The implementation of the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Act of 2016 has resulted in NGOs experiencing limitations to both civic space and their right to the freedom of expression and association. How NGOs will proceed from here is crucial, and it is imperative that they harmonise efforts and resources as there is strength in numbers.
When the Bill that preceded the NGO Act of 2016 was published on April 10 2015, the general consensus that arose was one of which the government was attempting to exert more control over the activities of NGOs and ultimately eliminate their right to the freedom of expression and association. These rights are within the Ugandan Constitution and are declared a universal fundamental right under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The implementation of the NGO Act of 2016 merely as a tactic for the government to resume control during the time when NGOs were governed by the Non-Governmental Registration Act of 1989, which was amended in 2006. This law was later repealed due to NGOs challenging the limitations it posed to their right to freedom of expression and association, which is the same issue with the NGO Act of 2016.
And while the government claims that the purpose of the NGO Act is to coordinate and improve the efforts of NGOs, the hurdles NGOs will face from the NGO Act prove otherwise. NGOs find themselves having to navigate a dense regulatory framework that has been referred to as a “thick bureaucracy”, with regulatory bodies in the form of monitoring committees operating at the national, district, and sub-county level. This framework merely allows a tedious registration and permit application process, many reporting obligations, and more avenues of subjective guidelines to warn, sanction, or deregister NGOs.
The important question that remains is how NGOs will continue their work with the new laws. It is crucial that NGOs recognize the pitfalls of the NGO Act, but aim to abide by the laws. If this does not happen, they will undoubtedly face daunting consequences that could jeopardize the goals of their organizations. NGOs can also help to protect themselves by working in coalitions and partnerships, as it is more difficult to stifle the work of a group of organizations as opposed to a single organization. Building on that same idea, NGOs also need to join forces with each other and use their lobbying power to demand for a review of some of the contentious provisions.
The provisions that should be the focus for review are the ones which contain subjective rules. The focal point should be on the provisions in section 44(d) and (f) in particular, which state that organisations shall not “engage in any act that is prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda” or “engage in any act that is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda”. Both provisions are broad and their interpretation differs widely between persons. This can pose a large problem for NGOs as they try to abide by the law.
But for those NGOs working on more sensitive issues, a conscious effort must be made to only participate in advocacy that can be supported by concrete evidence. This is important for NGOs working in sectors that are devoted to oil and gas, electoral democracy, anti-corruption, governance, and human rights. Many of these organizations are often accused of having interests that are not aligned with those of the government, so it is necessary for the organizations to be able to defend themselves. Messages from these organizations should be clear of any possible misconceptions and there should be an absence of participation in partisan politics as well.
However, if the government truly wishes for NGOs to operate efficiently and use their resources effectively, the “thick bureaucracy” needs to disappear. NGOs should not have to report the same information to both the NGO Bureau at the national level and also the monitoring committees at the district and sub-county level. Compared to the laws in place in many other countries, the registration process for NGOs in Uganda should require less administrative obstacles. There is also a need for the NGO Bureau to be composed of members who have been elected through an independent entity.