Uganda, fresh from passing its Jail the Gays bill, is now reportedly considering new legislation to tighten its grip even further on the LGBT community, this time by seeking to undermine or even stop the vital work of foreign and domestic NGOs.
The legislation, which is in draft form and currently being examined before being introduced for parliamentary debate, will require Non-Government Agencies to declare their annual accounts, their sources of income and to give the government oversight so that it can examine where the NGO’s funds came from in any given year. The legislation would also make it an offense for any NGO to involve itself in politics, which based on the current talk surrounding the bill, seems so loosely defined so as to mean it would be criminal to criticize the government.
Uganda’s junior internal affairs minister James Baba spoke to Reuters about precisely the kind of so-called “interference” the government is talking about:
“There are some NGOs who have come here to undermine us, to promote very bad behavior like homosexuality. As a responsible government we need to check that. They (NGOs) will not be able to do that when we pass this law.”
If the groups were to be found to have contravened this law, they would have their licenses to operate within the country suspended and, for foreign NGOs, would then be asked to leave the country.
Tellingly though, it appears that the issue of homosexuality is once again being used as a smokescreen for the political ambitions of the presiding party. In particular, and by Baba’s own words, this law appears to be more concerned with ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters keep power come the 2016 elections and that, furthermore, accusations of government corruption might be silenced.
“It is for Ugandans to say whether Museveni should rule or should not rule,” Baba is further quoted as saying. “As a foreign NGO, what stake do you have in our politics?” he asked. “Our nationals have every right to put their government to task and to question the performance of government, but outsiders should not have this privilege.”
Indeed, human rights commentators within the country believe that this law is meant to achieve two things: to placate the public within Uganda so that they believe the presiding government is taking a strong stand on so-called moral issues like homosexuality, and secondly allowing the overwhelmingly powerful ruling party to encroach on citizens’ freedom.
This isn’t the first such measure. In fact, in the past twelve months the government has passed a raft of alarming bills. While the Anti-Homosexuality Bill got a great deal of press when it was signed into law in February, and rightly so, other legislation passed at around the same time included a bill to make short skirts a crime in the country under the guise of public decency and anti-pornography legislation. This kind of morality policing is incredibly destructive, but if Ugandans even wanted to talk about it among themselves, they would have to do so surreptitiously as Uganda has also brought in legislation that means that should a group of more than three people wish to talk politics in public, they must seek a license from the police chief or else their gathering will be considered an illegal rally. This is of course a very effective tool for combating dissent.
While Museveni, who was elected in 1986, was once a popular president and was seen as a much needed policy reformer, but decades on he and his presiding party have been accused of holding onto power through corruption while squandering Uganda’s resources and exerting ever greater pressure on Uganda’s citizenship.
However, one realm where until now there has been some push back has been among NGOs. To illustrate this, when the ruling NRM party put forward Museveni for the country’s 2016 elections, some NGOs (not all of them foreign) decried the move as a signal that, once again, the elections would be fraught with issues surrounding fraud and vote buying so that Museveni could have yet another term in power.
On this topic, Nicholas Opiyo, a Kampala-based human rights lawyer, is quoted as saying: “What is happening is that rather than use brute force, Museveni’s politics is increasingly dependent on use of money to win elections. So in order for them to have a free hand in spending public resources to buy votes in the next election, what do you do? You begin to restrict NGOs.”
To be clear, the restrictions on NGOs, which are quite reminiscent of Russia’s own crackdown on foreign non-government agencies, do stand to harm the LGBT community by making it even more difficult to help people in terms of sexual health or to escape violence. However, the change in the law could be injurious to Uganda’s wider minority populations whose voices NGOs are capable of elevating.
Without the NGOs, those minority populations will be forced to suffer the harms of Uganda’s hostile human rights landscape, and to do so voiceless and alone. The draft legislation therefore represents a credible threat and one that should be answered with strong international dissent.
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