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”Kampen för frihet drivs av vanliga människor - vi får inte ge upp vårt land”

Den 20 september i år gick information ut om att ActionAid Uganda hade belägrats av polisen, detta endast timmar efter det att aktivisten Sarah Bireete hade talat vid öppningsceremonin för Stockholm Civil Society Days 2017. Temat på konferensen var Active Civic Space, om att vända den negativa utvecklingen av ett minskat medborgerligt utrymme runt om i världen. Sarah var i Sverige för att presentera sitt arbete inom Center for Constitutional Governance, en organisation som arbetar för att mobilisera unga, öka läskunnighet och medvetenhet bland befolkningen om vikten av att skydda de grundlagsstiftade demokratiska rättigheterna. I partnerskap med ActionAid och andra organisationer i Uganda arbetar centret aktivt mot godtyckliga konstitutionella ändringar, som exempelvis skulle kunna innebära att den nuvarande presidenten Yoweri Museveni får sitta vid makten på livstid.

Sedan den dagen i september så har repressionen i Uganda ökat i dramatisk hastighet och nyligen tog regeringen till ytterligare ett drastiskt drag och stängde alla bankkonton för ActionAid och ytterligare 25 organisationer tvingades uppge sina kontouppgifter. I denna intervju som Sarah gav ActionAid Sverige några dagar innan myndigheternas belägring av vårt kontor i Uganda så berättade hon om det otroligt utmanande politiska klimatet för det civila samhället i hennes land. Hon berättar om hur demokratin har försämrats till den grad att de civila samhällsaktörer som nu vågar tala sanning behandlas som samhällsfiender, samtidigt som en stor del av befolkningen inte vågar tala öppet. Sarahs berättelse är ett konkret exempel på hur statligt våld leder till ett kraftigt krympt demokratiskt utrymme och vilka konsekvenser det innebär för sociala rörelser, medborgare och aktivister runt om i världen. Men den visar också på vikten av att stötta och skydda aktörer som står upp och kämpar för de medborgerliga rättigheterna, sådana aktörer som Sarah själv och Ugandas studenter.

Ta del av Sarahs berättelse genom att läsa intervjun på engelska nedan.

What is happening in Uganda?

Uganda is at crossroads because we have a failed political transition and have deepened the constitutional crisis. We have never witnessed peaceful handover of power in 55 years of independence. Since then, every leader has been changed through military coups. It is such an absurd estate of affairs, especially for us as actors in governance. When president Museveni took over power in 1986, he promised to rule for four years to establish constitutional order. Everybody believed him and in 1995 we got a new constitution indeed which the world described as one of the most progressive ones. It provided for fundamental rights and freedoms, for equity and equality, democracy and social justice, among others, with a clear mechanism for checks and balances.

Unfortunately, in 2005, the time that president Museveni should have handed over of power under a new constitution and dispensation, he massively bribed members of parliament to have time limits removed, and indeed they were removed paving way for his continuity as president. Our constitution had two safeguards for peaceful handover of power: both time limits and age limits for president. The age limit says that one cannot become president beyond 75 years of age. President Museveni became 73 years after 33 years in power. So, in 2021 he would not be eligible to contest for presidency but now he is involved in another massive constitutional bribery scandal with members of his ruling party with the aim to remove the age limit. And he will in effect become a life-president.

Another amendment is proposing to change the constitutional article 26 on people´s rights on land. It provides for fair, prompt and adequate compensation for government to take out people´s lands for property use. Our government is proposing now to grab land without prior compensation and then they can “talk to you later”. That is absurd. We have 80 percent of our population deriving their livelihoods from land; everybody live on their land. The government is seeking to make its citizens destitute. Those are the amendments we are openly opposing to.

How do you drive this work?

We carried out the constitution awareness campaigns in the districts and we are also part of the coalition of civil society actors on constitutionalism, where I myself together with the other NGO leadership act together with ActionAid Uganda. Then we have a representative of faith groups, a reverend/father, then we have the federation of women lawyers and two more people. As CSOs on this campaign on amendments, we are looking forward to holding citizens town hall meetings at districts level: town hall meetings, hoping that the leaders will listen because we want to create a fair ground for people to engage. Our hope is that we shall defeat these amendments because they are not in good faith.

How is the population reacting to all of it?

The population is apathetic. They are consumed by fear… In 2011, people wanted change but people already knew that it would be a tough time going to vote because they knew that their votes do not determinate who the leader is. So, in 2012 we launched a civic education campaign with the Democratic Governance Facility and other partners including ActionAid Uganda. We launched massive civic education to fight the apathy and make sure that citizens keep engaged because there is no other way to change a government. So in 2016 there was high voter turn up compared to 2011, but as people´s choice of leader did not make him president, we are now facing a new phase of apathy as civic education actors.

How are you experiencing the shrinking of political space in Uganda?

Because of our opposition to the amendments, our coalition and the members of parliament have been facing intimidations. But in general, we have regular NGO and media house office-break-ins by security agents, disruption by police of NGO activities in the field, intimidation and arrestments. Journalists for instance had been detained for sending “seductive news” or defamation. We have also investigation of NGOs for “receiving money from terrorism” (Western institutions).

