Uganda: Police State Antics, Three Is A Crowd

Update: In August 2013, Uganda passed The Public Order Management bill, despite fierce criticism from religious leaders, opposition MPs, the public and rights groups.

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

One of the most problematic provisions of the bill is that police approval is required if three or more people want to gather publicly to discuss political issues.

In addition, police must receive written notice of public meetings seven days in advance and such meetings may only take place between 6:00am and 6:00pm. The police are also entitled to turn down requests for meetings on grounds that the venue is already being used, is unsuitable or "any other reasonable cause".

The police may also use firearms against those resisting arrest.


Civil society plays an active role in Uganda. For example, civil society is spearheading the reform of electoral laws ahead of the 2011 general elections through a coalition called Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU). Moreover, many civil society organizations in Uganda are dedicated to the protection of rights (e.g., African Centre for Torture Victims), which are rooted in international instruments or the Bill of Rights in Uganda’s Constitution.

The legal framework for civil society, however, in Uganda is supportive only to the extent that the sphere of civil society activity is politically convenient to the Government. Civil society organizational forms include non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). The primary regulatory instruments are the Non Governmental Organizations (Amendment) Act 2006 and the NGO Registration Regulations, SI 113-1, 1990. Notably, the definition of NGOs under Article 1 of the NGO Act is narrow and limits available activity areas for NGOs. NGOs engaged in advocacy or public policy activities, for example, are therefore vulnerable to governmental supervisory action. Moreover, the operating scope for NGOs remains subject to governmental discretion.

Uganda’s legal system is based on English common law and African customary law. Customary law governs to the extent it does not contradict the statutory laws, although the 1995 Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

At a Glance

Organizational Forms Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trusts, and community based organizations (CBOs)
Registration Body NGOs - NGO Board; CBOs - Local government.
Barriers to Entry Registration is mandatory, with penalties for conducting activities through unregistered organizations. NGOs are subject to burdensome registration procedures, including recommendations from governmental representatives. NGOs are subject to annual re-registration. Procedural safeguards during registration are lacking.
Barriers to Activities NGOs must notify the government prior to making direct contact with people in its area of operation. NGOs must cooperate with local councils and relevant district committees. NGOs are subject to detailed requirements relating to staffing. Involuntary dissolution may be based on vague, subjective grounds.
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy While there are no legal barriers per se, CSOs promoting human rights may be subject to governmental intimidation.
Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers
Barriers to Resources All foreign funding must be received in the Bank of Uganda (government bank).

Barriers to Assembly Police approval required for public meetings of 3 of more people to discuss political issues..

Key Indicators

Population 32, 369, 558
Capital Kampala
Type of Government Republic
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 51.66 years Female: 53.81 years
Literacy Rate Male: 76.8% Female: 57.7%(2002 census)
Religious Groups Roman Catholic: 41.9%; Protestant: 42%; Muslim: 12.1%; other: 3.1%; none: 0.9% (2002 census)
Ethnic Groups Baganda 16.9%; Banyakole 9.5%; Basoga 8.4%; Bakiga 6.9%; Iteso 6.4%; Langi 6.1%; Acholi 4.7%; Bagisu 4.6%; Lugbara 4.2%; Bunyoro 2.7%; other 29.6% (2002 census)
GDP per capita $1,300 (2009 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009.

International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 157 1 – 182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 36.8 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 33.2 100 – 0
Transparency International 130 1 – 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Partly Free Free/Partly Free/Not Free
Political Rights: 5 1 – 7
Civil Liberties:4 1 – 7
Foreign Policy:Failed States Index Rank: 21 177 – 1
Human Rights: 7.7 0-10

Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1995
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-) Yes 1995
International Covenant on Economic, Social, & Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
Yes 1987
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No --
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1980
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
Yes 1985
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
No --
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
Yes 1990
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) Yes 1995
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
Yes 2008
Regional Treaties
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights Yes 1986
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child Yes 1994
Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Yes 2001
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa No --
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights Yes 2001

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

Constitutional Framework

Article 38. Civic rights and activities.

