving an example of cases of sexual minorities.
The minister noted that if the government doesn’t become wise and cooperate with the CSOs, the oppressed society may resort to extreme measures due to lack of options.
According to him, the friction between the two is manifested through a state identifying particular individuals in the civil society as enemies or even identifying certain organizations as enemies.
He also promised to champion the call by the parliamentary human rights committee to be chaired by an opposition party.
“If parliamentary human rights committee is an accountability issue, and the state is majorly the accused, then obviously, for parliament to hold the state accountable, that committee should be chaired by a member of the opposition parties in Parliament.”
“…I’m well known for starting fires but I now want to be known for putting out fires. I want to be a lead singer in the peace choir by signing a cooperation agreement with a man and a party that has led Uganda for a period coming to four decades, decades that started with great hope which, unfortunately, is leading to despair,” said the minister, who many Ugandans say he just got married to his critic.
The minister urged the CSOs to “start speaking the language of the people.”
Dr Sylvia Namubiru – ED Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) says that their operating environment with the government has been so restrictive.
“When a single actor speaks on issues of governance and human rights, they are labeled to be in opposition and are misunderstood.”
She noted that they have also been challenged by a crackdown through closing the regulatory system, noting that some of the laws are really very prohibitive.
“So, organization’s operating environment is very restrictive, and that’s why you found that over 50 organizations were suspended some, for lack of compliance. Suspected prejudices, as the minister mentioned, come from the point of view that the actors in government sometimes don’t appreciate there is a wrong narrative that is given either by the security to indicate that the CSOs are here to fight the government.”
She noted that the dialogue will reaffirm their support for the government, and strengthen their resilience “because the people of Uganda want us to be sustainable.”
Mr. Robert Kirenga, the executive director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – NCHRD said that they are optimistic that minister Mao will bridge the gap since he knows well CSOs’ relevance.
“Now, of course, what makes us excited is the current Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs is because we know his history as a student leader, advocating for the rights of citizens. So, the struggles he has gone through as a student leader, including as a politician, and also as one type of civil society activist. We think he’ll be able to understand our language.”
He says that their rights are derived from article 38 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda that states that citizens have the right to participate in the governance of their country.
Arthur Larok from ActionAid International Uganda blames the clash on the “faulty foundation” of the relationship between civil society and government right from the legislation that was put in place in 1989.
“It’s one of mistrust control and I think without changing that foundation, a lot of what we do in meetings such as this will be cosmetic.”
“So, fundamentally we need to reconstruct that foundation. Anything less than that we will always be reacting to symptoms of the problem,” he noted.
“This government has only worsened since 1986. It has not improved. There were moments in our history when the objectives of the NRM government and that of the President was in convergence with people like interests of Uganda, but from 1997 onwards, the meeting one year after the Constitution was put in place, we started to see this and it has only intensified,” said Mr. Larok.
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