This week marks a year since Uganda President Yoweri Museveni ordered suspension of the Democratic Governance Facility, a $37 million-a-year donor fund that supports good governance programmes.
As a result, activities of many civil society organisations in Uganda that rely on it for funding have ground to a halt. Set up in 2011, the DGF had signed a memorandum of understanding with the country’s Ministry of Finance. Recipients of its money included parliament, agencies in the ministries of Lands, Internal Affairs, Justice, as well as the Uganda Law Society and the Uganda Human Rights Commission.
But President Museveni said he had not been consulted and also expressed concerns about the large sums of money going from the fund to civil society without government controls.
Freedom House ranks Uganda as “not free” with a score of 34 out of 100 in its Global Freedom Score. In the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the country has fallen from position 52 to 125 out of 180 countries in the past two decades.
Over the past year, government officials and diplomats from the European Union and states that contribute to DGF renegotiated the terms of engagement to give the state more control. The government will have more representation to the oversight board, and funds are to be channelled via the Finance Ministry, or at least be visible to it.
The attack, upstream, on the main source of funding is only one part of a sustained war against civil society in Uganda, which the Museveni government accuses of promoting regime change and supporting his political opponents. In an interview with the TV channel France24 in September, President Museveni described civil society actors as “foreign agents”.
A few days to the polls in January 2021, he accused Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, his main rival in the presidential election, of being “an agent of foreign interests.”
In April, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Ugandan officials he said were responsible for undermining the country’s democratic process during the last election, which was disputed, and the campaigns that preceded it.
“The government of Uganda’s actions represent a continued downward trajectory for the country’s democracy and respect for human rights as recognised and protected by Uganda’s Constitution,” he said in a statement.
Most of the volleys of fire have been directed downstream, at local civil society. In August 2021, the NGO Bureau, the Ministry of Internal Affairs agency that oversees non-governmental organisations suspended 54 NGOs across the country. The NGOs were accused of failure to renew permits, operating without registration, or failure to file annual returns and accounts.
A week later, the Office of the President sent out a note to state functionaries across the country noting, “… The president has directed all ministries, department and agencies and district authorities to exercise vigilance and get involved in the operations of NGOs operating within their mandates and jurisdictions.”
The attacks have extended to individual actors. In October police arrested six officials of the African Institute for Energy Governance, one of the 54 shuttered NGOs. A day later, police arrested Joss Kahero Mugisa, chairperson of OGHRA, a grassroots organisation involved in activism in oil-rich Buliisa district in western Uganda. Nicholas Opiyo is one of a small team of lawyers that human-rights activists in Uganda call when they run into trouble with the police.
Chapter Four, the legal outfit he heads, has been involved in all manner of litigation, from challenging the Anti Homosexuality Bill and tracking human rights violations to tracking down disappeared activists using habeas corpus applications. On December 22, 2020, Opiyo disappeared only to resurface in police custody, then was charged with money laundering.
Democracy dies in darkness and in Uganda the lights of the civil society organisations meant to defend it are being switched off one by one.