Expanding The Alliance Against Shrinking Space

In Uganda, civil society organizations are peacefully organizing against constitutional amendments that would dramatically expand the powers of the President. The government has responded with police raids and threats against NGOs it sees as the ringleaders. Over 25 NGOs have been served with letters from the National Bureau for NGOs to present audited accounts, work plans, budgets and strategic plans as way back as 2014. ActionAid Uganda, which works with almost two million people in Uganda’s poorest communities – has even had its bank accounts summarily closed while the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) has also had its accounts and those of its staff frozen. Both ActionAid Uganda and GLISS were raided by police, had computers and phones confiscated and all staff interrogated for several hours.

The government alleges that civil society protests are subversive. And even some people sympathetic to NGOs have asked why they are getting involved in national politics. What has the constitution got to do with their core mission of helping people?  Isn’t this a political party matter, far removed from the things they should be focusing on, like improving education and health?

My answer is a resounding no.

When leaders start to feel immune to any threat of losing power, an accountability vacuum is created in which corruption takes hold and the rule of law deteriorates. It is inevitably the poor who lose the most.

In 1995, nine years after liberating Uganda from a dysfunctional state with collapsed institutions Museveni’s National Resistance Movement spearheaded the promulgation of a new Constitution. Ugandans embraced its vision of a peaceful, democratic future, free from corruption, with basic services and economic opportunity for all citizens. Initially, dramatic gains followed: primary school enrolment tripled, poverty fell by more than half, the economy flourished and Ugandans welcomed the return of multiparty democracy.

But now, after over 30 years in office, NRM’s entrenched power is giving rise to unprecedented levels of corruption. It is those living in poverty who pay the price – schools with leaking roofs, absurdly overcrowded classrooms and Clinics without sufficient staff or essential medicines. Budgets allocated for schools and clinics fail to materialise. Desperately needed resources simply do not arrive on the scale that is needed.

It is therefore unsurprising that ordinary Ugandans are hungry for change. And academic experts say that constitutional limits on a ruler’s time in office are a key safeguard to encourage citizens to pursue change peacefully, through ballots instead of bullets. Museveni’s government got rid of constitutional term limits in 2005 and the only now remaining safeguard is the ceiling on the President’s age – which the Ruling Party now wants to abolish as well. If they succeed, not only will corruption gain a stranglehold, but chances of a peaceful transfer of power will dwindle.

What is worse, they want another constitutional amendment to allow government to seize land without due process or compensation. This would put impoverished farmers at the mercy of corrupt officials and their corporate backers – and like the removal of the Presidential age limit, it’s likely to engender violence and instability. If Uganda once again descends into conflict, there is no doubt it is the poor who will suffer the most.

With the lessons of history still vivid in their minds, Ugandans are determined to preserve their hard-won constitution and uphold the rule of law. Thousands protest corruption by wearing black every Monday. Collective movements have arisen to defend the constitutional age-limit for the president and the check on government’s power to seize private land.

Supporting these non-partisan citizen movements is entirely consistent with the work that civil society does to empower people at community level. Quite regularly, we’ve seen that the biggest gains in key areas such as health and education come when poor people themselves have a real say in government decisions, and can hold officials accountable for meeting their needs. And this accountability, which has been built slowly and painstakingly in communities across Uganda since the end of Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship, is exactly what is now at stake. We are facing a shrinking of the civic space available for people to engage meaningfully to defend and advance their basic rights.

It is at times like this that we need to stand together more strongly than ever – and have the courage of our convictions. We shall remain steadfast with an unmatched spirit and unparalleled resilience. We shall not agonize but organize. We shall not relent on the mission we profess around social justice and dignity of Ugandans.   For this reason, we need to expand the alliance of actors who will oppose this shrinking of civic space. We need everyone to speak up: the media who are concerned with free speech, companies who care about rule of law, parliamentarians who care about democracy and all Ugandans who want a government that is committed to delivering on their basic rights. When governments start working in arbitrary, unjustified and legally indefensible ways there is no neutrality in staying silent.

Kumi Naidoo is director of Africans Rising and former executive director of Greenpeace