Written by: John Semakula
Article source: religionunplugged.com

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers” is a popular African proverb that until recently made little or no sense to members of the NGO world in Uganda.

However, when the Ugandan government began to fall out with their European donors ahead of the general elections on Jan. 14, many local and international NGOs operating in the country have begun to feel that the pinch of the conflict has made them understand that proverb’s meaning.

Trouble started on Jan. 2, when President Yoweri Museveni wrote a letter to his finance minister, Matia Kasaija, ordering him to suspend a multi-million-dollar fund basket – the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF).

The fund supports local organizations that focus on democracy, human rights and good governance and is financed by the governments of Denmark, Ireland, Austria, U.K., Sweden, Norway and the European Union, with the aim of ensuring equitable growth, poverty eradication, rule of law and long-term stability. The fund started its operations in Uganda in 2011 as a five-year program, which was extended and is now running its second five-year plan, until Dec. 22, 2021.

The suspension of the fund basket has left the survival of over 70 organizations, including 15 state agencies, hanging in the balance.

“NGOs complement government and most of the work we do is directed towards the marginalized in communities who will not be able to get the services we offer them if the DGF funding stops,” said Samuel Nsubuga, executive director of the African Centre for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.

Museveni said in the letter that his cabinet will review the matter and, after a new governance structure with adequate local representation has been agreed upon, will give the DGF a greenlight. The president also directed the country’s ombudsman, chief prosecutor and security agencies to investigate DGF activities in the country as well as those of its partners.

Since then, the representatives of the EU and other Western countries that support DGF have been engaging President Museveni to try and nip the suspension in the bud. However, Kasaija told the media last month that the government’s position on DGF’s status is still the same – suspended – despite talks with E.U. representatives. This has caused a rift in the NGO world.

Among the agencies affected by the suspension of DGF are religious organizations such as the Teso Religious Leaders Efforts for Peace & Reconciliation, the Rwenzori Forum for Peace and Justice and the Ecology Christian Organization (ECO) and organizations that work with the Church in implementing their activities, including the Uganda National NGO Forum (NGO-Forum).

The leaders of the religious NGOs affected by the suspension are now concerned about the future of the people they have been serving if the suspension is not lifted.  So far, no organization has closed yet, but the uncertainty of the future is affecting the morale to deliver services.

Isaac Kabongo, the executive director of the Ecological Christian Organization, told Religion Unplugged that the government of Uganda and DGF need to amicably resolve their misunderstandings.

“The DGF money is given to Uganda by the Europeans as a grant, not a loan,” Kabongo said. “The people in Europe are extending a hand of love to Uganda through the different projects they support under DGF. We don’t have to take their kindness for granted because there are other people who need this money, which we are trying to chase way.”

Kabongo said many of the organizations affected by the suspension of the fund employ people who pay taxes to the government.

But not everyone is showing sympathy with the affected organizations. Pastor Solomon Male, the executive director of Arising for Christ, is one of them. Arising for Christ is a Christian organization whose leadership strives to restore “the sanctity of Christ and to rid the Church of fake and selfish people who carry themselves as pastors to con desperate and unsuspecting public.” Male said the founders of some of the religious NGOs have been affected by the suspension of the DGF activities because they have been only “enjoying” the donor funds, instead of striving to shape Uganda’s democracy. 

“Some of these NGOs also incite people into thinking that they really have power to dictate their destiny and when they do so and are killed by security agencies, nothing is usually done by the West to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Male told Religion Unplugged.

The trouble between President Museveni and the EU started in 2020 when Museveni suspected the West of backing his rivals. The situation got worse when the United States, U.K. and E.U. issued a statement indicating that the 2021 polls in Uganda fell short of the required standards for a free and fair election. The statement did not auger well with the Ugandan government that has since accused the West of meddling in its internal affairs.

In the recent general election, Uganda’s Electoral Commission announced Museveni as the winner, with about 59% of the vote. He beat 10 other candidates, including his main challenger, Robert Kyagulanyi (who goes by Bobi Wine), who garnered 35%. Wine contested the results and petitioned court, asking it to overturn the outcome of the polls. He later withdrew the case, claiming that the panel of Supreme Court judges hearing it were biased in favor of Museveni.

In her latest statement about Uganda’s 2021 general elections, Natalie E. Brown, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, cited deep and continuing concerns about the extrajudicial detention of opposition political party members, the reported disappearance of several opposition supporters and continued restriction on the work of Wine and his party, the National Unity Platform.

To prevail over the situation in Uganda, the U.K. and E.U. have responded by preferring sanctions on individuals and organizations they claim are responsible for human rights violations. The E.U. Parliament, during a recent session, recommended sanctions on Uganda. The U.K. has frozen $56,767 in funding to the Uganda Police Force, Uganda Prisons Service and the Uganda People’s Defense Forces over human rights abuses and the Uganda government’s increasing repressive behavior.

During Uganda’s general election, the government conducted a crackdown on civil society actors by freezing the financial accounts of several NGOs and by deporting critical foreign journalists and managers of civil societies from the West.

The NGOs whose accounts were frozen include the Uganda NGO Forum that has a membership of over 600 local NGOs; and the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET).

The executive director of Uganda’s Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), Sydney Asubo, said the government had relied on intelligence reports that the NGOs had been involved in money laundering. The managers of these organizations, however, maintain their innocence.

The Ugandan government also deported three Canadian journalists – Lily Martins, J.F. Bisson and Margaret Evans – who had earlier been accredited to cover the 2021 general election by the Uganda Media Council, the country’s news regulator. Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said they had found their application to cover the elections irregular. The foreign journalists were deported barely a week after the government deported several heads of the U.S.- and E.U.-funded NGOs and barred others who were out of the country from returning.

The latest suspension of DGF activities, which is likely to affect the activities of many religious NGOs, is seen as yet another in a string of attempts by the central government to stifle their citizens’ civil liberties.

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Date published: 29/03/2021
Feature image: President Yoweri Museveni in 2013. Credit the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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