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Opinion Uganda’s NGO bill: Another threat to freedom in East Africa

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signs an anti-gay bill that set harsh penalties for homosexual sex on Feb. 24, 2014.

Another day, another attempt by an East African nation to pass a draconian law restricting freedoms. Uganda joins the list of countries in the East Africa attempting to use legislation to restrict the operations of NGOs and civil society organizations.

The NGO Bill of 2015, introduced in April is an effort “to streamline the regulation of Non Governmental Organizations.” According to the bill, “the rapid growth of Non-Governmental Organizations has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which in turn undermine accountability and transparency in the sector.”  The bill would require organizations to register for a permit with an established NGO board. The board can revoke an organization’s permit if it deems it to be engaging in “any act, which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda.”The bill would also require foreign employees of NGOs to be vetted and approved at a Ugandan diplomatic mission for his or her suitability for the employment” prior to arriving in Uganda. Penalties for violating the bill range from fines to imprisonment for the officers of the organizations that choose to operate without a permit.

The vagueness of the bill gives the government the latitude to silence organizations it deems to be operating against the “public interest” of Uganda, a term which is conveniently undefined. NGOs often fill gaps left by government in delivering social services to citizens. But beyond NGOs that work in development areas such as health or education, organizations that seek to demand transparency in government as well as sectors such as the oil and gas industries could also be subject to increased government control and scrutiny under the NGO bill, should it pass into law.

Uganda’s parliament was expected to debate the bill last week, but decided to defer the debate until a later date. Regardless, the bill is just another manifestation of a disturbing trend of laws in East Africa being used to stifle civil society, silence the media and suppress political dissent. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Kenya late last year de-registered more than 500 NGOs, claiming that groups might be providing assistance to al-Shabab, despite little direct evidence of such. In early iterations of Kenya’s anti-terrorism law, journalists could face up to three years in prison for reports that “undermine investigations or security operations related to terrorism.” In Tanzania, the pending Cybercrime and Statistics Acts threaten citizens with jail time for sending unsolicited messages or for misrepresenting official government statistics.

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East Africa seems to be taking its cues from Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which restricts human rights groups from operating and prevents registered organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funds from abroad.  Jeffery Smith, Africa specialist with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in D.C. said in an e-mail, “Uganda’s NGO Bill is part of growing authoritarian contagion in the region, with Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation serving as the ultimate blueprint. Other leaders in East Africa, and beyond, no doubt observed this strategy with interest, as the United States government in particular failed to mount any serious challenge to this blatant repression.”

Already, some reports suggest that the Ugandan government has started cracking down on independent organizations.

Ugandan civil society organizations have been vocal in their opposition to the bill in its current form. In an e-mail, Nicholas Opiyo, executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights NGO, said,  “The government messaging over time has been to flash the sovereignty card demonizing NGOs as agents of foreign interests and agents of the political opposition. This has been a long running smear campaign that has tilted public perception.” Opiyo lamented the relative lack of international attention to the NGO bill issue and added, “There has not been as much public debate and donor pressure on this bill as say for instance the Anti-homosexuality Act thus emboldening the government in its ploy to restrict civic space.” Indeed, Uganda came under fiery international criticism in recent years for its harsh laws criminalizing homosexuality.  In 2014, longtime president Yoweri Museveni signed a bill into law that imposes life sentences for gay sex or gay marriage. (Earlier drafts of the bill proposed the death penalty for homosexuality). The United States responded harshly, cutting or redirecting millions of dollars in aid, cancelling military training and imposing visa restrictions.

The United States, in comparison with its tough reaction to the anti-gay bill, has remained relatively quiet about the NGO bill. But should it pass, efforts to assist the LGBTI persons in Uganda will become exponentially more difficult. “Organizations that work around this area have had to register as human rights organizations without mentioning their work on sexual orientation and gender identity or expressions,” Opiyo said,  “These organizations have provided services but will risk de-registration once the law is passed in its current form.”  Beyond LGBTI issues, the U.S. sends more than $750 million to Uganda each year. Much of U.S. development assistance is implemented through NGOs on the ground.

As Uganda gears up for competitive elections in 2016, a robust civil society is essential. With the delay in the debate over the bill, it’s time for international donors, along with the United States, to stand up for Uganda’s civil society and speak up against the repressive elements of Uganda’s NGO bill.