On the other hand, a series of recent draconian acts are giving support to the suppression. Against NGOs we have things such as the “Public Order Management Act”, which allows for the Police to stop every conversation of more than two persons that concerns “public interest”. This makes the engagement on the field very difficult. “NGO Amendment Act” of 2016 is another, forcing all NGOs to register under a bureau managed by security agencies and they can revoke our license at any time without due process of the law. In the field of media and communications we have acts restraining freedom of information and expression which allows the government, for instance, to tap and to listen to any conversation, to close any media house at any time without any reason and to arrest citizens over their posts on social media. Finally, we have acts restraining political parties such as the “antiterrorism act”, used mainly to charge opposition leaders and another one which does not allow opposition parties to fundraise money or receive funding beyond a small limit of UGX 100 Million (about two-hundred thousand Swedish crowns), making its operations almost impossible.

How can you keep communicating in this scenario?

“We decided that the work we do is public. We decided to make our work as NGOs public because it is not illegal, we are not a rebel group. We are doing a civic work! Before that, spies were sent to our NGOs to spy on what we are doing. We decided to demystify information. So, we employ an open policy that reduced the day to day harassment. If we are doing a program, it is on the website. If we are doing a meeting, it is live on Twitter or Facebook. You don’t need to send us spies, just follow us on Facebook or Twitter! So, they stopped following us after that!” *laughs*

What is the biggest challenge you face?

Our biggest challenge with the constitutional campaigns is that our partners are scared. Donors resident in Uganda are so intimidated by the government that they are silent about the campaign. Let me talk about the Democratic Governance Facility. That is the biggest donor facility for governance in Uganda and, going by the name, one would assume that you automatically fund governance without fear or favor. So, it was put through a serious intimidation by the government in their run-up for the 2016 elections, because it is the biggest fund of NGOs in Uganda. It was threatened to close and actually some partners were cut-off on the insistence of the government. But we are not happy that they are subjugated and going by the dictates of the government! Because if it becomes unsafe for them to operate their fund from Uganda, they can even operate it from Kenya and still fund our governance work in Uganda. We don’t understand their side-off of the story. The next biggest fund for NGOs in Uganda is the European Union, and they are also operating in the same “safe mode”. But how can you kick out the European Union?

So far, there is no support for our work on constitutional amendments because this is a politically dangerous area – according to the Democratic Governance Facility. But we are not happy. We don’t think that the purpose of any fund is to make the government happy but to promote civic engagement! So, we have set-up a team from the coalition and we are going to engage with them and advocate.

If you look at Kenya during the times of President Moi, it was the civil society that has saved Kenya. It was the civil society that insured peaceful retirement of Moi. And it is the civil society that is holding Kenya…! We are hoping that Uganda is allowed to do the same. But for that to happen, our partners cannot be intimidated.

Tell us about your work with university students…

We run the civic education campaign in universities and institutions of higher learning in Uganda. Through a network of hope initiative clubs in these institutions - where we partner with ActionAid youth club, Activista - we work to create space for the youth to engage in governance on a continuous basis. This has been running for five years, it is a continuous work.
What we do is to run practical themes per quarter – like human rights, land rights… - and bring them together on a televised debate also with policy makers so they get to know the views of youth in the higher institutions of learning. People listen to university students, so part of our program is also take students to the community to sensitize and engage people.

Why is mobilizing with students so important?

The voice of students is very critical in governance. Uganda is a population of young people: 78% of Ugandans are aged 18 years and below. In the last election, youth alone were 7.7 million voters. They could have decided the president of their own choice, and this makes it a critical constituency we have to engage with. Besides, university students are easy to integrate back in the society. In our network we have produced 50 leaders working in civil society, district councils and 2 members of the Parliament.

When you have young people exposed to the good tenets of Democracy, who have been nurtured into good leaders going back to the society to offer leadership, they can create a bigger impact in promoting good governance in Uganda.

What drives you, even in such difficult situations…?

I started my activist work when I was 21, almost 20 years ago. I always wanted to fight injustice; I don’t know what to call that, a passion? When I was growing up my father was part of the independence struggles and the original members of Museveni’s party. We knew that he could be arrested and suffer that harassment that have been characterizing Uganda for years. But always intrigued me, like; “why can´t we be a normal country?” Why can´t we have normal, best standards… in leadership, in service delivery? Why can´t we live normal lives? So, if I grew up seeing my father being arrested by bad government, why should my children grow up seeing me being arrested, and so on… I mean, what´s wrong with us? I really found it very intriguing.

In my country it’s very lucrative for legal practice. The lawyers become very rich, they are part of the top class. There is a lot of money in practice, but I don’t see why people should live a comfortable life, a false life that can go up in flames in the tip of the moment. So, I always wanted to make a contribution to the people. How can we help people to stop this or that? So, given my family background I grew up as someone that should be part of the ruling government… (she laughs)

Yes, what happened to you?

I just can’t stand injustice! Like, if I see for example the leader of the opposition being arrested for no reason, just because he is popular, I can´t sleep. When the members of the ruling party moved officially to lift the age, I felt a very sharp headache and I had to keep pacing around the office, like “what are they thinking!?”. They do not think about the future. So, I can live a comfortable life, but then what? Do they have any guarantees for my children? No! Do they have any guarantees for their children? No! Until we confront this monster!