The Ugandan government said on Friday it had ordered more than 50 non-governmental organisations to suspend operations, a major escalation of its efforts to tighten control over civil society.
The 54 groups affected include the country’s most prominent rights organisation, Chapter Four, as well as charities, religious, environmental and electoral democracy groups.
The shutdown was ordered “with immediate effect”, the National Bureau for NGOs, part of the ministry of internal affairs, said in a statement.
It said the groups had failed to comply with legislation covering their activities, including operating with expired permits, not filing accounts or not registering with the authorities.
Some of the organisations ordered to close had taken part in an election monitoring operation on polling day in January which was raided by security forces and during which several of their leaders were arrested.
The hotly disputed poll saw President Yoweri Museveni returned for a sixth term in office after a violent campaign marked by the harassment and arrest of opposition figures, attacks on the media and the deaths of several dozen people.
Chapter Four executive director Nicholas Opiyo denied any unlawful conduct by his group and said the government action was part of a “wider crackdown” on civil society.
“This is but a continuation of the restricting of civic space in Uganda using legal, administrative and physical restraints on organisations across the country,” he told AFP.
Responding to the shutdown, both the European Union Union and the United States issued similar statements underlining the importance of civil society in the country without directly criticising the government’s action.
“We hope any issues with registration of organisations can be resolved promptly so their important work can continue in the spirit of genuine partnership based on mutual accountability,” the US embassy in Uganda said.
The International Commission of Jurists Africa branch said it was “deeply concerned” by the suspension of Chapter Four.
“We encourage the authorities to urgently resolve this situation to enable Chapter Four to commence operations again,” it said on Twitter.
In December 2020 — a month ahead of the election — Ugandan authorities arrested Opiyo for alleged money-laundering.
Opiyo — who has been awarded several prestigious human rights prizes for his activism — spent Christmas in detention at a high security prison before being released on bail a week later.
Despite repeated court appearances since then, the government has not produced any evidence to support its allegations.
A group of 14 major international donors, including the European Union and the United States, had protested at Opiyo’s arrest.
Charity Ahimbisibwe, who leads the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CCEDU) — another of the shuttered organisations — described the government action as “extremely unfortunate”.
Ahimbisibwe said the move came after the organisation had received repeated summons to government offices since it released a report that had catalogued malpractice during the election.
Ahimbisibwe said the CCEDU’s operating permit had expired but it had asked for an extension because it was not possible to renew it during the long coronavirus lockdown and apparent stalling by local government officials.
“As a law-abiding body we will not continue to operate without the permit,” Ahimbisibwe said.
On Saturday, Museveni had publicly scolded Uganda’s security forces for using excessive violence, as the opposition alleges hundreds of their supporters disappeared or died following the violent election crackdown.
The veteran president, who was re-elected despite widespread reports of irregularities, blamed “indiscipline” and “laziness” among state forces for incidents that resulted in the death of Ugandans.
At least 54 people were shot dead in November while demonstrating over the arrest of Museveni’s main political opponent, the rapper-turned-MP Bobi Wine.