In this expose, SULAIMAN KAKAIRE reveals the intricate-behind-the scenes events and government fears that led to the clampdown that has left three NGOs crippled.
A few days before September 19, when the Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi was due to introduce his private member's bill seeking to scrap the constitutional age limits on presidential candidates, police got intelligence that a youth organisation named The Alternative Movement (TAM) had organised a massive demonstration to thwart the move.
Police intelligence had reportedly intercepted communication between the youth group's leader, Norman Tumuhimbise, on one hand, and Godber Tumushabe, associate director of Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), a policy think tank, and Arthur Larok, the country director of Action Aid International-Uganda, on the other hand.
The gist of the intelligence information, which sources within the group told us, was to the effect that the two NGOs were bankrolling youth groups to resist the Magyezi amendment proposal.
Acting on this information, the police on September 18, without a search warrant, broke into the office of TAM at MM Plaza, along Luwum street, and searched the place to recover evidence connected to their suspicions.
"They took all our computers, seven laptops, two cameras, 10 audio recorders, our documents, 500 T-shirts and Uganda flags. We have not yet recovered all these as some of them were not even captured in the police records," Tumuhimbise said.
Asked about his relationship with the ActionAid boss, Tumuhimbise told us last week he talks to Arthur Larok "like any other Ugandan and we can discuss anything, including politics; is there anything illegal about it? I don't think so."
After searching and cordoning off TAM's offices, the police arrested 10 members of the group. These are Eria Musoke, Ferdinand Luta, Eddy Atwine, Bashir Mubiru, Ronald Muwonge, Galasi Mushizimana, Abel Mucunguzi, Johab Agaba, Edris Mutebi and Jackson Ssemwanga.
Four of these were released on September 22 without charges while the other six were released on September 27 on bail. September 27 is also the day MPs opposed to the amendment bill were battered as they were forced out of parliament by security forces.
Eron Kiiza, the TAM members' lawyers, told The Observer on October 19, that they have sued the Attorney General and police officers Brian Kyehanagane and Alfred Ndugutse (Miscellaneous Cause no. 3 of 2017), seeking damages for illegal arrest and detention.
On the day (September 27) the last batch of TAM members was released, the police arrested their leader Norman Tumuhimbise and dumped him at Kira Road police station.
Tumuhimbise told us that while in the police cells where he spent more than a week, he was denied access to his family, relatives and friends, adding that he was also denied medicine for almost four days.
"They kept on saying that this is [Kale] Kayihura's (inspector general of police) suspect; whatever happens to him, it is up to him [the IGP]," Tumuhimbise said.
During this time in detention, the police kept asking Tumuhimbise about his relationship with ActionAid International.
"I don't have any links with them, I just interact with Arthur like any other person but you know they are funny. They even asked me why I had a constitution in my office," Tumuhimbise said.
Tumuhimbise was only released after his lawyer filed for unconditional release as provided under section 25(3) of the Police Act, which provides that any person who, if arrested without an arrest warrant, spends more than 48 hours before being charged in court can apply to a magistrate's court for unconditional release.
The application was made on October 5 at the Chief Magistrate's court on Buganda Road before Moses Nabende, who on the same day ordered: "The applicant be unconditionally released from any police cells where he is, or be charged before court within twelve hours from 4:00pm today... Every police officer is directed to comply with the order above."
Despite his release, Tumuhimbise's offices remain sealed off. He said he will file a case today challenging this.
According to reliable sources, the arrest of the youths and their leader was intended to help in pinning the principals of ActionAid International and GLISS.
On September 20, two days after the police raided Tumuhimbise's offices, AIP Henry Peter Walya applied for a search warrant in the Chief Magistrate's court of Makindye to obtain what he called "the evidence relating to elicit transfer of funds for funding unlawful activities."
Walya's application was supported by an affidavit in which he stated: "It has come to my knowledge that the offices of ActionAid International- Uganda located at Diplomate Zone Kasanga are being used for illicit transfer of funds for purposes of unlawful activities."
