Uganda civil society grapples with shrinking space – and finds new ways to resists

15969807_303As the country was preoccupied with the legal wrangling over the results of his controversial February 18 reelection, President Museveni quietly signed into law the new non-governmental organisations Act, which activists criticize as another blow to civic space in Uganda, writes Richard M Kavuma. But despite the repression, civil society remains resilient, and finds new ways to challenge state power.

Even by Ugandan standards, the development was surprising, even perplexing. And today, three and a half years later, it is held up as a sign of how repressive the Ugandan government has become, how much the space for Uganda’s civil society has shrunk. It was Monday February 4, 2013; several civil society organisations, appalled by rising levels of public corruption, had organized a campaign to create awareness in the populace. On this “Black Monday”, civil society activists were to give out leaflets, fliers and other items to inform the public about the unacceptable levels of theft of public resources.

Among them was Dr Zac Niringiye, the retired former assistant bishop of Kampala Anglican diocese. The Ugandan police reacted by throwing the anti-corruption activists into detention cells. For many, the abiding memory of the Black Monday campaign is the image of a religious leader behind bars for mobilizing the public against corruption. But for others, the government’s reaction to Black Monday is also emblematic of shrinking civic space, within which people can organize to put pressure on President Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years. Needless to say, government officials take a different view. President Museveni once said that Uganda was suffering from an overdose of democratic freedom. Museveni refuses to be “lectured” on human rights, saying it was his leadership – after a five-year guerrilla war – that restored constitutionalism.

 

Longevity 

That’s the presidential view. But asked about the state of civic space in Uganda, Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), gives a tellingly-nuanced response. For certain organisations doing aspects of service delivery, the space is there; but for certain sensitive topics, the government is too fearful of critical voices. Kagaba cites two pieces of legislation, one governing nongovernmental organisations (recently signed into law by President Museveni) and the other on public order management. “If you look at the NGO Amendment bill that was passed sometime back, initially the bill was very, very restrictive and as NGOs we came out and made a lot of noise and a few things were changed,” Ms Kagaba says. “If you look at the bill and the spirit of the law, you realize that there are more and more restrictions that are being placed on NGOs engaged in issues of human rights and governance.”

Kagaba says that NGOs supplementing the government in delivering services such as safe water, health or education are rarely disturbed. But the state treats as suspects CSOs advocating against human rights abuses or governance problems such as corruption. “Remember that if you have an ignorant public, it can work to your advantage. Now, if you have an enlightened public, then they are going to demand; they know their rights and they know they are going to hold you accountable; they will demand; and the last thing any regime would want are people who are going to hold it accountable,” Kagaba says. She cites the 2013 crackdown on the Black Monday campaign against corruption. She still sounds angry that people were arrested for “merely giving out information to the public”. Moreover the information was from the government’s own institutions such as the Office of the Auditor General and the Inspectorate of Government. She adds that such high-handed action from the government has forced civil society activists into self censorship.

In its first draft, the NGO bill proposed to automatically deregister all CSOs after six months, and to prosecute individual heads of any organisations involved in unlawful civic action. Although both the deregistration and the ‘personal liability for organizational action’ were eventually rejected by parliament, Kagaba says activists are so fearful because “you are not sure what is going to happen”. Besides, NGOs must be careful because they still need to apply to operation permits every five years. It is the same view from Dr Moses Khisa, a leading Ugandan political scientist and columnist for The Observer newspaper. Khisa relates the shrinking civic space to Museveni’s quest to hold on to power, and sees two tendencies in reaction. On the one hand is the growth of militancy, with people daring an increasingly brutal police.

“But there is also the growth in timidness on the part of many Ugandans, who would rather play safe. Because the way the police has emerged over the last decade, it is like a very colonial-like brutal force that is willing to unleash the kind of violence that would tame people,” says Khisa, a lecturer at Northwestern University/Evanston in the United States. To control civic space, Khisa says, the government can now rely on the Public Order Management Act (POMA) “which handed overriding powers to the police to grant the right of assembly and association”. Among other things, any public meeting held in Uganda must be authorized by the police. This means the police can disperse any meeting whose objectives the government does not agree with.

 

Defiance

This leaves Ugandan civil society in a fix and for survival’s sake at least, many organisations seem to be choosing their battles carefully. They produce reports and media statements and address press conferences, as well as writing and speaking in print and electronic media. For now the police has generally not interfered with such low-key activities.

The national media still carries voices quite critical of the government, but for the most part, the state does not interfere because national media is considered elitist and unable to mobilize street protests against the government. As Dr Khisa pointed out, there is also growth of arrest-me-if-you-want activism. Aware that their public campaigns won’t be permitted by the police, organizers call the media and turn up in a public venue and get bundled onto police vehicles and detained. Sometimes they get produced in court before the state later loses interest in the case, or they will be released without charge.

Only this month a group of women were arrested outside parliament for staging a protest against perceived attempts to erase the presidential age limit from the Constitution. Such a change would allow President Museveni, now 72, to run for reelection in 2021 and his inner circle are believed to see the change as a matter of when rather than if. The police, rather predictably, pounced and dispersed the gathering and arrested the leaders. Such action often gets media headlines and keeps the issues of the organizers in the news. But it is a potentially double-edged sword; while it draws attention to the issues, there is the risk that it makes more would-be activists cowed due to the violence unleashed by the police.

 

Online

Khisa also cites the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U) as an example of concerted effort regardless. HRNJ-U has been consistent in highlighting abuses meted out by the police and other state agents against journalists. On its website and in emails to media houses and agencies worldwide, HRNJ-U chronicles both acts of aggression against journalists on duty as well as its efforts to demand answers from the responsible officers. The internet and social media also seem to offer a new powerful platform for civic action. WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are being used mostly by individuals to mobilize public opinion and speak out against excesses by the state and other actors. So powerful have these online platforms become that during the elections, the government shut them down citing national security reasons. But on the whole, as Khisa points out, their impact is limited to mostly the urban elite. Some 70 per cent of Ugandans live in the countryside, a space tightly controlled by the government.