Seven months after the presidential election was held in January, civil space remains constricted. The Democratic Governance Facility, which bankrolled nearly 100 non-governmental organisations, remains closed, Facebook remains inaccessible, hundreds remain incarcerated for, among others, illegal assembly, while government is silent on accountability for human rights violations. There are, however, fears that the worst is yet to come, writes Frederic Musisi
After failing to secure audience with Gen Caleb Akandwanaho, aka Salim Saleh, earlier in March over a stimulus support in the post Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, a section of musicians late last month met President Museveni’s brother, who is also the coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC).
A letter circulated widely on social media last week detailing names of musicians and amounts of money they sought as a financial bailout. But in a statement last Thursday, the OWC refuted the claims of paying any artiste money, saying: “Gen Saleh has been engaging with different stakeholders in the creative and performing arts industry to explore ways in which OWC can be a vehicle for facilitating different kinds of support and other strategies to help the country deal with the harsh effects of the coronavirus pandemic.”
OWC, Daily Monitor understands, convened a workshop under the theme: “Strengthening the Cultural and Creative Industry in Uganda” for the artistes running from July 23 to early last week in Gulu District.
The workshop was closed by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces Joint Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Leopold Kyanda, government Chief Whip Thomas Tayebwa, Junior minister for Gender and Culture Peace Mutuzo, and fashionista-turned OWC director of operations Sylvia Owori.
Notably, Gen Saleh counselled the musicians on how to cash in on their creative efforts, which has remained a sticking issue due to absence of a copy-right and intellectual property rights body as provided for under the 2006 Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act.
Mr Tayebwa told the artistes that government wants them to self-regulate. He urged them to avoid asking for free money, but rather establish a savings and credit cooperative, which can further be capitalised through Uganda Development Bank (UDB) at comparatively lower interest rates.
Notably, the Gulu meeting came at the peak of financial adversity suffered by the creative industry occasioned by the lockdowns imposed to control the spread of Covid-19 since March, 2020, and divisions within the music industry since the rise of Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, from a popstar to a key Opposition figure under the National Union Platform (NUP) party.
Mr Kyagulanyi came second in the January 14 polls, according to the Electoral Commission, with 35 per cent while President Museveni polled 58 per cent of the total votes cast. NUP emerged the largest Opposition party with 57 MPs in Parliament.
Regime populists, initially wrote off Bobi Wine as merely an embodiment of Buganda ethno-nationalism when he first announced his presidential bid in mid-2019. By the time he was nominated to contest on November 3, it was apparent he was a force to reckon with; throughout campaigns, he drew huge crowds of the youth while drawing sympathy from fellow artistes.
First they came for the opposition, then…
In response, the regime dangled the carrot for those who steered clear of elective politics and used the stick on Bobi Wine’s disciples.
The draconian Stage Plays and Public Entertainments Act of 1943, which had gathered dust on the shelves was dusted and put to use to restrict activities of musicians and other creatives.
“Musicians and creative artistes used to thrive on patronage; when it didn’t favour the authorities, the result was undesirable—in the worst case scenario killed,” said Mr Silver Kyagulanyi (no relation to Bobi Wine), a musician-turned lawyer and currently the executive director of the Copyright Institute of Uganda.
“Usually the bite back of the people in authority is censorship—adoption of practices whether legal or extra-legal but the summation is to curtail or prohibit proper expression or articulation of ideas they don’t want.”
Amid polarising politics, the Uganda Musicians Association (UMA)—an offshoot of the trade union, National Union of Creative Performing Artists & Allied Workers— established in 2017 to bring together musicians, producers and artiste managers, gained traction in recent months and has been crusading for unity of members.
Ms Owori described the Gulu meeting as a stepping stone “to realign ourselves.” All other associations purporting to represent the interests of the musicians, she noted, will now fall under UMA.
However, the OWC- artistes’ meet drew ambivalence. Mr Kyagulanyi criticised his colleagues for turning into beggars. Two artistes, speaking anonymously, told this newspaper that they turned down requests to travel to Gulu.
In response, Mr Moses Ssali, who goes by the stage name Bebe Cool, an unapologetic supporter of President Museveni, blasted Mr Kyagulanyi, saying they went to Gulu to meet the chief coordinator of OWC whose role is to include all Ugandans into the prosperity programmes.
For long spells, since the colonial era, artistes—musicians and other creative, including writers, painters— have had an uneasy relationship with the state. During the last 36 years of President Museveni, this fault-line emerged when Mr Kyagulanyi threw a hat in the ring for elective politics in 2017.
The government first attempted to rein in the creative industry in 2010, four years after the enactment of the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act that provides for protection of literary, scientific and artistic intellectual works, which Mr Kyagulanyi said contains some “bad provisions” on the right to artistes to sell, lease and perform, but “is empty in administration of such rights leaving artistes poor and vulnerable.”
“Next door, there is the Kenya Copyrights Board, which helps government make informed decisions about the creative industry. Creating and investing is a right given by the Constitution; it cannot just be taken away by somebody’s whim…so the lack of proper administration in the sector has created gaps,” argued Kyagulanyi.
In 2010, barely a year to the general elections, the Gender ministry commenced a review of the Stage Plays and Public Entertainments Act enacted during the British colonial regime to keep performing artistes on a leash. The government argued that the law needed to be given a lease of life to control the creative and performing arts sector in a liberalised industry that lacks checks.
The artistes pushed back against the proposed guidelines arguing that the Gender ministry had overstepped its mandate to license artistes yet the 1943 law vested such powers in municipal councils while the Broadcasting Council (under the Electronic Media Act, 2000) under the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, had powers to permit certain plays. Also, the artistes argued that music was not wholly a cultural matter.
