East African govts to crack down on civil societies, NGOs

Monday November 03 2014

Civil society activists demonstrate in Nairobi against the proposed law to control funding of NGOs. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Proposed laws in Kenya and Uganda to impose legal and funding constraints on civil society organisations reflect a growing trend across the world to stifle activism. More than 50 governments in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe have either proposed or passed legislation in the past two years to impede the flow of funds across borders.

In what appears to be an attempt by authorities in the two countries to tame the “invisible hand” of Western influence, Kenya and Uganda have proposed laws to clip the wings of civil society organisations.

In Kenya, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Jubilee Coalition is seeking to reintroduce controversial amendments to the Public Benefits Organisation Act to impose a 15 per cent cap on the amount of resources nongovernmental organisations can mobilise externally. An attempt to amend the Act failed to get parliamentary approval last year.

In Uganda, the Cabinet early this year approved an amendment to the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Registration Bill that could bar NGOs from engaging in political advocacy and give the government authority to monitor all their activities.

According to Rose Namayanja, the Minister for Information and National Guidance, the new Act will also provide a way for the government to “shield Uganda from undocumented inflow and outflow of funds for NGOs” that could potentially be used for “fanning instability”.

Human Rights Watch says in a report that Uganda allows some groups, particularly those involved in service delivery, significant latitude. But organisations working on oil transparency, land, governance, and human rights have had their work cut out advocating for change.


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In Rwanda, while the regulatory regime governing NGOs does not limit foreign funding, the registration process is reported to be burdensome, lengthy and convoluted. The scope of activities an organisation can engage in is also limited to what Kigali considers to be the nation’s priorities.

With less than a year to elections in 2015, authorities in Burundi have intensified their crackdown on free speech. Opposition leaders and civil society groups have been intimidated. Journalists and political activists have faced continuous judicial harassment, been imprisoned or prosecuted. Civil society organisations have to wade through layers of bureaucratic red-tape to be registered.

Millions of dollars flow across borders from Western capitals to the region annually to fund projects in areas like health and education. But equally, millions of dollars are pumped into human-rights and democracy-building programmes, and this is where the problem lies.

The relationship between governments in the region and political advocacy groups has been one of mutual suspicion. Authorities have not responded positively to a more vocal public and empowered civic spaces.

East Africa seems to be borrowing a leaf from Ethiopia, which in 2009 enacted one of the most restrictive regulatory regimes for civil society organisations in the world. NGOs in Ethiopia cannot legally raise more than 10 per cent of their funds abroad, and human rights work has nearly shut down, with some organisations leaving the country altogether. A year into the new law capping foreign funding for civil society groups, registered NGOs reportedly shrank by more than 60 per cent.

In Kenya, those bodies that get above the statutory limit of 15 per cent foreign funding will be required to get a certificate of “foreign agent,” which NGOs interpret as “foreign spy.”

The campaign to control the political activities of NGOs has been ongoing since the Kibaki administration and has gathered steam under President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been vocal against civil society organisations engaging in political activities.

In his Mashujaa Day speech, the president warned of “forces” that seek to “interfere in the affairs of our nation” saying the civil society will have to account for how they use their funds.

“There seems to be a renewed effort to control how civil society is managed,” says Steve Ogola, a programme officer with the International Commission of Jurists.