Civil Society in Uganda: A “Watchdog” Ready to Bite Unresponsive Authorities

Published By UNNGOF |  July 3, 2020

“Our laws are more than perfect,, but ….. only on paper,,”” Ugandans like to say that with a smile.. The East African country of Uganda is a country where you have to work hard and sometimes use fists in order to achieve something that is actually belongs to you . What the state does not provide,, people are forced to demand by other means.. Of course,, in a leg al way , because no one wants revolutions and civil wars here.. The most effective way is civil society,, which does not allow the authorities to snooze and ignore ordinary people.. Indeed,, citizenship and the mobilization of N on – G overnmental O rganizations (NNGOs)) is something special we can learn from Uganda..

The Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGOF)),, a platform for NGOs including international,, national and regional ones makes a significant contribution to mobilizing civil society and the large number of NGOs operating with in the country.. The platform , whi ch has been operating for at least twenty years,, has deserved a place under the sun,, its voice is being heard and its mandate is being felt while communicat ing with local NGOs.. If most of international organizations are sufficiently secure here , it is essential that NGOs at the local level in particular have a strong clash when the authorities start putting pressure or im posing sanctions over them .

We were visiting Uganda as part of an international exchange and a so – called ‘ job shadow ing ‘ exercise . Lithuanian National Platform of Non – Governmental Development Cooperation Organizations (NNDGO Platform)) , like UNNGOF,, belongs to the global network FORUS,, uniting 69 national NGO platforms and 7 regional coalitions on five continents..

However , disliked by some influential Ugandan politicians,, UNNGOF feels comfortable enough and independent simply because more than 90 percent of f unding for the development of the NGO network comes from foreign donors.. And there are many more reasons to dislike this process for the political elite.. Here is one of them – th e Black Monday movement,, which is in its eighth year..

Its aim is to mobilize civil and anti – corruption activists and tell the public about it.. Every single Monday,, all indifferent NGO workers or just ordinary citizens dress in black – mourning style – clothes,, thus expr essing a silent protest against the country’s thriving corruption,, nepotism and social inequality.. We started our very first meeting with UNNGOF colleagues at their office in Kampala – the capital city , particularly on Monday morning and immediately noticed that Africans , who like to dress in vibrant colors , seem to have worn black clothes as if they had agreed.. It seemed very effective and unusual..

Breaking into the public space for NGOs in Uganda is not easy.. Permits are needed and force structures keep a close eye on what is going on around . “TThere is a lack of public spaces for public voice and civic initiatives.. I can ’ t say that freedom of expression is completely forbidden here , but as soon as the government feels that there is a real threat or a danger ous level of citizenship is increasing , they are not afraid to block and take drastic measures”” , sa ys Chris Nkwatsibwe,, UNNGOF ‘ss Program Officer for Civil Space a nd Governance Monitoring .

Uganda falls into the category of so – called hybrid regimes.. President Yoweri Museveni,, who has held the country in a firm grip for more than thirty years,, a military man who has faced many internal struggles – both with guns in his hands a s well as in government cabinets,, prefers to position himself internationally in an elegant suit rather than in a military uniform.. The authoritarian leader is trying to publicly imitate democracy and show s the world that Uganda is not a dictatorship at all . In part,, he does a great job of forming such an image . There is a weak and divided opposition in Uganda,, with several newspapers criticizing the government.. Therefore,, that “llight””,, non – threatening political opposition and a society that can slightly ( but not too much ) undermine power is very acceptable to those in power..

Taming the media and local celebrities as ambassadors for their ideas is also not an easy task for the NGO sector in Uganda.. Airtime is insanely expensive,, and celebrities unfortunately are asking for a financial reward.. This is not acceptable,, especially for NGO’s who scrupulously calculate their expenses . However,, they strive,, use the potential of social networks and appeal to the younger generation . E ducation and need for change s is a n engine for youngsters to follow NGO’s agenda.. They try to attract young Ugandans by presenting their ideas in an original and inventive way,, organizing public actions and events..

