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Legitimacy of Civil Society in Uganda

Civil society leaders in Uganda. (Photo courtesy of PML Daily)

In the contemporary world, it is impossible to talk about democracy without talking about the role of civil society. Speaking on ACFIM’s newest virtual talk show, “The Other Perspective” Henry Muguzi, Executive Director- ACFIM and political finance expert described civil society as part of the citizenry that emerges as a result of oppression from the government. He further defined the sector as a space where citizens express their pleasure or displeasure on matters of governance and management of public affairs.

The notion of civil society is not new but has recently gained traction in many countries around the world. A lot of allegations from regime apologists in Uganda tend to misrepresent civil society agents as self-seeking persons pursuing foreign interests. Each time civil society tries to expose the deficits in accountability and governance, they are accused of being agents of foreign interests.

Civil society existed in Uganda even before independence but mainly engaged on issues of equity, rights, and economic development. After 1986, civil society focused on social and economic issues not political because, at that time, social services had been broken down due to the turmoil Uganda experienced.
At the advent of multi-party politics from 2005 onwards, arose the need for inclusive governance. There was a new narrative under a multi-party dispensation on how to engage and check government, have alternative voices accommodated hence the surge of civil society actors focusing on political issues around rights, governance, transparency, and accountability.

According to Mr.Muguzi, he believes that if public affairs were being managed in a way & manner that citizens & taxpayers are satisfied with and if the country had responsive individuals in public officers linked to the needs of the citizenry, there would be no need for civil society.

Ugandans admittedly believe that the main challenge the country faces is governance. Felix Kafuuma, a civil society activist and Programme director ACFIM stated that civil society emerges to address the need at a time and the need right now is around governance. This is the reason many CSOs engaging on governance issues and government is uncomfortable about it.

There has been a transition of civil society engaging in economic social rights to a space more active on issues around political rights. Uganda has over 14,000 NGOs and a good number of those engage in governance.
The state has therefore started to police civil society curtailing the autonomy in which civil society should operate. This has forced a number of civil society organizations to go into self-censorship due to actions of government that scale down their activities.

Faridah Lule, a civil society activist, and one of the guest panelists agreed that even though civil society organizations depend on international support, so does government because 40% of the national budget is co-funded by international development partners as well. She questioned how talking about corruption and swindling of money by government officials is pushing for foreign interests?

SecretsKnown stresses that government should understand that the mandate of civil society is drawn from the constitution. Government needs to evaluate the impact civil society has made on the country. Without civil society, you cannot have responsive governments because the sector projects the views and interests of citizens. Civil society grooms leaders, provides employment opportunities, contributes to taxes, and brings back hope to the citizenry.

In the aspect of service provisioning, civil society provides medical care, education, credit facilities bringing significant contributions to the economy and the country’s national development. SecretsKnown acknowledges the possibility of CSOs having bad elements, this shouldn’t however cause generalization for the entire sector. It is unfortunate that civil society is looked at as a foe becoming the government’s punching bag and yet it complements government.

Civil society actors are guardians of democracy and good governance therefore for the sector to continue operating, it is important to acknowledge its role in holding accountable and checking government. Civil society is under attack and it is important that actors in the sector come together under a united front in order to survive.

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