Arthur Larok, Director of Programmes at the Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGO), the newest addition to CIVICUS’ Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) family, discusses whether there is a new beginning with the NGO Law Reform Process in Uganda. Arthur has wide experience in civil society law and governance. He has written widely on governance and democratisation in Uganda and recently authored a chapter detailing the legal environment for NGOs in Uganda, which was published in the book (Dis enabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa (Volume 1).  He holds a Masters Degree in Governance and Development from the Institute of Development Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Makerere University.

Uganda’s NGO law has been quite contentious, but we hear you have good news to share. Can you give us a little background on what’s happening at the moment with regard to amending or replacing it?

True, the NGO legal framework in Uganda, as in many African countries, contains several draconian provisions on paper that, when applied (quite often selectively), constrain rather than facilitate the growth of independent and publicly accountable NGOs.

After a protracted campaign against several positions in the NGO Act, including challenging the law in the Constitutional Court in 2009, the year 2011 was greeted with relatively positive and potentially rewarding news of the contentious NGO legislation being amended. The official reason is that it needs to be brought in harmony with a National NGO Policy passed by Cabinet in October 2010.

How has civil society reacted to this possibility of change?

In truth, the response from civil society, and in particular the NGO sub-sector, has been rather muted. This is partly because this process is taking place against the backdrop of governance trends that seem to be moving in the opposite direction. There is therefore a sense of suspicion as to what the eventual outcome will be.

Despite this though, a number of organisations, including the Uganda National NGO Forum, have decided to be more proactive and engage with the process in the hope that we can influence it to deliver a more favourable NGO environment in Uganda. The official reason given by the NGO Board for the amendment, which is that the NGO Act needs to be brought in line with the National NGO Policy, is encouraging because as NGOs we greatly influenced the process and output that the NGO Policy is today. Our involvement is a continuation of that relatively progressive process.

What are the key areas in the law that you hope will be addressed?

There are many areas that require not just reform, but in some cases complete overhaul. First and foremost, the entire NGO Act is founded on a faulty premise that NGOs are a threat to state security. The very first area to engage with is therefore a restatement of the objectives and purpose of the law. The second area is the excessive and cumbersome NGO registration process in Uganda that requires promoters to seek endorsement from multiple governmental and state security organs with little or no understanding of NGO work.

Thirdly, we hope the NGO Board can be moved away from a Ministry responsible for Internal Security to a more developmental agency that relates better with what NGOs do. At the moment, if a choice has to be made between purchasing computers for the NGO Board or procuring teargas to quell demonstrations in the city, the choice is obvious - the latter takes the day because of the mandate of the Ministry where the NGO Board is currently located. Also, the whole idea that we need to register and be regulated before enjoying fundamental rights such as free speech and organising is contestable - we may want to make a case for incentives for registration rather than make it a prior requirement for organising.

What do you think prompted the change of heart at the NGO Board? Is there any advice you can give to other CSOs dealing with seemingly intractable situations, perhaps about how to negotiate the process and encourage a similar outcome?

There are varying interpretations on where all this is coming from, as we recently learnt from an NGO meeting we convened to plan our engagement with the process. One school of thought is that the passage of the NGO Policy in October last year created a lacuna because the NGO Act enacted before the NGO Policy is inconsistent with the relatively progressive policy. The NGO Board was thus conditioned to embark on this process in fulfillment of the provisions in the NGO policy. The second important development is that there have been some changes in the leadership of the NGO Board. The new NGO Board is headed by a Chairperson who is pro reform and the proposed amendment of the NGO Act is one of the important opportunities for reform, not just of the law but other structural constraints the Board faces.

The other school of thought is rather critical and sees the development as conditioned by external factors, especially the heightened global attention on good governance. As Uganda’s governance credentials take a dip, there is need to maintain face with those in the ‘democratic league of nations’ and a gesture such as a review of the NGO Act is seen as a useful gesture. In other words, the proposed changes are not because there is a change of heart or that Uganda is becoming more democratic, but rather a tactical logic.

Whatever the explanations, we look at this process as an opportunity to redress long-standing concerns with the law and we shall give it our best. While cognizant of different country contexts I would encourage our African friends to:

  • Remain steadfast in the struggle but focus more on ‘Saving the Forest” (working on larger governance issues in their country) rather than ‘Protecting the Tree’ (specific matters of NGO legislation).
  • Consider approaching NGO legal reform a bit more indirectly as our efforts on engaging with the NGO Law almost always attracted a defensive stance from the state. In Uganda, we were able to work with partners to make a case for the NGO Policy and its passage has provided an indirect route to NGO legal reform.

This change is particularly heartening given the proliferation of restrictive NGO laws in the region (for instance, Ethiopia and Zambia]. What do you believe the implications of positive change in Uganda might be for the rest of the continent?

True, in the last decade we have seen a move towards the exportation of bad, rather than good practice in the region. While we look to the Uganda experience with expectation, it’s too early to speculate about its final outcome, even in Uganda, and much less for the rest of Africa.

However, should we achieve a truly progressive legislation in Uganda, it will be a case of a ‘one-eyed’ person among the blind. It would then be an inspiration for our colleagues in the region to struggle for the same. We shall be happy to share more, because this is a struggle that requires pan-civil society solidarity.

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