The UNNGOF is lucky.. Its CEO Richard Ssewakiryanga is a charismatic leader,, cleverly maneuvering between political field , donors and civic activists who gather and seek a platform to share their thoughts.. “RRichard himself is a celebrity and a promotional face here.. He is invited to a TV and Radio talk show s , his face often seen i n public.. This allows the public to hear more about us and what our network actually does”” , says Sarah Pacutho,, UNNG OF’s communication and Knowledge Management Officer .

Any civic initiative,, even purely domestic and with economic intention , is taken very p ersonally by the local municipality and treated as politicization.. Claudia Apio,, for instance , representing District ne tworks on the UNNGOF bo ard,, as well as the head of Lira NGO Forum , had to write as many as 26 petitions before finally receiving funding for the provincial road maintenance ! Claudia’s stubbornness and perseverance bore fruit.. “NNow they (ggovernment)) talk with us and cannot demonstratively ignore us when they see not a sp ontaneously acting individual initiative,, but a gathering of determined people against them ” , says Claudia,, a confident young woman.. Provincial politicians see foreign partners coming to the Lira district,, and it is Claudia who informs all the new NGOs abo ut the start – up possibilities there .

The district of Lira,, far from the capital city , in the northern part of Uganda , is one of those that is not on the central government ’ss agenda . We saw ourselves how strongly the condition of roads varies from region to region.. As soon as we turned off the main road connecting Kampala with the neighboring capital of South Sudan,, Juba,, the 70 km long rural road to the town of Lira was more reminiscent of a moon crater rather than a convenient road.. Overcoming pits and sha rp – edged surface is only possible here by SUV..

Overall,, the condition of the major road network in Uganda is quite good.. From Kampala,, which is suffocating from never ending traffic jams,, it is possible to reach the main cities of the country quickly and c onveniently.. But locals say the president and central government are clearly patronizing western Uganda,, where the country’s leader c omes from..

By the way,, it is very interesting,, but the capital and its chaotic planning streets,, endless night traffic jams are not too much of a concern for the government either.. The reason is simple:: the capital is not an electorate of the president and the ruling party.. The government gathers all the votes in the province and seems to forget that it is the capital that generates the greatest economic added value.. It is estimated that Kampala residents who drive cars every day spend as much as 3.5 hours in traffic jams – one and a half in the morning and two in the evening!! You don’t have to be a big expert to realize how much the country’s economy and the population itself are losing by burning expensive fuel in traffic jams for a few hours a day.. Not to mention th e effects of the ‘ greenhouse effect ’ and the threats posed by climate change,, which are particularly acute on the African continent..

Visiting Uganda was supposed to be dominated by the typical summer season weather:: dry,, ongoing farm work and sowing.. Howev er,, it has been raining a lot at that time ….. Ugandans have shaken their heads that this is abnormal and that the agricultural cycle is disrupted,, which is especially important because the survival of this equatorial country depends directly on agricultura l production.. Not to mention,, at that time,, the northeastern Karamoja region was flooded with desert locusts from the Kenyan side.. The insects that devastated everything along their way were likely to run out of food in Sudan and Somalia,, so they headed so uth to look for green areas.. As the Ugandan authorities turn their backs on how to fight the parasites,, tr ied to use the military,, NGOs are rushing to help who are willing and able to support a country that is constantly confronted with various types of na tural disasters,, such as floods,, landslides,, droughts..

There are many attempts to address the challenges facing Uganda,, from education and gender equality to water access and food quality,, through the Sustainable Development Strategy.. We had the opportunit y to follow a major event that presented a draft of the n ational r eviews on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals,, with UNNGOF and its leader,, R.. Ssewakiryanga,, taking the lead er position . This strategic summary,, with guidelines and re commendations from NGOs,, where Uganda is expected to move over the next decade,, will later lie on the government’s desk..