The application was granted by the court and on the same day, at about 4pm, the police cordoned off the head office of Action Aid International and searched the premises until the early hours of the next day.
Nicholas Opiyo, the ActionAid board chairperson, said the police vandalised the offices and grabbed some of their staff's property during the search.
"They took some of our staff's phones but they are yet to be recovered and some other things," Opiyo told us.
Following the search on October 4, SSP Paul Mark Odongo, the head of Criminal Case Tracking Task Team (CCTTT), invited Arthur Larok and Bruno Ssemaganda, the head of Finance at ActionAid, for interviewing on October 6.
Opiyo, who is also a lawyer, told us that the two (Larok and Tumushabe) were questioned about treason and subversive activities.
"It is surprising that during the interviews at CCTTT, our clients were asked things not connected to illicit money transfers," Opiyo said.
Three days before the ActionAid team was questioned, the deputy governor of Bank of Uganda, Dr Louis Kasekende, had written to the managing director of Standard Chartered bank, directing him to immediately freeze all the organisation's accounts.
"The accounts in question shall remain frozen until otherwise advised by Bank of Uganda," the letter stated, adding that the directive was in respect of ongoing criminal investigations into the organisation's alleged conspiracy to commit a felony and money laundering.
On October 13, ActionAid International Uganda wrote to Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), the body mandated to monitor money laundering, demanding to establish whether they are under investigation.
FIA is yet to respond to ActionAid although its boss Sydney Asubo told The Observer that they had now started investigations.
Opiyo is convinced, having consulted sources within FIA, that ActionAid wasn't under FIA investigation, and that the state is acting retrospectively to cover its tracks.
"If FIA is not in charge of this investigation, then where does Bank of Uganda get the powers to act without due information, or where did the police get the information it based on to write to Bank of Uganda, who in turn ordered for the freezing of our accounts?" Opiyo asked.
But FIA director Asubo told us: "We have received the documents and more information, and our investigations are to find out whether they conform to the definition of money laundering."
Asked whether they were given the information before BOU froze the NGO's accounts or afterwards, Asubo said "it was concurrent."
On August 4, 2017 cabinet got a report from FIA analysing the money laundering threat to Uganda and the major predicate offenses that generate larger amounts of criminal proceeds, and the level of the terror financing threat that the country faces.
The report titled "Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing National Risk Assessment Report" found that; "the risk for NGOs is also medium-high and it is mostly driven by the lack of supervision and the near-absence of implementation of AML/CFT requirements, rather than by vulnerabilities inherent to the types or activities of the NGOs operating in the country."
The report, which assessed how criminals utilize the ill-gotten funds and the methods they use to launder criminal proceeds, however notes: "[the NGO] sector's legislation has been recently revamped, but there are still significant capacity issues and lack of awareness, which translate in almost non-existence of AML/CFT oversight and near absence of implementation of AML/CFT measures."
The Observer has seen a copy of the report but it does not mention TAM, ActionAid or GLISS yet it discusses other organisations suspected of money laundering.
We have learnt that ActionAid has since decided to challenge in court the actions of government agencies (Police, Bank of Uganda and others), which they believe to be illegal.
"We are going to court and we need immediate action on this because people who benefit from our work are being affected; these include the orphaned that the organisation pays fees for and our staff who have not accessed their salaries," Opiyo said.
It is understood that over Shs 7 billion is stashed in the five accounts that were frozen.
Like Action Aid, GLISS too was ransacked and its head Godber Tumushabe summoned for questioning.
"They came and took all our property, including laptops, computers, documents and many other things," Tumushabe said, looking around his largely empty office that had only a scanner left.
Tumushabe's troubles are also in connection with suspected financing of civil defiance against the age limit amendment.
