Civic Space in Uganda: a review

Domestic and international rights organisations report that the Government of Uganda has grown increasingly less tolerant of criticism over the past decade. Human Rights Watch, for example, highlights that freedom of expression across the country is in significant jeopardy, retrogressive laws have been enacted and state institutions have adopted a more ruthless response to civic activists. NGOs that engage in monitoring the conduct of the state and advocate for human rights, women’s rights, in anti-corruption and accountability, land issues and democratic governance have experienced growing restrictions on the space available for them to carry out their activities. The Black Monday movement, for example - a civil society-led campaign in 2012 to protest the theft of public funds by public officials and politicians – was quickly closed down and senior figures arrested.

CIVICUS’ State of Civil Society Report 2014 notes that in the recent past, numerous governments have stepped up efforts to restrict civic space using combinations of dubious legislation, demonization of protest movements and direct harassment of activists and their organisations. Civil society activists in Uganda feel that the spirit of the recently enacted NGO Act 2016 and matching regulations, the spate of break-ins into the offices of vocal NGOs, the violent crackdown on activities of opposition politicians and their supporters, attacks on journalists, and shutdowns of social media are among the many signs that civic space is imperilled.

In this review, we follow the conceptual framing of civic space as proposed by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TA/I; Malena, 2015). 

This report provides a review of international and national reports that examine the status of civic space in Uganda based on the dimensions outlined above. Furthermore, the report suggests a simple summative measure of the status of each dimension of civic space, based on a four-point scale. The measure builds upon that suggested in the TA/I document, and while not exhaustive, it does provide an indication of the status of each of the five dimensions.


The study is based on desk review of relevant international and national documents / datasets. The documents reviewed include international reports that are produced by credible international organizations such as UN agencies and other internationally respected think tanks known for defending civil and human rights across the globe. The national reports are those produced by government agencies, local civil society organizations (CSOs), credible NGOs, academic institutions, media and academia. The information was triangulated by comparing and contrasting the findings on civic space from a range of sources in each of the five dimensions. The analysis covered the period January 2010 – June 2017. 

Information from the documents reviewed was synthesized and triangulated with at least two other reports before being used to rate the status of civic space in Uganda as either of the following: Protected Space; Partially Protected Space; Restricted Space; Non-Existing Space. The rationale for each level is as follows:

 Protected Space:

  • All principles for the specific dimensions are met
  • The country respects all relevant international treaties it has ratified by amending its domestic legislations so as not to contradict with the provisions of the international treaties
  • The country’s protection mechanisms are effective

Partially Protected Space:

  • Ratification and enacting legislations that protect the relevant dimension
  • There are protection mechanisms in place
  • There are legal loopholes that can restrict civic space if not properly checked

Restricted Space:

  • Presence of legislations that restrict the space provided in the ratified international treaties or in the mother law (e.g. constitution)
  • Some of the international treaties are not ratified
  • Ineffective protection mechanisms

Non-Existing Space:

  • Civic space is completely denied; there is no provision for its protection 

Overview of analysis and results 

Each of the dimensions was analyzed independently, combining reviews of both international and national reports. The first step was to examine the international treaties that have been ratified in Uganda which govern each dimension

The summary rationale for the above score for Uganda is as follows.

  • Restricted Space in Freedom of Information and Expression

The right of every citizen to access information in possession of the state or any other organ of the state except in circumstances where it is likely to compromise national security or the privacy of another person, is guaranteed by Article 41 of the Constitution. Nonetheless, evidence of harassment of journalists, and high-handed crackdowns on civil society activists who have come out to express themselves show that this space is restricted.

  • Restricted Space in Rights of Assembly and Association

Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees the protection of freedom of conscience, expression, movement, religion, assembly and association. However, the Public Order Management Act (POMA, 2013) restricts these freedoms. The police used POMA in 2013 and 2014 to block governance initiatives by civil society, especially public meetings convened with opposition parties on matters of free and fair elections.

  • Partially Protected Space in Citizen Participation

Article 31(i) of the National Constitution guarantees the right of every Ugandan citizen to participate in the affairs of government, individually or through his or her representatives in accordance with law. Subsection (ii) states that every Ugandan has a right to participate in peaceful activities to influence the policies of government through civic organisations. Two milestones have constricted this space namely; the heightened sensitivity that comes with election periods, during which citizen participation in civic space is subject to restriction by police and other security agencies. In addition, the NGO Act (2016) further constricts the space for effective participation, most particularly for actors who engage in advocacy on oil-related matters, land rights, human rights, anti-corruption and electoral governance.

  • Partially Protected Space in Non-Discrimination / Inclusion

The Constitution contains several provisions on the principle of non-discrimination and equal rights of women and men and provides for minority representation. Article 32 prescribes affirmative action. Article 33 guarantees the rights of women to be included in decision-making while Article 36 provides for minority representation. However, the legal framework does not adequately safeguard the rights of women. The Domestic Relations Bill and the Marriage and Divorce Bill have faced resistance from within and without parliament over the past 15 years. The rights of sexual and other minorities are not recognized and these groups have severe difficulties in engaging in public and policy processes – to the extent that they are even being physically and psychologically harassed.

  • Restricted Space in Human Rights / Rule of Law

Although the Uganda Human Rights Commission was established in 1995 to protect and promote human rights, and rights based approaches have been mainstreamed into policy-making, planning and programming processes, the law is selectively applied. The practice and high-handedness of the police, military and security agencies attests to numerous human rights violations.

However, a closer look at the state of human rights, and particularly the core civil society rights, of the freedom of association, assembly and expression, show that most of the recommendations accepted during Uganda’s 2011 review have not been implemented.

Right to Vote

Whereas Article 59 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (1995), provides that every citizen of Uganda aged 18 years and above has a right to vote, and that the State shall take all necessary steps to ensure that all citizens qualified to vote register and exercise their right to vote, the right to vote has not always been respected and/or protected. The shadow Universal Periodic Review (UPR report 2011, reveals among others that during presidential and parliamentary elections in 2011 many voters could not find the polling stations where their names had been registered to vote. This situation carried on to the subsequent election cycle.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission report further states that the 2016 Presidential and Parliamentary elections were reportedly replete with acts of disenfranchisement of voters most notably due to late delivery of polling materials to the capital city Kampala and neighbouring Wakiso districts. A report by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) reveals that citizens who turned 18 years of age between May 2015 and February 2016 were excluded from the Voters’ Register. The right to vote was further infringed upon by alleged widespread voter bribery, multiple voting, stuffing of ballot boxes and altering of results. Detainees in Uganda are not allowed to exercise their right to vote. Uganda does not have a legal framework permitting extension of voting rights to Ugandans living in diaspora (FHRI, 2016).

A report by Uganda Law Society highlights unlawful acts of torture and limitations against people’s freedom, cases of unconstitutional preventive arrests meted out against opposition politicians, torture in prisons, and lack of implementation of court orders and criminalizing walking for freedom as indicators of degenerated rule of law in Uganda.

According to the 2016 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, Uganda ranks 105 out of 113 countries assessed during the period. This ranking places Uganda 10 positions lower than the 2015 ranking. Issues in this area include corruption, the disregard of court orders, executive excess, weaknesses in the justice system, police brutality, unlawful arrests and detention, and malicious prosecutions among other negative developments. The economy is undergoing shocks and pressures with negative consequences, in part perhaps because of the links between the Rule of Law and overall development.

Read full report here to find out more. 



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