“IIt is amazing to see how strongly the sustainable development agenda affects the entire Ugandan NGO sector and how many influential pe ople contribute to it.. Numerous facts,, comparisons,, statistics have been collected,, an in – depth analysis of how countries should move as a participant in global change has been carried out.. Yes,, the local government can keep it in a drawer,, but it will con stantly feel the pressure of indifferent civil society to do something so that people can create a state where they want to live”” , says Ugnė Kumparskaitė,, Executive

Director of the Lithuanian NDGO Platform . By the way,, in Lithuania this platform is one of those that actively seeks to emphasize the importance of SDGs in our country as well..

Women’s leadership is gaining new momentum with in Ugandan society.. In a country where women still experience a lot of violence,, abuse and inequality,, this is a very stron g impetus,, with the NGO sector making a significant contribution.. Most of UNNGOF members have an equal number of men and women on their boards,, and many local organizations are headed by women.. One of them is Claudia,, the already mentioned leader of the Li ra district NGO Forum.. UNNGOF Board Chairperson is also an active experienced woman Hon.. Idah Mehangye.. The former parliamentarian is completing her second term on the board and says she wants to hand o ver the helm of the Platform to the younger generation..

A very good example of this is Clare Kyasimiire , a colleague from UNNGOF.. This young expert has only recently been entrusted with the responsible role of leading the newly established UNNGOF – flagged Humanitarian Platform,, which brings together national and regional humanitarian organizations working directly with the population affected by the c risis in the country’s most vulnerable context.. On the last day of our visit,, we filmed an interview with Clare and waited for her to return after an important meeting at the Uganda Red Cross Society , where the emergency situation related to the locust inv asion was discussed..

Uganda is a country with great potential for civil society.. Like the entire African continent,, the youngest in the world,, Uganda is also a country of young society.. Its advantage is excellent knowledge of English,, which allows not only to communicate with foreign partners without obstacles,, but also to sail to international waters on their own.. In a multilingual society,, English is the official state administrative language,, but English is not the only language spoken here by civil serv ants.. During the two – week visit to Kampala,, we mostly overcame the traffic jams with the services of local motorcyclists.. And there was never a problem in communicating to them..

By the way,, there are Uber and Bolt networks of well – known international carri er services in Kampala.. However,, we used the very popular local mobile app Safe Boda more.. Boda boda is the generic name for a motorcycle or scooter – the fastest and most maneuverable means of transport here . All the drivers have a mobile connection,, speak English well and it doesn’t matter to them at all whether they are carrying a local or a foreigner requesting a helmet (yyes,, the official carrier has an extra helmet for the passenger!!)).. It is a global business that helps y ou earn,, communicate and open up to the world in the heart of Africa.. And the fact that 7 m illion people is still illiterate ( most of the m – older population ) is likely to become history in the nearest future..

Next year,, Ugandans will have general election s waiting for them : presidential,, parliamentary and regional.. It is an important time for civil society to start preparing right now.. Local initiatives are encouraged,, such as so – called ” fire ” gatherings,, where communities are made aware of the facts of co rruption and are invited to discuss and express their views.. Locals say the government fears criticism and pressure,, and can force local initiatives,, block wi – fi at any time.. NGOs are ready for that.. Without an internet connection,, they transfer their mess age in a different way.. For example,, the most reliable way to transport information is through buses network.. Matatus (ssmall microbuses)) moving around the country around the clock.. The parcel transmission system works similarly to Lithuania..

Uganda is a relatively small country in the African context,, but its population growth rates are incredible.. Already,, more than 40 million people live in a country just three times larger than Lithuania.. population.. Projections show that this number will reach 60 million in 2030!! The turbulent regional situation also contributes significantly to population growth:: Uganda is surrounded by the conflict – ri dden Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.. As a result,, more than one and a half million war refugees are living in the country,, in addition to the Rwandans remaining after the 94th genocide.. Uganda is quite liberal in the refugee context,, especial ly compared to other neighbors Kenya or Tanzania,, which strictly control and keep refugees in fenced camps.. Refugees in Uganda migrate freely as much as possible and are more or less tolerated by the local population.. This is again a sign of a conscious ci vil society and an opportunity to exploit the future potential,, knowledge and investment that asylum seekers bring with them..

Stasys Vaitonis is the Head of Volunteer Development at the Lithuanian Red Cross ( member of NDGO Platform))