KAMPALA (Reuters) – Non-governmental organizations in Uganda have been told to submit financial information including budgets and donor lists to the authorities, an official told Reuters on Thursday, in a move rights groups said was another attempt to muzzle criticism.
The government of veteran leader President Yoweri Museveni, 74, has long chafed at criticism from NGOs and others of reported excesses including corruption, torture, illegal detentions and extra-judicial killings.
Over the last year several government officials have been quoted in local media accusing Bobi Wine, a musician-turned-legislator who says he will seek the presidency at the next election, of being funded by unnamed foreign agents.
Steven Okello, executive director of the state-run National Bureau for NGOs, told Reuters the organisation was undertaking a “verification and validation” exercise for all non-profits operating in the country and that this included filing of financial records.
“We want more information about these organisations, their area of operation… We want also to establish do you have an approved budget, how much is that budget, and who is funding it,” Okello said.
Uganda’s next presidential election is not due until early 2021 but Museveni, in power for 33 years, is widely expected to stand again.
Livingstone Sewanyana, head of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), told Reuters the renewed government scrutiny of NGOs was a concern ahead of the election.
“It could have an intimidating effect and also have an overall negative impact on civic oversight of the poll,” he said.
This month a letter circulating on social media showed the head of the Financial Intelligence Authority, a government agency that tracks and combats money laundering, writing to a commercial bank requesting financial records of 13 pro-democracy NGOs including FHRI.
The agency’s head, Sydney Asubo, did not reply to a Reuters call seeking comment, but Sewanyana told Reuters that FIA has confirmed to him they were seeking the information.
The government was “introducing unnecessary, unrealistic bureaucratic burdens on NGOs,” said Sara Birete of the Centre for Constitutional Governance.
“Considering the period we are going into of course, the move becomes suspicious especially considering what happened in the past.”
In 2017, security personnel raided the offices of at least two pro-democracy NGOs including South Africa-based ActionAid, confiscating computers and other equipment, in a move critics said was likely connected to the charities’ opposition to legislation aimed at allowing Museveni to extend his rule.
Earlier this month, the communications regulator said influential figures on social media and others with commercialised online followings were to be monitored by the state to clamp down on immoral or prejudiced content. Critics said that move was part of a growing campaign to suppress opposition to Museveni.
As the national verification process of non-government organisations (NGOs) in the country continues to take shape, the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) boss, Sydney Asubo, has written to Equity Bank, requesting for account details of over 10 NGOs.
“The purpose of this communication, therefore, is to request you to search your databases and avail us account opening documents, bank statements for the last three years and any information available to you linked to each of the above-listed entities for our review,” Asubo said in his August 8 letter to the managing director of Equity Bank.
The NGOs that have been lined up for review by the FIA Include, Action Aid International Uganda, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, the National Non-Governmental Organisation Forum and the Human Rights Network Uganda.
Others are the National Democratic Institute, the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Kick Corruption Out of Uganda, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists and Africa Institute for Energy Governance.
The Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), which is funded by seven of Uganda’s International Development Partners (Austria, Denmark, European Union, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden), is also under probe.
The move comes against the backdrop of countrywide validation of NGOs, which started on August 8.
According to the minister of internal affairs, Gen. Jeje Odongo, the validation exercise will end on September 7.
“All NGOs with either expired permits or who have never registered with the NGO Bureau, in accordance to section 31 (1) of the NGO Act 2016, are not supposed to operate in any part of the country,” he said.
The national NGO register indicates that there are 14, 207 registered NGOs, out of which 3, 810 have valid permits.
Odongo said in a statement issued last week that 10, 397 NGOs are operating illegally.
This is the first time since 1989 that Government is verifying NGOs across the country.
“Some NGOs that are ignorant of the law think that possession of a certificate of registration allows them to operate freely without any requirement to renew. Some are confidently operating on forged documents,” he said, emphasizing that all NGOs should take note of the validation exercise, which kicks-off today.