Muzzling civic space
The guidelines were shelved. Following the merger of the Broadcasting Council and Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) into the Uganda Communications Regulatory Authority after the UCC Bill was passed in 2013, Mr Kyagulanyi said: “UCC took this hook, line and sinker, look at the regulations polished them a bit and brought them back.”
In the run of to the 2021 polls, the ICT ministry approved the guidelines that provide for the powers and functions of UCC under the Stage Plays and Public Entertainments Act to, among others, review and permit music lyrics, photography, documentaries, plays and others. Debate on the guidelines was subdued when Covid-19 struck.
“The creative industry has remained informal, and government has failed to regulate it; every time they attempt to, they use the ad hoc measures which cannot take us far. It is time to create a copyright authority,” Mr Kyagulanyi said, adding: “Other than that, artistes are pushed to the bottom; when a person is vulnerable, their mind is at risk because they cannot refuse an offer.”
The creative industry part of the civic space, which according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is defined as the set of legal, policy, institutional and practical conditions necessary for non-state actors to access information, express themselves, associate, organise, and participate in public life.
A 2019 report titled: The Shrinking Civic Space in East Africa, by digital research think-tank, CIPESA, said the region is experiencing a rise in restrictions on civic space, which have mainly manifested through enactment of retrogressive legislation targeting civic activism and civil society organisations, violent crackdown on demonstrations and the arrest, threat of arrest and intimidation of journalists.
The 2020 European Union (EU) annual human rights report detailed that the run-up to the general elections was marred by constrained political freedoms and space for civic activism.
Information minister Chris Baryomunsi downplayed claims of government tightening the noose around civic space saying they only step in when different actors such as NGOs cross the line.
“We are not a lawless society. We allow different partners to do their work. If you are an NGO and you are supposed to the work as per your instruments of doing your work, why would we interfere? We only step in to remind you [NGOs] what you have forgotten,” Dr Baryomunsi argued.
He cited the run-up to the recent general elections when several non-state actors became ‘partisan when there were suspicions they’re getting funding to destabilise the country, so it was the duty of the State to step in.’
President Museveni accused Mr Kyagulanyi and other non-State actors of being agents of ‘a neo-colonial agenda’ while intelligence agencies commenced a purge targeting international donor agencies, including deportation of high-profile individuals, who were directly in charge of financial war-chests for civic education and election-related activities.
The government in January pulled the plug on the DGF, a multi-donor outfit established by eight EU countries, which bankrolled nearly 100 NGOs. Earlier on, GiveDirectly, an international non-profit bankrolled by the US government, which had embarked on a cash transfer programme to the urban poor affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, was suspended.
President Museveni directed the ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, respectively, to re-examine the working of DGF as a pre-condition for its reopening. Five months later, discussions are yet to yield results.
Nowhere to run
The Danish ambassador, Mr Nicolaj Hejberg Petersen, who is the development partners chair of DGF, said constructive dialoguing on the matter is ongoing. However, diplomatic sources separately intimated that discussions were put on hold at the behest of President Museveni who wants to be involved.
Ms Sarah Bireete, the executive director of Centre for Constitutional Governance, which champions good governance, told this newspaper that the writing is on the wall in regard to civic space.
“One of the indicators of civil liberty is enjoyment of freedom of expression, association and assembly provided for under Article 29 of the Constitution, which is the most abused,” she said.
“Since 2017 during the campaign to remove the age limit provision, we have seen a siege on NGOs accused of money laundering and their accounts closed, but no single NGO leader has been tried in court for the same, except for Mr Nicholas Opiyo, the executive director of Chapter Four, a human-rights advocacy outfit, but also in whose case the prosecution evidence is wanting,” she added.
Ms Bireete said we have reached a period when the State wants to control citizens overly reinforced by a set of 16 laws, which contradict the Constitution.
“Some have been challenged, like the Public Order Management Act; the case took six years at the Constitutional Court for a section of it to be struck out, but the State has since appealed and will likely take another five years. So, we might take 12 years in court. But even then, we see an increased impunity on the side of duty bearers, so these things are going to become more before we see daybreak,” she said.
For other laws, Ms Bireete cited Sections 7, 44 and 45 of the 2016 NGO Act, which contradict Articles 23, 38 of the Constitution: the 2011 Computer Misuse Act whose definition section needs to be amended to include government, which is the most culpable in violating provisions of the law: the 2013 UCC Act whose interpretation section is too broad and unfair because it includes functions that are meant for association, expression: the 2010 Regulations of Interception of Communications Act, which violates Article 27 of the Constitution; the 2013 Anti-Money Laundering Act whose section on proceeds of crime is too wide and provisions could lead to victimisation: and the 2019 Data Protection and Privacy Act that provides for principles of data protection, but no sanction on violations of the principles of data protection.
Dr Baryomunsi, however, argued that before the laws are passed, they go through a “vigorous” democratic process, including consultation of NGOs. “Everyone complains about laws when they don’t favour their side,” he said.
Mr Opiyo said he fears the State is determined to shut the doors for civic space.
“There are scientific studies done to measure civic freedoms around the world using indexes. For the last ten years in the London Freedom House index, Uganda has been ranking as unfree, partially free or repressed,” he said.
Mr Opiyo, who was arrested last December in the run-up to the elections and charged with money laundering, said it is a combination of many factors, including the laws enacted.
“You have to realise there is a gradual construction of laws and systems that are providing legitimacy for otherwise illegitimate acts. ——–so, a law on assembly—POMA—was passed, but merely was a re-enactment of the section of Police Act on powers of police to control public assemblies, which court invalidated,” he said.
“But when you challenge a law, you can spend 10 years in court…the laws are passed along party interests, and for individual interests, allowing the executive to ride roughshod.”