Uganda activists warn new bill would stifle government critics

President Yoweri Museveni in power since 1986, will face his stiffest opposition from Kizza Besigye, a three-time loser for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister running as an independent candidate (AFP Photo/Isaac Kasamani) (AFP/File)

Kampala (AFP) - Activists in Uganda have warned that a "dangerous" new bill seeking to regulate non-governmental organisations would silence critics and "negate the very essence of freedom of association and expression".

Rights groups say the proposed NGO bill would grant sweeping powers to the government, including the ability to shut down activist groups and jail members.

"It gives the authorities the tools to clamp down on civil society deemed critical of government, especially advocacy and human rights based NGOs," Nicholas Opiyo, executive director of civil liberties group Chapter Four Uganda, told AFP.

"It is an expression of the government's paranoia with the work of NGOs... and it is particularly concerning that it may most likely be discussed in the run up to the 2016 elections."

Veteran President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's leader since 1986, has already been chosen as the ruling party's candidate for presidential elections next year.

The bill warns that "the rapid growth of NGOs has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which in turn undermine accountability and transparency in the sector".

- Threat of jail -

It propose fines and up to eight years in prison for those found guilty of its provisions, warning organisations "shall not engage in any activity which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda".

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the bill's "vague and overly broad provisions open the door to silencing peaceful government critics and activists of all sorts".

HRW Africa researcher Maria Burnett said that "the possibility of long prison terms for carrying out civic work without a permit should be scrapped, along with many other provisions."

But government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said some NGOs had "cheated the public" in the past and that there is a need for laws to be strengthened.

"NGOs, including HRW, should not seek to pretend as if they know and are the only guarantors of the rights of Ugandans -- that responsibility and obligations rests with the government of Uganda," he told AFP.

"We have had so many cases in Uganda where NGOs get involved in criminality."

But transsexual activist Pepe Julian Onziema told AFP the bill was "dangerous" and Uganda would take a "very anti-democratic course" if it became law, adding organisations promoting gay rights such as his, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), would "stand no chance" of continuing.

"In its current form the bill poses a huge threat to the freedom of association assembly," he said.