Uganda has a vibrant civil society sector with many organizations focused on advocacy, governance and human rights. The principle legislation governing civil society in Uganda is the Non-Governmental Organizations Act of 2016 (NGO Act). The Act led to the development of the National NGO Bureau within the Ministry of the Interior, which is also responsible for the police, prisons, intelligence agencies, and immigration services. Activists report that the regulation of the civil society sector is viewed from a security, rather than development, lens. They voice concerns that organizations focused on good governance and accountability are perceived by the government as being anti-government, allied with the political opposition, and/or a threat to national security and sovereignty.
The NGO Bureau has the authority to refuse to register or revoke the registration of any civil society organization (CSO) the Bureau believes is involved in ‘unlawful activities,’ which is euphemistic for voicing critical views of the government. CSOs must seek approval of local and national-level governments before implementing all programs. However, civil society representatives report that the Bureau’s processes are onerous and often delayed for long periods. CSOs must report programmatic and financial activities to the government on an annual basis to have their operation permits and project approvals renewed. These processes threaten the independence of Ugandan CSOs, which come to depend on the government’s favor.
Additionally, the Anti-money Laundering Act and accompanying regulations require grant recipients to use Ugandan banks and allows the government to freeze CSOs’ bank accounts without due process. This poses a risk for banks, as well as civil society, which consequently impose burdensome financial disclosure demands on CSOs to avoid scrutiny by the government.
To address obstacles confronting civil society, activists formed the Ugandan National NGO Forum, a voluntary organization that seeks to provide leadership in the sector including improving coordination between CSOs and the government. One member of the Forum, Chapter Four Uganda, offered to provide legal expertise to the parliamentary committee tasked with drafting the NGO Act to ensure their concerns were heard and to influence its contents. Chapter Four conducted research on the potential impact of the law and coordinated input of Forum members to provide analysis and recommendations on its provisions to parliamentarians. Although the law was passed and its implementation remains problematic, several restrictive proposals (about a third of its content) were ultimately removed from the Act as a result of civil society’s engagement in the legislative process.
Since its passage, the Forum has tried to improve implementation of the NGO Act by engaging with the National NGO Bureau. Civil society has hosted public dialogues with Bureau representatives to discuss their concerns and provide recommendations. It has structured its arguments in part by referencing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community; and especially the Uganda’s Bill of Rights, which protects the freedoms of association and assembly, including access to resources.
To strengthen its argument for a more conducive regulatory climate, civil society has leveraged commentary about similarly burdensome regulations around the world. In particular, Ugandan CSOs have studied the experience of, and formed partnerships with, Kenyan CSOs, which successfully defeated passage of a restrictive NGO bill in 2013. Like Kenya, Ugandan civil society members gathered data demonstrating the positive economic impact of the CSO sector on local and national economies.
CSOs across Uganda have formed coalitions, such as Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, which demonstrates to members of parliament how their constituencies benefit from the work of CSOs. In doing so, they seek to highlight how voters in each parliamentarian’s district are negatively affected by burdensome CSO restrictions and how this may influence voters in future elections.
The Forum tries to help civil society improve its capacity to manage projects and funds transparently in order to avoid government harassment. It developed a memorandum outlining principles for effective regulation of the sector called the “Quality Assurance Mechanism” QUAM. It also published “NGOs regulating themselves: The NGO Quality Standards”, which guides CSOs thought processes that promote transparency and accountability.
Many CSOs focused on democracy and human rights are urban based and considered to be elitist by some Ugandans, so have struggled to establish trust among the broader public. Therefore, civil society increasingly uses social media platforms, particularly Facebook, to connect with and generate public support. Social media is used to draw attention to important social issues, highlight how CSOs seek to address those issues, and demonstrate the impact civil society has achieved. However, many CSOs, particularly those focused on issues the government finds sensitive, are reluctant to promote their successes fearing they will be targeted by the government, which impedes their ability to connect with citizens.
Civil society has made an effort to improve its public image by participating in TV and radio dialogues with government officials, which has allowed it to push back against the government’s accusations that foreign-funded organizations are foreign agents. During the dialogues, civil society argues that the Ugandan government itself receives significant financial assistance from foreign governments, but does not consider itself to be serving foreign entities. It has also pushed back on allegations that civil society is corrupt by pointing out that almost all of the organizations with reported financial impropriety were founded or led by government officials, and that impropriety is extremely rare among independent organizations.
Despite the robust advocacy efforts of Ugandan civil society, the right to access funding in Uganda is frequently attacked by authorities. In October 2017 during a crackdown on dissent, Ugandan authorities froze ActionAid’s bank accounts without due process. Activists believe the accounts were frozen because of civil society opposition to plans to remove presidential term limits. Removal of term limits would allow the current president of Uganda, who has been in office for 31 years, to remain in office.
When confronted with burdensome regulations related to access to donor funding, CSOs have also sought the support of international donors and embassies, which apply diplomatic pressure on the government to respect CSOs’ right to access resources. Activists describe how the NGO Act negatively affects the work of international organizations in addition to Ugandan CSOs. Activists report that donors from the United States were very engaged when the NGO Act was under development.
Civil society activists also recommend that donors assume greater flexibility in the manner in which they provide assistance to CSOs. They note that even though CSOs and social movements that focus on LGBTQI issues are prohibited in the country, they are among the most active civil society communities in Ugandan. CSOs focusing on LGBTQI rights have convinced donors to be more flexible in how they fund CSOs and the requirements they place upon them. This flexibility of donors has helped these CSOs to remain vibrant, despite the restrictive environment in which they operate.
International treaties to which Uganda is a party: