As the government tightens controls over non-governmental organisations, citing political interference, a leading human rights defender has made the case for self-regulation. In the face of mounting state pressure, which has seen NGO premises searched by police and bank accounts frozen recently, Dr Livingstone Sewanyana, makes a passionate case for the right to associate, organize and for accountable government. The executive director at Foundation for Human Rights Initiative has expressed these views in a recently launched book, Comparative Experiences of NGO Regulatory Frameworks: Eastern and Southern Africa. Some states have embraced self-regulation, which, according to Sewanyana, is best.

A few countries have a hybrid model. “Most countries around the region have adopted particular models to suit their own circumstances and political contexts,” Sewanyana says. Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Uganda have state regulation while Malawi and Kenya operate under hybrid regulation. Countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, India and Ghana have adopted self-regulation. “This speaks volumes about their democracy and how they respond to the right of people to organise and associate,” Sewanyana says.

Nicholas Opiyo, the executive director of Chapter Four, said it is no coincidence that countries with questionable ‘democracy’ impose state regulation on NGOs. “This control of NGOs by the state is an issue of power and space,” said Opiyo, adding, “There is no need to have eight laws governing one sector.”

Richard Ssewakiryanga, executive director, Uganda National NGO Forum, said there is an uneasy relationship between the state and NGOs because government views them as competitors. “Many NGOs provide services much better than the state,” noted Ssewakiryanga. He said the number of NGOs has grown from 21 in 1996, to 14,000.

“That space is highly contested. Governments all over the world are wondering how these people [NGOs] out of nowhere claim the space and become a substitute for the state,” Sewanyana said. This partly explains the police raids on NGO premises, freezing of their accounts and break-ins into their offices, he said. Uganda’s regulatory framework, despite some improvements in the new NGO Act, 2016, is criticized for undermining public participation. The need for a stronger civil society has now seen civil society law become a new discipline to be taught at the school of law, Makerere University.

The law school recognizes the contribution of African NGOs in the promotion of democracy and holding governments accountable, according to Prof Christopher Mbaziira, the acting Principal at the law school. “The problems have risen partly from the regulatory framework,” says Mbaziira. Sewanyana’s book explores possible reforms that uphold internationally accepted human rights principles. The book investigates these issues within the historical context of NGOs in Africa, as well as a theory of democracy that stresses participation, accountability and respect for individual liberties. The book concludes that Uganda’s law does not meet these basic requirements.

He proposes self-regulation alongside minimal state involvement. “This model would entail the establishment of an autonomous NGO regulatory authority composed of members selected autonomously by NGOs, ‘decriminalisation’ of NGO activities, reducing the powers of the state-led regulatory model, and increasing the involvement of NGOs…,” Sewanyana said. This week, state minister for internal affairs, Obiga Kania, told The Observer that regulation is the duty of the state. He maintains that the NGO Act 2016 and subsidiary regulations were a result of extensive consultations with these very organisations and 1,200 sub-counties. “I don’t know who Dr Livingstone consulted to arrive at the conclusion he makes in his book but he is entitled to his own opinion.

However, for us as government, we extensively consulted the stakeholders before making our decisions,” Kania said. “With more than 13,000 NGOs, there must be a legal structure to govern their activities,” said Kania, referring to the NGO bureau, which he said has a “team [which] is more modern and interactive. It has eased registration, accountability and the overall operations of NGOs.” Kania said there was nothing unlawful about the confiscation and freezing of NGO accounts, which he said will be restored after investigations.

“NGOs must be transparent and accountable,” he said. Two organisations, ActionAid and the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), were raided by police in late September. Computers, cameras and mobile phones, among other items, were confiscated. On October 3, Bank of Uganda wrote to Standard Chartered bank directing it to freeze the ActionAid bank accounts. Not long afterwards, GLISS’s accounts were also frozen. Both organisations’ field activities have since been paralyzed and staff salaries remain unpaid. Police said they are investigating the NGOs on suspicion of money laundering. Other circles suggested they had been targeted because they were the channel through which money for political activities opposed to the lifting of presidential age limits was being disbursed.

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