On the evening of November 27th, as the nation humbled itself and warmed up to accord Pope Francis a befitting grand welcome, the State’s machinery was battling on the floor of the 9th Parliament to push through repressive clauses in the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill 2015 that would extinguish freedom of association as we know it.
When the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs tabled its, largely, progressive report on the Bill after extensive consultation with government, NGOs and other stakeholders; the state made it clear that they would be coming hard on the report to battle it on the floor of Parliament.
As the Executive recruited several Members of Parliament to attack and water down the report; civil society leaders, diplomatic leaders and civil rights activists appealed to Members of Parliament to do the honorable thing – adopt the recommendations in the Committee Report.
Remarkably, several amendments as proposed by the committee were adopted by Parliament – with many concessions coming after a fierce opposition from government.
CSO activists and civil liberties advocates apparently – Bill is not yet signed into law and the official Hansard is not yet available – succeeded to grab NGOs from the jaws of State House – under the Resident District Commissioner. The district Chief Administrative Officer and Community Development Officers now, rightly, appear set to Chair district and sub-county NGO committees.
Most of the vague terms such as ‘public interest,’ ‘at any reasonable time,’ ‘as the NGO Bureau deems fit’ appear to have been successfully weeded out.
Austere provision of extending powers to order for dissolution of an organisation to the NGO Bureau appears to have also been scrapped out. The passed Bill now provides for voluntary dissolution and dissolution by order of court.
The Minister of Internal Affairs also appears to have been stopped from having rather divine powers to hear all appeals from NGOs in addition to the sweeping powers under his or her docket as exercised by the Bureau. An adjudication committee is to be set up to handle all appeals with express provision for further appeal to the High Court.
Wow! Why then would someone complain about the passed law?
No doubt, folks involved in the whole process have done a lot and achieved most of the targets. The Parliamentary Committee also did perfect work.
However, amidst these progressive amendments lies the sting. A sting so lethal that it has the force to resurrect the ghosts of the draconian provisions apparently amended as detailed above.
During one of the interactions with the Committee, the Internal Affairs State Minister, Hon. James Baba strongly urged members of the Committee not to drop or amend clause 40 – special obligations – which he referred to as ‘the heart of the Bill’.
This clause was passed without any amendment. All the Committee recommendations – to delete several sub clauses – were discarded.
What I find interesting is that no strong debate occurred prior to the passing of the clause.
So, what force of law exactly does this clause seek to bestow the State in relation to the exercise of the freedom of association and other associated rights?
Inter alia, the clause requires that no registered organisation shall carry out activities in any part of the country without ‘approval’ and ‘signing a memorandum of understanding with the area local government’. In addition, all organisations shall be legally required to ‘co-operate’ with local councils. Whatever co-operation means in view of constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of organisations in ‘pursuit of their declared objectives,’ is a bone worth chewing on.
The clause further prohibits any organisation from engaging in any acts that are ‘prejudicial to the security of Uganda.’ It also seeks to outlaw any acts that are ‘prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda’
Any breach of the above – or any other sections of this Act – would earn a staff of an organisation up to three years in jail. Of course, the staff of the Bureau are shielded from any liability arising from their official activities done in ‘good faith’ – same legal principle that ought to have been extended to NGO staff in active official duty.
Strictly speaking, this vagueness – cooperation, security, interests, and dignity – effectively breath life in to the earlier littered overly ambiguous terminologies such as public interest and any other reason the Bureau deems fit. It takes one subtle clause in a law to poison the entire law.
Civil society has no doubt registered tremendous success in challenging the proposed law. My regret is that clause 40 was passed and several other clauses that unfairly criminalize legitimate civic human behavior.
Many organisations that are critical of the government’s human rights and democratic record will still face severe threats despite of the fact that the law’s fangs have been made somewhat blunt and its scope fairly blurred by dropping several other repressive clauses.
The ‘security’ and ‘interests’ terminologies can be subjectively invoked whenever necessary to clampdown on critical organizations, mostly, the independent foreign groups.
Whilst we must regulate civil society operations by putting in place a legal framework, such law must afford an enabling environment for NGOs like the one we reserve for businesses. The law has to be progressive and not repressive.
We were almost there.
But then again, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.