Arthur Larok

 
24 October, 2017

Why are CSOs in Uganda being targeted and what lessons can we draw for the future?

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On Wednesday the 20th and Thursday the 21st September 2017, the offices of ActionAid Uganda and the Great Lakes Institute, both in Kampala, and Solidarity Uganda in Lira, were raided by the police.

Investigations by the police on the three organisations are ongoing and the accusations labelled against them are:

  1. that they were involved in illicit financial transactions;
  2. they are involved in subversive activities to destabilise Uganda.

Unfortunately, we are preparing for a long-drawn out attack on civil society generally and so it helps to reflect on possible motives of the attack and what is likely to happen in the near future. Most importantly, we must focus on lessons for civil society as we collectively prepare for more such threats.

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The real motive of the government is not very clear but from the interrogation we went through, it appears this siege is part of a wider crackdown on dissent expressed by various actors who have plans to amend the constitution to remove the age-limit. This change would allow for Uganda’s long-serving president to run for another term in office. Civil Society Organisations have variously released statements opposing this amendment, among others.

Therefore, there are five possible motives:

First is to delegitimise Civil Society by presenting them as subversive elements, which often means working to overthrow the government. If successful, this delegitimisation could affect the public image of civil society and scare away their funding partners. It is important that donors don’t land in that trap but also that civil society is more proactive in countering this plan in the eyes of the public.

Second is to compromise our systems and information and thus disrupt our work as well as sow seeds for future surveillance.

Third is to disrupt and derail us from our mission as civil society. This is perhaps the clearest, as civil society has been the most organised of institutional actors, and has consistently and clearly articulated public positions that oppose the retrogressive constitutional amendments. Civil society has also openly stated that they will invest in organising citizens to resist the attempts to remove the age-limit, something that puts them in a direct collision course with majority in the ruling party.

Fourth, is threaten other civil society organisations and thus demoralize them and force them into to self-censorship by many, thus weakening the overall resolve.

Fifth is to provide a justification for further actions that limit civil society, such as halting activities under the pretext that investigations are still going on. We have already seen this happening in the case of ActionAid where at least two of our field activities have been halted by the police.

The focus on civil society because of their strong and unexpected courage to openly reject the age-limit bill is likely to continue. As a result, learning from the possible motives is incredibly important.

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From this experience, the following six lessons have emerged:

Always keep ‘your house in order’: this incidence proved once again the importance of having all institutional information and documentation updated. The siege was impromptu and the documents the authorities sought had to be provided immediately. Any failure to do so may have caused unnecessary suspicion. We must maintain this level of readiness as part of our status quo as civil society.

All staff and board members must understand all processes in the organisation: the interrogation by the police of different staff in separate locations needs to be consistent in regards to how we are organised and how our business processes are managed to avoid contradictions. It is therefore incumbent for all staff to know all procedures and policies as they relate to planning, financing and relations with external actors.

Rapid legal response is necessary: as civic and political space continues to shrink in the country and globally, we must strengthen our legal response capability. The presence of competent lawyers as part of civil society staff and external legal reinforcements are very important.

A positive relationship with the media is essential: the media was very helpful in reaching out widely about the siege. Because of ongoing relations between the media and civil society, the mainstream media were generally supportive and objective in their reporting. Connected to this is the growing importance of social media platforms and the need for civil society to invest in it to be able to independently reach an external audience.

It is essential to be relevant to civil society and wider citizens’ struggles: the immense show of solidarity from other civil society organisations and the public at the time of need was a demonstration of the value and relevance to civil society and the wider causes and struggles in the country of what the targeted NGOs. The more inward looking an NGO is, the less likely they will get much needed solidarity from others.

Beware of potential informers in the midst: finally, we have learnt that the forces that seek to undermine our work are present in our midst and it is therefore important to better understand our internal environment and partners we work with. We must always be transparent about what we do and have the confidence to defend what we stand for and support to reduce on the need to spy on us.

This article first appeared on the ActionAid Uganda website, please visit their site to see it


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