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Ugandan charity regulator accused of targeting LGBTIQ groups to avoid austerity

Rights campaigners believe Uganda’s charity regulator is using an anti-LGBTIQ agenda to save itself from austerity cuts

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu Dicta Asiimwe
1 March 2023, 11.16am

Activists say the Ugandan charities regulator is ‘targeting LGBT+ groups’ to avoid austerity cuts


Isaac Kasamani / Stringer

Human rights campaigners in Uganda have accused the country’s charities regulator of stirring up anti-gay hysteria and endangering staff at LGBTIQ+ rights organisations in a bid to save itself from the government’s austerity cuts.

A report leaked in January revealed that last year the regulator, known as the NGO Bureau, had investigated four rights organisations that it “suspected to be involved in the promotion of LGBT activities in the country”. The report listed 22 other organisations that are still under investigation.

Among the four rights organisations to have been investigated is the Ubuntu Law and Justice Centre, a non-profit law firm that represents sex workers, LGBTIQ+ people and other marginalised groups in Uganda.

In January 2022, the centre applied to the NGO Bureau for formal registration. When bureau representatives visited their offices months later, the centre’s staff assumed it was a regular due diligence process. “We didn’t know that they were collecting crime intelligence,” said the centre’s executive director, Fridah Mutesi, adding that in hindsight the investigators and their approach were “militaristic”.

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She explained: “The first question they asked was whether we worked with transgender and homosexual people. It did not go down well.”

Nine months later, Mutesi saw her organisation listed in the leaked report as having had its application rejected after being investigated by the bureau – until then, the centre thought its application was still pending. “There was no communication about the decision. We were actually shocked to find ourselves [in the report],” Mutesi told openDemocracy.

Same-sex relations are criminalised in Uganda, and LGTBIQ people are frequently arrested on trumped-up charges and have their shelters raided by the police. They also face hate crimes, or are even killed. On 28 February, Uganda’s parliament granted MP Asuman Basalirwa leave to introduce a new bill that seeks to further criminalise LGBTIQ+ people.

Rights defenders have branded the bureau’s investigations as an anti-gay “witch hunt” and claim they are part of efforts by the agency to “get more funding” and “avoid” austerity measures.

In February 2021, cabinet ministers in Uganda greenlighted austerity measures referred to as ‘rationalisation’, which recommended that semi-autonomous agencies including the bureau be turned into smaller divisions of government ministries to cut costs.

Being absorbed into a ministry, or ‘rationalised’, means an agency no longer has its own direct budget allocation and its staff must also become regular civil servants, whose salaries are up to eight times less than employees at semi-autonomous agencies.

Stephen Okello, the executive director of the NGO Bureau told openDemocracy that the impending rationalisation “is causing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty among the staff”.

The bureau wants to position itself as the number one state agency fighting homosexuality in the country

Adrian Jjuuko, executive director, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum

The rationalisation measures are set to take effect in July 2023, but some agencies have managed to delay them by announcing big new projects. The National Identification and Registration Agency – which was due to be reduced to a commissioner’s department in the ministry of internal affairs – announced a nationwide child registration programme in November and has since been allowed to continue operating as a semi-autonomous agency for five more years.

The NGO Bureau is on track to be absorbed into the internal affairs ministry in July, in part because it “doesn’t have any upcoming big projects”, Simon Mundeyi, the ministry’s spokesperson, told openDemocracy.

Human rights defenders believe the bureau’s foray into anti-gay investigations is an attempt to find a big project that will save it. “The bureau wants to position itself as the number one state agency fighting homosexuality in the country,” said Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, one of the targeted organisations.

This was echoed by Frank Mugisha, the head of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), which the bureau shut down last year as part of its anti-LGBTIQ investigations. Mugisha said: “They are feeding into the propaganda going on in the country and thinking, is this the thing that will keep us open and running?”

The bureau’s leaked report lends some credence to this reading of its motivations, making ten recommendations, one of which is that the Ugandan government should “revisit the decision to rationalise the NGO Bureau”. It argues that rationalisation will “make it difficult for NGOs to be effectively monitored, which may encourage practices such as the promotion of LGBTIQ activities to thrive in the communities”.

The report also requested more resources to “intensify the monitoring and inspections of NGOs”, claiming that some are involved in activities that are “prejudicial to the interests of the people of Uganda”.

Okello refused to discuss the report or the bureau’s investigations into human rights organisations.

Now that the document is public, the organisations and individuals named have become prone to attacks

Frank Mugisha, head of Sexual Minorities Uganda

Regardless of its motivations, activists are worried that the bureau has endangered them and the people they serve or advocate for. “They have created a hit list,” said SMUG’s Mugisha. “Now that the document has been made public, the organisations and individuals named in there have become prone to attacks and extortion.”

Mutesi from the Ubuntu Law and Justice Centre says that since the report leaked, local police who claim to be investigating the organisation on behalf of the bureau have harassed her staff and attempted to extort money from them.

Betty Balisalamu, the executive director of Women With A Mission, one of the human rights NGOs listed as being under investigation in the report, told openDemocracy that following the report’s leak, she asked her staff to work from home for a week after receiving information that people were planning to burn down the organisation’s offices. “It is like a viral scandal, and everyone now judges you the way they like,” she said.

Last Friday, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council organised nationwide anti-gay marches and the speaker of parliament has announced that a bill to further criminalise homosexual relations will be tabled on 1 March.

Same-sex relations are already criminalised in Uganda under a colonial-era law but prosecutions are virtually unheard of. More often, the police harrasses people suspected of being LGBTIQ+ with vagrancy laws, also from the colonial era, but activists are starting to get some of those annulled.

In 2014 and 2021, the country’s parliament passed laws expanding the criminalisation of LGBTIQ+ people, though the 2014 act was annulled by the country’s constitutional court later that year, and Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, refused to assent to the 2021 law. Legislators are now trying to pass it for the third time.

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