Imagine being imprisoned in a small overcrowded cell in sweltering heat, surrounded by disease, with nothing but a bucket for a toilet for 8 years. Now imagine that the reason for your imprisonment was because you were working to protect people who were forced off their land, or speaking out against persecution of the LGBT community. Sadly Ugandans may not need to imagine this scenario for much longer.
In the latest move to stifle criticism ahead of the 2016 election the Ugandan government is poised to pass a law which threatens to put civil society activists in prison for up to eight years for failing to comply. Bafflingly the new NGO bill’s stated purpose is to create an ‘enabling environment’ for NGOs. This claim is wrong. The true effect of this law will be to intimidate and paralyse civil society organisations that work on sensitive issues like corruption, oil governance or LGBT rights. Sadly this bill forms part of a series of repressive laws that are guiding Uganda away from democracy and down a path towards authoritarian rule.
In a series of increasingly confused clauses the NGO bill lays out a toxic vision for civil society tightly monitored and controlled by a politically appointed “NGO Board”. The board can arbitrarily shut down organisations if it deems it to be in “the public interest to do so.” The law labels NGOs ‘subversive’, gives government officials the right to raid offices without a warrant, restricts the basic freedoms of movement for NGO staff, and introduces hefty prison sentences for failing to comply with any provision in the act or the directions of the board. These provisions put NGO workers, their sources and the causes they fight for at risk. They also impact on things like confidentiality of sensitive personal information.
Although it is unlikely that the NGO board will have the capacity to oversee all NGO activities to the degree that the law proscribes, it does give the authorities the power to scrutinise and shut down organisations it disapproves of on a whim. Most importantly it provides a powerful incentive for not speaking out against the Government or “public interest.”
In the face of high level corruption scandals and controversial anti-homosexuality legislation Uganda’s international donors have poured millions of dollars into supporting civil society in an effort to boost democratic accountability. If they do nothing to stop this law now, that money will be wasted.
This law is a thinly veiled attack on civil society activists that question the Government. To those who say NGOs shouldn’t be worried. Imagine carrying out your work each day with a huge boulder hovering over your head, ready to drop at any time and obliterate the next eight years of your life. Then think if you would stay in your job, let alone speak out.
This law should be seen for what it is, a destructive piece of legislation that will have a crippling effect on the vital work of NGOs and ultimately on the wellbeing of Ugandan society.