Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | The Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) director, Dickens Kamugisha says they are being targeted for their work on land rights and environment.
He says while the organization is operating within the law, some individuals in government are working hard to silence it from raising issues raging from rights of persons affected by projects for development of oil and gas in Bunyoro. Kamugisha and five members of his staff spent three nights in police cells following a process allegedly fronted by the NGO Bureau.
The police raided AFIEGO’s offices on October 13, arresting some members of staff. Those arrested included a breast-feeding mother and another female suffering from asthmatic conditions.
The two women together with four males were again arrested on Friday October 22. They were released on Monday after being charged with failure to produce registration documents.
Dickens Kamugisha in an interview with URN described the charge as “irregular”. He said their arrest was a calculated move to silence them as it has been to some civil society actors in the country.
“Of course up to now I tell you I don’t know what is the problem. Because at first when the staff were arrested, they were given a holding charge. The one they put on bond was operating without a permit. But in Uganda whether in the NGO Act or the penal code, there is nothing like an offense of operating without a permit,” said Kamugisha
Kamugisha, also a lawyer says the NGO Act provides that an NGO which is found to be operating without a permit is supposed to be fined but not have its staff arrested as it was with AFIEGO case
“There is a penalty in form of a fine but it is not an offense. So that is the offense that they said they were charging our staff. When we reached Jinja Road police, we asked what is the offense that we committed? They could not tell us,” he said
He says on being released after spending three nights in police cells, the police instead charged him and others of failure to produce documents.
Asked why he thinks his organization is being victimized for its work, Kamugisha said the problem begins from AFIEGO’s activism around raising awareness about land rights in the Albertine graben where Total, CNOOC are developing the oil and gas infrastructure.
“Since the beginning of the Tilenga project, the Kingfisher project, the EACOP and now the Bugoma forest giveaway, many of our staff especially in Buliisa and Hoima and along the EACOP in the greater Masaka area have been arrested, many are on police bond” he said.
“So even the groups that were suspended by the NGO Bureau were from communities where we work. And even the ones that were not under the NGO bureau. So the issue is not whether we are complying or not complying,” he explained
AFIEGO has been chairing a group of civil society in actors opposed to the giveaway of Bugoma forest for sugarcane cultivation.
The NGO Bureau on August 20, announced that it was halting the activities of 54 civil society groups, including AFIEGO accusing them of operating without valid permits. Some of the affected civil society actors like Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) and AFIEGO denied that they were operating outside the laws.
The two said they were validly registered to work in areas of public policy and research by Uganda Registration Services Bureau as companies limited under the laws of Uganda.
Kamugisha insists that AFIEGO is not obliged to seek an operating permit from the NGO Bureau. “First and foremost we are not an NGO. We are a company limited by guarantee incorporated under the company’s Act. We have articles of Association and memorandum of association which clearly define when we can do and what we cannot do.”
He says their arrest is part of the ploy to silence him and members of AFIEGO from activism about energy governance, environment and land rights in Bunyoro
“I believe that arresting us and keeping us in cells when there is no offense, the government is simply telling every citizen out there that whether you have rights or not, you are in danger. And I believe many of our colleagues will go in hiding.” He said
According to Kamugisha, the arrest and the storming into offices of civil society actors is having a chilling effect on the civil society in the country. “Increasingly and every passing day, the civil society are disappearing. The civil society that used to speak whenever there was injustice, they are no longer going to speak”
He revealed that some of that fear has gone as far as courts of law with magistrates and judges fearing to hear in cases filed by the civil society.
Besides not willing to register with the NGIO Bureau, Dickens Kamugisha says the NGO bureau is currently not operating within the law since its board is not fully constituted. “On the board there are supposed to be representatives of CSOs. Up to now, they have never been appointed. They are required under the law to have an adjudication committee. That committee is not in place”
He says as of now; the Bureau is resorting to measures like the arrest of individuals before giving them a hearing as envisaged by a clause in the law. The NGO ACT 2016 provides for the establishment of an adjudication committee which should handle appeals by groups aggrieved by the NGO Bureau’s actions and decisions.