Police recently raided the offices of some Non-government Organisations (NGOs) including Action Aid Uganda and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) and froze their accounts. The government accuses them of funding a campaign against the amendment of the constitution to remove age limits. Many Ugandans feel sympathetic to these NGOs. Yet, if the accusations against them are true, the government would be right to even shut them down.
Partly, this is because NGOs today constitute what is miscalled ‘civil society’ and are often presented as the vehicles for democracy. But these NGOs are bastardised civil society. Historically, civil society is supposed to comprise membership-based organisations. Citizens come together around a shared interest and in a voluntary fashion to form an organisation that promotes their interests.
In many cases, members raise money to fund the activities of their organisation. They elect leaders who serve at their pleasure. The leaders conduct the affairs of the organisation according to the interests, values and aspirations of the members. This is the basis of democratic politics.
On the other hand, the beneficiaries of the activities of NGOs, especially international ones, are not members of the NGO. Instead, the NGO is owned by individuals who solicit charity from abroad to serve those it chooses. Therefore what the beneficiaries get are not rights but charity. They are formed locally or internationally without consulting people they purport to serve. Many are funded from abroad. The beneficiaries do not elect the leaders of the NGO and neither can they vote them out of office. Instead, the leaders are bureaucratically appointed by a body the beneficiaries know nothing about.
In poor countries like Uganda, however, NGOs displace and/or stifle the evolution of membership-based organisations that promote our people’s interests. So they reflect how the postcolonial organisations are disarticulated from the interests of citizens.
Ugandans today cannot pursue their interests in the way they did during, say, the immediate pre-independence period. In 1945 and 1949, Ugandan farmers rioted in demand for the right to form cooperative societies to promote their interest of collective bargaining for better crop prices.
At the time, the colonial state had restricted Africans to planting “cash crops” like coffee and cotton and forced them to sell only to Indian traders or the colonial state at a fixed price. Often, this was only about 15% of the international market price of their crop. The African farmer wanted that changed. They rioted and the colonial state conceded – confirming the old adage that power concedes nothing without demand.
Thus by 1951, Uganda had 401 cooperative societies under five unions with a total membership of 36,620 people. By 1961, these societies had reached 1,622 under 21 unions commanding 252,378 members. Given a population of 7 million people and assuming that an average farming family had seven people, this membership encompassed 25% of Ugandans then. Today, that would be equivalent to 1.4 million cooperative members and encompass about 10 million Ugandans.
Yet during the 50s, membership based organisations were not limited to farmers’ cooperatives. There were workers’ unions, traders associations, professional associations etc. They organised successful strikes and boycotts. They demonstrated real people power. These struggles, rooted in people’s livelihoods, became the springboard for the demands for independence, even giving birth to our political parties. Indeed, the first political party, the Uganda National Congress, was founded by Ignatius Musaazi, who had been leader of the Uganda Farmers’ Association. Hence the struggle for independence was rooted in actual challenges of our people’s livelihoods.