Last month, police raided the offices of ActionAid Uganda, the Great Lakes Institute (GLISS), and Solidarity Uganda. More raids on the offices of other NGOs have since followed. Every indication is that we should prepare for a long, drawn-out attack on Ugandan civil society.
Uganda is one of a growing number of countries experiencing a closing of civic space, putting at risk human rights defenders and the communities we serve and protect. The Civicus Monitor offers a disturbing depiction of the state of civic space globally, with the latest developments in Uganda earning the country a rating of “repressed” — one category above “closed,” in a five-category rating system.
Closed offices, seized records, bureaucratic delays, and new laws targeting their work — these are just some of the ways that governments are cracking down against aid groups across the globe.
In this series, Devex will examine this shrinking civic space and go behind the scenes to understand why and how NGOs are being singled out — and how the impact resonates far beyond the borders of those countries involved.
In this instance, the offices of ActionAid Uganda, GLISS, and Solidarity Uganda were raided by police in a cordon and search operation. At ActionAid, staff were prevented from leaving for several hours as police thoroughly searched the premises; removing documents and confiscating phones and laptops. The search warrant claimed that all three organizations were involved in “illicit financial transactions” and “subversive activities to destabilize Uganda.” The severity of these accusations and subsequent raids on other NGOs indicate that an attack on civil society is underway.
As this encroachment continues, I reflect on possible motives behind these recent attacks; what they might mean for the future; and what lessons we can learn, as we prepare for further threats.
The office raid appears to be part of a wider crackdown on legitimate protests against the plan to remove the presidential age limit from the Ugandan Constitution, thus allowing the current president to remain in power indefinitely.
We think these attacks have ulterior motives.
1. To delegitimize civil society. Police raids on our offices immediately present us as subversive elements. This could affect our public image, and that of civil society in general. It could also scare away our funding partners and threaten the stability of our work.
2. To compromise our systems and information. These attacks disrupt our work, and potentially sow seeds for future surveillance by targeting our communications systems and infrastructure.
3. To disrupt and derail us from our mission. Part of our mission as civil society is to help articulate public positions. We are opposed to regressive constitutional amendments. We will invest in organizing citizens to resist attempts to remove the age-limit, even though we know this puts us in direct conflict with the ruling party.
4. To threaten and demoralize civil society. In the hopes of driving us into self-censorship, weakening our resolve, and preventing us from tackling injustice.
5. To provide a justification for further action. Such as halting activities of civil society under the pretext that investigations are still ongoing. We have already seen this happening in the case of ActionAid, where two field activities have been halted by the police.
What can we learn from these attacks and what should civil society do to defend ourselves in ongoing efforts to protect civic space? How can we ensure that we are not derailed in our mission to tackle injustice and poverty?
Here are some tips if your office is at risk of being raided.
Read more in the series:
1. Always keep your house in order. You must update and back up all institutional information and documentation. During the impromptu siege, the police demanded documents without delay. If we had failed to do so, it may have caused unnecessary suspicion.
2. Staff and board members must understand all processes in the organization. If interrogated, we do not want colleagues to inadvertently arouse suspicion by saying inconsistent things about how we organize ourselves and what our business processes are.
3. Rapid legal response is necessary. As civic and political space continues to shrink in Uganda and globally, we must strengthen our legal response capabilities. The presence of competent lawyers is extremely important.
4. A positive relationship with the media is essential. The media were very helpful in reporting the siege — and established relations meant they did so in a manner that was both supportive and objective. Social media platforms were of increased importance during this crisis, and future investment here is key.
5. Being relevant to civil society and wider citizens’ struggles. The immense show of solidarity from other civil society organizations, politicians, and the public at our time of need demonstrated our value and relevance to civil society. The more outward looking an NGO, the more likely it is to receive much-needed solidarity from others. We were able to call upon our supporters both in Uganda and across the world to amplify our voice and provide solidarity.
6. Beware of potential informers. Finally, we have learned that the forces that seek to undermine our work are in our midst. It is therefore important to better understand our internal environment and partners with whom we work. We must remain vigilant and transparent and have the confidence to defend what we stand for.
The threat to civil society is far-reaching. We must learn from these attacks and work together to protect and defend the legitimacy and effectiveness of the work that we do.
Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.