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Uganda’s plan to impose restrictions on civil society groups stalls

Critics of the stalled bill say it could be used to outlaw groups that aid the LGTB community. (Credit: Katie G. Nelson)

A bill seeking to further restrict nonprofit operations in Uganda prompted an international condemnation earlier this year after local civil society groups claimed that the provision aimed to restrict nonprofit groups promoting social justice or human rights platforms.

But recent revelations indicate that the 48-page bill may have lost its teeth in the clamor leading up to this month’s parliamentary debate. If so, it would be a tentative victory for civil society nonprofits; that is, if all goes as planned.

Politicians say the Uganda’s Nongovernmental Organizations Bill 2015 attempts to “harmonize” policy governing the approximately 12,000 NGOs registered in Uganda.

But nonprofits and civil society groups warn that the bill’s vague legal language could allow the government to pressure organizations to shy away from social justice, human rights or political advocacy work.

“There’s a clause looking at NGO accountability and transparency, but I think the bill is entirely looking at squeezing the NGO space and also the whole rule of law,” said Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. “It’s very vague.”

Inside the bill are a number of provisions that aim to monitor potential “subversive activities” by NGOs, according to a parliamentary committee report. Among those is a stipulation that would allow the Ugandan government to refuse registering any nonprofit organization if it’s “in the public interest to do so.”’

While the term “public interest” is defined in the Ugandan constitution, human rights lawyer and founder of Chapter Four in Uganda Nicholas Opiyo said in reality the application of “public interest” is ambiguous and malleable.

“In practice, in actual practice, ‘public interest’ has been interpreted as widely as it could be by people that are applying it,” he said.

That’s a concern for gay rights activists like Mugisha who said the bill wasn’t drafted “in good spirit.”

Opiyo is more direct.

“The introduction of these terms directly target sexual minority issues,” he said.

Opiyo explained the bill prohibits nonregistered organizations from operating in Uganda. That includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-rights (LGBT) NGOs that often provide services in secrecy for fear of homophobic-based violence against them.

“What the bill does is it outlaws NGOs without registration – in fact it makes it illegal. That bill directly targets the way and form of organizing in the LGBT community,” he said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and publishable by up to 14 years in jail. A number of laws have attempted to punish homosexuality with more severe consequences including death, but those bills have folded under international pressure.

While activists say the foundation of the bill is fundamentally discriminatory, they also say that successful lobbying campaigns have helped introduce possible amendments that strip the bill of its restrictive backbone.

In fact, the Ugandan Committee on Defense and International Affairs suggested much of the strict and nebulous language be removed from the bill in August.

But advocates lobbying against the bill were shocked when it was tabled shortly before a Parliamentary debate in September “with no indication as to why,” said Dr. Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Right Initiatives in Uganda.

Some say it was the upcoming presidential elections in Uganda that caused a rushed end to this year’s Uganda parliamentary session. But Opiyo has another explanation; that postponed salary payments might have delayed the monumental vote.

According to the Ugandan newspaper The Observer, the Ugandan government failed to pay members of parliament for their work during the months of July and August. That sum equates to approximately 20 million shillings (including allowances) – or $5,500.00 – per month, per politician.

“The statement at the time was that the payment hadn’t been made and because the payment didn’t come in time, perhaps they got upset so they didn’t vote on the bill,” Opiyo said.

Additionally, Ugandan members of parliament are sometimes offered compensation in addition to their salary for attending votes for bills, such as a late-August provision on districting issues in Uganda. In that case, members of Parliament were offered 10 million shillings each, according to The Observer.

Opiyo said salary, including these additional payments, is often used to sway politicians into aligning their votes with government leadership.

“(Members of parliament) are induced with pay to do what they’re supposed to do. They pay members of parliament over and above their salaries – it’s the bribery of parliament, so to speak,” he said.

And given the upcoming elections, with many members of parliament campaigning for re-election, political finance money and political backing is in extreme demand.

With the bill deferred and parliament in recess, many social rights advocates wonder whether their attempts to sway politicians into scrapping the bill were made in vain.

“The whole idea of differing it is a bit counterproductive,” said Sewanyana. “We don’t know what will happen after it is reconsidered in the future.”

“I have a feeling that when it gets to parliament that it might be watered down but then again we don’t know,” said Mugisha. “Until it’s out of parliament we don’t know what will happen.”

Opiyo seemed to agree with the ambiguous future of the bill, warning that NGOs shouldn’t be surprised if the suggested amendments are reversed. “I think there’s going to be an attempt to pass the bill that the government wanted,” he said.

But there is one thing that Opiyo is sure of; that Uganda’s Nongovernmental Organizations Bill 2015 would’ve passed had the members of parliament’s salaries come through.

“I strongly think so,” he said. “(Members of parliament) at that particular time are very desperate, they’re very vulnerable and they want money for their time. They also need the endorsement from their party,” he said.


About Author

Katie G. Nelson is an American journalist and photographer covering global health, human rights and international aid issues in East Africa. Katie, a former development worker, is most interested in challenging preconceived notions of East Africa while shining a spotlight on people who are injecting innovation, creativity and some serious grit into their communities. She has a B.A. in Global Studies and a Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota.