As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow

Across the globe, from East Africa to eastern Europe, there is a trend of increasing attacks on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support reforms governments are opposed to.

NGOs in Uganda, a country led by president Yoweri Museveni for 31 years, are currently facing a concerted state clampdown. It began two months ago, with police raids on the offices of Action Aid Uganda, an NGO promoting human rights and poverty alleviation, and three other NGOs. They left with confiscated laptops, phones, and documents after holding staff hostage.   

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The government should instead focus on the massive challenges in Uganda, including high levels of corruption, unemployment and inequality.

The Ugandan government then escalated its attack on 12 October 2017 by closing Action Aid Uganda’s bank accounts. Now the authorities have contacted 24 other NGOs working in Uganda, asking for their banking details.  The implication is clear—it is just a matter of time. The Ugandan government is waging this war on NGOs because Action Aid Uganda and other civil society organisations (CSOs) have, over the last few months, expressed serious concerns over a proposal by President Museveni and his supporters to amend article 102 (b) of the country’s constitution, which currently limits the age of a president to between 35 and 75 years old.  

This proposed change has dominated debate in Uganda for the last few months. Aside from CSOs, members of the political opposition have been threatened, targeted and had their homes raided. President Museveni and his supporters are fully aware that if the status quo is maintained, the incumbent—now 73—will not be eligible to contest the next elections in 2021. Many Ugandans against lifting the age limit fear that such an unconstitutional move will enable President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, to stay in power indefinitely. They also think that the government should instead focus on the massive challenges in Uganda, including high levels of corruption, unemployment and inequality, as well as the recent spike in the murders of women in the capital, Kampala.  Restrictions on civil society, opposition voices and raids on NGOs show that the government of President Museveni is bent on amending the constitution to lift the age limit for the president.  Indeed, a Bill is under review in Parliament to back this move.  Civil society organisations have vowed to push back on these restrictions and use social media and independent radio stations to continue raising their voices, given that public protests will be violently repressed.   

The government is acting against NGOs that have consistently denounced plans to amend the constitution, in a bid to silence these voices. Uganda—rated as “repressed” by CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society world-wide—has often targeted human rights organisations, journalists and media houses critical of government actions.

"What’s happening in Uganda is symptomatic of a disturbing trend experienced in different countries."

Of course, what’s happening in Uganda is symptomatic of a disturbing trend experienced in different countries. Less than two months before the police raids on Action Aid Uganda, authorities in Kenya stepped up their campaign against critical NGOs. Officials from the Kenyan Revenue Authority, accompanied by police,  attempted to gain entry to the offices of the African Centre for Global Governance (AfriCOG) without notification and with an outdated search warrant. This came after the Kenyan NGO Coordination Board served AfriCOG and the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) with a notice of deregistration.  The timing of the raid and the two organisations’ deregistration notification raised questions because they coincided with the general elections held on 8 August—and AfriCOG and KHRC had publicly demanded transparency prior to and during the elections. The government’s actions were aimed at dissuading the KHRC from challenging the election outcome in the Supreme Court.

In Poland, police laid siege to the offices of the Women’s Rights Centre and Baba in Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk and Zielona Gora. Both organisations provide assistance to victims of domestic violence and the raids came after the NGOs participated in anti-government demonstrations.  Like they did in Uganda, police seized documents and computers in the Polish raids.  In the immediate aftermath of these raids, a trusted CIVICUS partner, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identify of her organisation, said: “The authorities want to frighten women’s organisations in order to minimise their engagement in protests … it means we can be investigated at any time without warning.” Since the Law and Justice party came into power, it has used different methods, including raids and public vilification, to change the opinion of the public to see NGOs as untrustworthy, dishonest, and corrupt. Polish NGOs must now act together across their different thematic areas of focus and regularly issue positive narratives to counter the actions of the government.

The Russian government is also using these tactics. Recently, police raided the Moscow office of Open Russia and searched the homes of staff associated with the NGO, confiscating phones, computers, and cameras in the process. Authorities stated that the raids were seeking evidence that Open Russia—an organization founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a vocal critic of Putin—received funds from abroad. This search occurred despite the fact that the organization was banned in April 2017 after the authorities designated it as an “undesirable organisation” under a draconian Foreign Agents law. Open Russia received this designation days before it organised protests under the theme “Enough”, which encouraged citizens to issue petitions asking President Putin not to run for elections in 2018.

From Uganda to Kenya and from Poland to Russia, as states take authoritarian steps to stay in power, CSOs and citizens will continue to demand basic rights and the respect for the rule of law and constitutionalism. One illustration of this is the massive protests in Poland in October last year, led by women’s groups, which halted plans in parliament to completely ban abortion. In Kenya, CSOs openly challenged the outcome of the August 8 elections and some were about to petition the courts before the Supreme Court historically nullified the results, citing irregularities and the illegality of the electoral process. But as civil society and citizens raise their voices in support of constitutional norms and the rule of law, we are likely to continue to see a rise in raids on CSOs and efforts to discredit them.

These repressive actions from governments will force civil society groups to change tactics and identify other ways in addressing these threats. For example, some civil society organisations in India have worked for years even after their bank accounts were blocked by the government, thanks to the dedication of staff members, use of secondary bank accounts of partner organisations, and fact that they prioritise the delivery of their activities in coalitions and partnerships with national and international civil society organisations. In addition, citizens in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon have successfully organised “ghost towns” (i.e., stay-aways from schools and business) for two days a week since January 2017, in protest after Anglophone regions were militarised and the government violently repressed peaceful protests.  

As civil society continues to push back against these restrictions, democratic governments, the United Nations, and multilateral bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Commonwealth must reinforce the importance of creating an enabling environment for civil society in these challenging times.