Usually on Friday, staff at the Uganda National NGO Forum; an umbrella organisation for Civil Society across the country, clock off early as the office closes at 1pm. But on Sept.13 by 4 O'clock some of them were literally running up and down the steep stairs to and from the director's office.
In his office, Richard Sewakiryanga, the forum's Executive Director sat among piles of books, files and papers - some flying in the air breezing from the wide open windows. Even before he spoke of a couple of meetings including a Skype call lined up after the interview, a sense of urgency was easily read on his face. He had just received confirmation that officials of the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO Bureau), a government agency that oversees the NGO sector, had agreed to meet with him regarding a letter Sewakiryanga had received from them earlier in the week demanding he submits to them up to 17 audit documents.
The NGO Bureau asked Sewakiryanga's NGO and 14 other partner organisations to submit their half year performance report of 2017, audited accounts from 2014 to 2016, financial and management reports, annual reports, Certified copies of bank statements from 2014 to Sept 2017, Certificates of incorporations, work plans, strategic plans from 2014 to 2016, governing documents, and a list of all directors, among others.
"They want all these in just one week," Sewakiryanga told The Independent.
Sewakiryanga's apprehension and frustration is shared by colleagues who have recently suffered the wrath of the police. On Oct.06, when The Independent spoke to Leonard Okello, the director of Uhuru Institute, he was equally wondering why the police had not yet released his five laptops, one desktop computer, and fifteen mobile phones they took when they swooped on his offices in the Naguru Kampala City suburb on Oct.02. His Data Assistant, Francis Lulahali, who had been arrested that day, was released the following day at night without preferring any charge against him.
"We have nothing to hide, let them take their time and check," Okello says and adds that the security siege surprised him. The search warrant showed the institution which focuses mainly on training different groups in business planning and management was suspected to be engaging in illegal money transfers.
The raid on Uhuru Institute was just two weeks after Action Aid International Uganda located in Kansanga, and GLISS in Ntinda (owned by good governance activists Godber Tumushabe), and Solidarity Uganda in the Northern Uganda district of Lira were raided in a similar manner. Among others, the police said these were suspected of grave crimes, including involvement in illicit financial transactions and engaging in subversive activities to destabilise the country.
Motive of attacks
That week, Arthur Larok, the Action Aid Country Director warned colleagues who are members of the NGO Forum that they should prepare for a long drawn attack. He urged them to reflect on possible motives of the attack and think about what is likely to happen in the near future.
Without explanation, Sewakiryanga is left to wonder why Bank of Uganda had frozen accounts of his member organisation - Action Aid in Standard Charted Bank. Neither had he received a report from the police or any other body explaining a recent cordon and search swoop by security forces on Action Aid and three other NGOs; the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLiSS), Uhuru Institute for Social Development in Kampala, and Solidarity Uganda in northern Uganda.
"I've written to the minister (Internal Affairs Minister) three letters trying to meet with him on different occasions. There hasn't been any feedback," Sewakiryanga said.
Referring to the NGO Bureau, he said, "They have agreed to meet us on Monday. It's then that we will know for sure what their motive is".
For now, Sewakiryanga says, the government clampdown on NGOs is the latest sign that "the government is failing to accept the challenge of democratic life".
"Diversity of opinion must thrive," he adds. To him, instead of lashing at NGOs, the government needs to build a better relationship on how to work together on tough issues.
But Sydney Asubo, the Executive Director Financial Intelligence Authority, sees nothing strange about the recent government move against NGOs. He speaks with conviction about how routine it is for NGOs to be called to account since, under the law, they are supposed to report their source of funding to the government. The law also demands that banks alert the government or other investigative authorities of any suspicious transactions and large cash movements by NGOs, individuals or any other entity.
"When investigations are done people have to be inconvenienced," he told The Independent, "but if NGOs feel these searches are not in good faith they could sue for malicious prosecution. "But that is one case that is not easy to prove".
Eunice Musiime, a lawyer and Executive Director of a women's organisation - Akiina Mama wa Afrika, says it is unfortunate that the crackdown on NGOs is happening when finding funders has become particularly challenging because of the weak global economy.
"Donors can easily pull out of the country with this kind of confusion," she says. Both Eunice and Larok say, though the reason for the siege is unclear, it could be part of a wider crackdown on opponents of a motion being handled by parliament to amend constitution to scrap the 75-year presidential age-limit so the President Yoweri Museveni can run again in 2021. Larok says the government's strategy appears to be to delegitimise civil society by presenting them as a dangerous groups working to overthrow government.
Scaring NGO funders
If successful, Larok says, this delegitimisation could affect the public image of civil society and scare away their funding partners.
NGOs rely on money from a variety of sources, including individual donors, foundations, corporations, and governments to fund their activities. Often what an NGO can and cannot do is tied to where the money comes from.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs NGO registry, there were 12500 NGOs in the country by end of 2013, up from 8000 in 2009. In 1992, these organisations were fewer than 500. By 2002, they were 3500 and in just six years in 2008, they jumped to 7000.
These rely 90% on external sources for funding with one of the biggest funders being Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a joint establishment of Austria, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the European Union that bankrolls activities involving strengthening democracy, improving access to justice, enhancing accountability, and promoting human rights.
While some donating countries and entities channel money through the government, increasingly they are choosing to release funds directly to NGOs given problems of bureaucracy and accountability in government.
The government has also recently changed its approach to co-implementing programmes with NGOs. In fact a 2016 Ministry of Finance report shows 70% of registered NGOs are in partnership with a line ministry to implement various programmes; especially in health, education and agriculture. In health, it is estimated that mainly faith-based NGOs provide up to 40% of health services which amounts to about $6 per capita out of the $12 spent on health per person.
Uhuru Institute has been training soldiers in agricultural best practices and leadership skills as part of the government's Operation Wealth Creation programme. So its Director, Okello, wonders why the government is cracking down people who push such humanitarian agendas.
But, critics say, while NGOs have their roots in such voluntarism and philanthropy as means of serving the needs of poor and marginalised people, some of them behind the scenes push other agendas favoured by their leaders, founding body, or funders. That appears to be the government's biggest fear. It is also part of a growing trend of government clamping down on NGO to instill fear and stifle dissent.
Just two months ago, in August, two NGOs - Africog and Kenyan Human Rights Commission in the neighboring Kenya were shut over almost similar allegations to do with failing to register and operating illegal bank accounts.
Other countries have passed laws restricting what these NGOs can do. For instance in 2016 China passed a controversial law targeting foreign NGOs that, among others, banned them from involvement in political or religious activities at odds with the government.
In Uganda, an amorphous catch-all law passed quietly early last year as the country was preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections bars NGOs from doing "anything prejudicial to security". It does not elaborate on what qualifies to be prejudicial to security.
Based on such history, Alex Ruhunda, who has for over 20 years been one of the managers of Kabarole Research and Resource Center and is now the MP for Fort Portal Municipality constituency, says the NGOs are blameless. He says the NGOs are "victims of the current political pressure of who is in support or not of lifting the presidential age limit in the constitution".
"So why money laundering at this time?" he asks, "Government has to prove if there are some NGOs doing such dubious deals. We passed the Anti-money laundering law".
For now, Musiime and Larok agree that all they can do is to keep, 'their house in order'.
"This incidence proved once again the importance of having all institutional information and documentation updated. The siege was impromptu and the documents sought for had to be provided without delay. Any failure to do so may have caused unnecessary suspicion," Larok said.