As we close 2014, and looking back on the meaning of civil society in Uganda, it is clear to me that a number of political realities that may seem forgotten today do influence the ways in which civil society works.
As a concept, civil society is dangerously fraught with all kinds of ambiguities. It is an analytical construct if it speaks to a specific part of society between the family and the state.
But it can also be an ideological construct if one thinks of it as a political position that invokes notions of speaking the truth to power and holding government to account.
While both understandings make civil society an important part of society, they also render the term both analytically promiscuous and ideologically impotent.
In a country like Uganda where actors and spaces are fuzzy, it is certainly a contested space.
Many actors within civil society have for long taken on various identities, with nearly every politician being a patron of some kind of association in their constituency and every civil society leader being some kind of entrepreneur as they all try to make ends meet.
These kinds of multiple identities, therefore, have implications for how civil society operates in Uganda.
As the country grapples with what kinds of legal reforms should govern civil society, it is important that we reflect on the political history that has informed the role of civil society in Uganda.
Political economy literature indicates that one of the most important reforms of the post-1986 Uganda was the introduction of the Movement System of government. This was a system known officially as all-inclusive of persons from all political shades in Uganda.
An important ingredient of this system was the introduction of individual merit as a mechanism for selecting political leaders. The form of governance continues to influence the political economy of Uganda and there is an enduring hangover with a lot of focus on individuals.
In many communities, people look at individual leaders as the ones who will supply all their needs. Institutions of service delivery are not effective and not viewed as effective and this focus on individuals now fuels both political and elite patronage. It is not strange to hear politicians promising to deliver a road, hospital or electricity to a community while no discussion has taken place with any of the ministries in charge.
For NGOs, this deep-seated patronage has made it difficult for them to do their work. Asking communities to speak up does not always receive favourable reception as many community members prefer to get handouts than focus on long term aocacy work.
NGOs end up finding short-term and sometimes short-sighted mechanisms of working with communities – preferring softer areas like sensitisation and training communities instead of more challenging activities that question the status quo.
The introduction of individual merit was also important to the position of NGOs in the social-political life of Uganda. When the government was criticised for having no opposition and running a one-party state, it would mention NGOs in aocacy as the quasi-opposition in the Movement system.
The argument was that aocacy NGOs offered the alternative position and in a sense were the oppositional voice in the ‘all-inclusive’ political dispensation. This positionality – while it served the idiosyncratic movement government – was not beneficial to NGOs.
For those who chose to see NGOs as political vehicles, this was a validating position and one that justified the treatment of NGOs as a political security threat and sometimes organisations that promoted ‘foreign interests’. So, while NGOs were tolerated during the all-inclusive movement politics days, the same level of tolerance could not be sustained when multiparty politics was reintroduced.
With the revision of the Constitution and the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 2005, NGOs had to contend with a new positionality in the policy and governance relationships of Uganda. The official opposition parties reclaimed their now-constitutional position and NGOs were viewed as opposition accomplices.
Reforms of the NGO law are, therefore, very much located in the realm of ensuring that they are closely monitored and they ‘stay out of politics’.
This reality that now demarcates borders in what is ‘political’ in the aocacy arena has led to significant self-restraint by various NGOs. In some cases, their lack of boldness on politically sensitive issues is an expression of this conscious avoidance of anything that is considered political.
The challenge is that all work that questions politically-sensitive issues can sometimes be seen as political and hence speaking ‘truth to power’ becomes a faccedilade rather than a reality. The total effect of this context is that NGOs now have to organise their work with this context in mind.
The author is the executive director of the Uganda NGO Forum.
Source : The Observer