"In fact, when they came here they took our shirts that were marked 'AGE LIMIT IS THE LIMIT'; according to them that was illegal," Tumushabe said, maintaining that whatever he was doing is legal and constitutional.
For Tumushabe it wasn't the first brush with the state. Around 2013 he was forced out of Advocates Coalition for Development (ACODE) on grounds that he was participating in partisan politics contrary to the NGO's mandate.
At the time, Tumushabe had through ACODE sponsored the oil debate in parliament and also facilitated the MPs' capacity building training during heated discussions on the oil and gas sector legislations.
"I was told by the board of ACODE that I either choose to be ED or leave. I had to choose being a citizen. I cannot be sub-consumed by a start-up like ACODE or GLISS," he said.
But Tumushabe was soon followed to his new home - GLISS. In 2015, his nascent organisation was placed under investigation.
In a report dated August 2015, Uganda Registration Services Bureau found that GLISS, and Tumushabe in particular, were participating in activities beyond their mandate. When he appeared for interrogation, Tumushabe was asked why he mobilises for the opposition.
"Their query was that, why did I draft the FDC policy agenda, [and] play an important role in The Democratic Alliance and the campaign for free and fair elections?
"But my response is, what is illegal about it? I am a citizen of Uganda and I participate in all that as a citizen, not GLISS; GLISS is a policy think tank engaged in policy research and it only gets involved when something is about governance and rule of law, which is part of its mandate," Tumushabe said.
AGE LIMIT CONNECTION
According to Tumushabe, this clampdown is not about law enforcement or compliance.
"Telling us to file our sources of funding is not the issue. We have been complying, that is why this did not originate from URA, NSSF, URSB or FIA; to use any of those entities is escapism," he said.
"They are scared that the NGOs, being the only organised entities with [more] resources than the opposition parties; they are competent enough to challenge government," Tumushabe said, pointing at the strength of ActionAid.
"It has grassroots NGOs across the country; so, they fear that if it has its accounts operating, it can, through its program of civic education, facilitate the local NGOs to counter the ongoing consultations on removal of term limits."
The National Bureau for NGOs estimates that approximately 12,800 NGOs are registered in Uganda, of which only 3,000 are actively operating in the country.
Majority of these (191) are involved in human rights and governance advocacy. The state believes through its intelligence gathering that more than $500 million has been sent to various NGOs by donors and global campaigners of good governance to counter the age limit removal.
Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of Uganda Media Centre, couldn't be reached for a comment since last Wednesday.
Amid growing opposition, the government has increasingly blamed NGOs for supporting its foes financially and sought to squeeze them.
Analysts suggest that the state is targeting NGOs after successfully demobilising opposition political parties only to realise that civil society groups are giving the same opposition a lifeline.
Moreover, unlike the parties which are starved of funds and bedevilled by conflicts, NGOs are well funded and organised.
Nicholas Opiyo, also executive director of Chapter Four, a human rights organisation, knows why the government is increasingly targeting NGOs.
"If you look at the most popular campaigns; The Democratic Alliance (TDA), Free and Fair Elections Campaigns, Citizens' Manifesto, FDC Policy Agenda, or internal elections for parties; they are all activities [aided by] NGOs," Opiyo said.
Realising the NGOs' growing power, the government in 2016 enacted the NGO Act, which has provisions intended to curtail civil society's participation in governance issues.
Under section 44 of the NGO Act, an organisation shall not engage in any act which is prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda. NGOs must also be "non-partisan" and must not engage in fundraising or campaigning to support or oppose any political party or candidate for an appointive or elective political office.
They may not propose or register a candidate for elective political office. NGOs are further required to operate only in the sectors in respect of which they were registered.
It is believed that the government intends to invoke such provisions to curtail the activities of organisations such as ActionAid, GLISS and TAM.
But the NGO community is not sitting back. On Wednesday last week, several local and international NGOs met in Kampala to discuss how to move forward, and one of the things they are considering is going to court to seek remedies.