The Non-Governmental Organisations Bill, 2015 has been forwarded to the Defence and Internal Affairs Committee of Parliament after it received its first reading recently. The tornado against freedom of association and expression that has been sweeping through many capitals globally has arrived in Kampala. The tone has been set for engagement after the recently released CSO Position Paper on the Bill. As we seek to urge Parliament to amend the repressive provisions in the NGO Bill, 2015, something very interesting is going on in Kenya.
In the aftermath of the bloody Garissa University massacre which was helped by terrible government response, the government of Kenya moved to freeze accounts and block operations of some NGOs on suspicion that they were working with terrorists. The government moved to have 85 organisations and individuals specified as a ‘terrorist entity’ under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2012.
One of these organisations implicated was Haki Africa, a human rights organisation working in the coastal region of Kenya. Reliable reports indicate that some officers who were accompanied by police officers stormed the premises of the organisation on 20th April, 2015 and seized computers, documents, hard disks, and financial files.
One of the officers who raided the premises is quoted to have said, “We want to know if they are tax-compliant and that is why we have taken away the computer discs and financial documents for March and other months to find out what they have been transacting.” Why the doublespeak?
These horrid accusations against Haki Afrika were and are still baseless. At least I have not seen or heard of any hard evidence. No one has been successfully charged in courts of law.
The latest on this arbitrary crackdown indicates that the government has blacklisted the organisation and proceeded to despatch a protest letter to its donors asking them to immediately stop funding its activities. In part, the letter faults Haki Afrika on grounds that it, “… has been operating illegally in the country in direct contravention of NGOs Act”. The government further accuses the NGO of having links with terrorists.
In response to this letter, Norway’s ambassador to Kenya Victor Rønneberg notes, “We support the organisations because of their valuable contribution to the realisation of human rights on the Kenyan coast and for their important contribution to countering violent extremism. Norway supports Haki Africa together with the USA and UK and have carried out due diligence on the organisation.”
I understand the duty of the government to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. However, this response is not in good faith towards that noble cause. In any case, civil society is an important stakeholder in the war against terror.
What is in fact happening here is that there is a government which is making horrendous accusations and yet it develops cold feet when challenged to prosecute anyone in connection with these wild allegations. Apparently, they are playing to the gallery.
If you have followed the events in Kenya, you will know that there have been repeated allegations of the government operating killer squads which target and eliminate suspected terrorist sympathisers in addition to the unanswered torture cases. Watch Aljazeera’s Inside Kenya’s Death Squads.
Back home, we are dealing with an NGO Bill that proposes granting the government of Uganda such express powers to blacklist organisations for virtually any reason. The hope is that after blacklisting, the NGO should fail to raise funds and/or operate.
This Kenyan example is testament that it will be no cake-walk. Not because of foreign interference but because certain human freedoms cannot just be locked away in a book of law. Any meticulous insidious plots will end on small wins at the battle field at the very best because when the dust settles and all is said and done, there can only be one winner in that war. Repression is no match for human freedom.
Governments must realise that CSOs are not enemies of the state. In fact, the one who seeks to declare war on CSOs is the real enemy of the state. With such wrangles, you certainly expect less concentration on the real issues a state should be addressing, tepid cooperation because the state and civil society, and uncoordinated development agendas.
If an organisation engages in criminal acts, then, by all means, prosecute the perpetrators using the criminal law statutes. It simply does not make sense to smuggle criminal sanctions to regulate civil human behaviour.
When you attempt to suppress certain things, they have a tendency of blowing right into your face.