  1. Every Ugandan citizen has the right to participate in the affairs of government, individually or through his or her representatives in accordance with law.
  2. Every Ugandan has a right to participate in peaceful activities to influence policies of government through civic organizations.

Article 43. General limitation on fundamental and other human rights and freedoms.

  1. In the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms prescribed in this Chapter, no person shall prejudice the fundamental or other human rights and freedoms of others or the public interest.
  2. Public interest under this article shall not permit -
  1. political persecution;
  2. detention without trial;
  3. any limitation of the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms prescribed by this Chapter beyond what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society, or what is provided in the Constitution

Article 50. Enforcement of rights and freedoms by courts.

  1. Any person who claims that a fundamental or other right or freedom guaranteed under this Constitution has been infringed or threatened, is entitled to apply to a competent court for redress which may include compensation.
  2. Any person or organisation may bring an action against the violation of another person’s or group’s human rights.
  3. Any person aggrieved by any decision of the court may appeal to the appropriate court.
  4. Parliament shall make laws for the enforcement of the rights and freedoms under this Chapter.

Article 51. Uganda Human Rights Commission.

  1. There shall be a Commission called the Uganda Human Rights Commission.
  2. The Commission shall be composed of a Chairperson and not less than three other persons appointed by the President with the approval of Parliament.
  3. The Chairperson of the Commission shall be a Judge of the High Court or a person qualified to hold that office.
  4. The Chairperson and members of the commission shall be persons of high moral character and proven integrity and shall serve for a period of six years and be eligible for re-appointment.

Ugandan law also contains “directive principles”, which are non-binding provisions relevant to constitutional interpretation:

*Directive principle II (vi) provides that Civic Organizations shall retain their autonomy in pursuit of their declared objectives.

*Directive principle V (i) provides that “the state shall guarantee and respect institutions which are charged by the state with responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights by providing them with adequate resources to function effectively.”

*Directive principle V (ii) states that “The state shall guarantee and respect the independence of nongovernmental organizations which protect and promote human rights.”

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national laws include the following:

Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995.
Constitutional Amendment Act, 2006.
Nongovernmental Organizations Registration Act, Chapter 113 (1989).
NGO Registration Amendment Act 2006.
NGO Registration Regulations, SI 113-1, 1990.
The Companies Act, Chapter 110 (1961).
The Trustees Incorporation Act, Chapter 165 (1939).
Income Tax Act, Chapter 340 (1997).
Value Added Tax Act, Chapter 349 (1997).
The Value Added Tax (Amendment) Act (2005).
East African Community Customs Management (EACC) Act (2004).
Public Order Management Bill (2013)

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Several legislative initiatives have been introduced in Uganda.

In March 2012, the Government of Uganda drafted a new bill: the Uganda Communications Regulatory Authority Bill, 2012. In seeking to harmonize media-related laws, the new bill would further tighten license procedures for radio and television and prohibit any broadcasting that infringes on the privacy of any individuals or that contains false information. The bill envisions a new regulatory body under the supervision of the Minister for Information and Communications Technology. If enacted in its current form, the bill could undermine the work of human rights CSOs, particularly those engaged in advocacy of civil and political rights.

On February 7, 2012, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009) was reintroduced to the Parliament of Uganda. Human rights groups claim that if enacted, the legislation would violate the human rights of all Ugandans. The Bill has been referred to the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee for scrutiny. It is understood that the Bill was re-tabled in its original form but that amendments recommended by the Committee last year will be incorporated. The Bill contains harsh provisions which would seriously restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly and would threaten the ability of some human rights organizations to continue operating. As evidence of this point, on February 14, the Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity, Hon. Rev. Fr. Lokodo Simon ordered the shutdown of a capacity-building workshop organized by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights defenders in Entebbe. At the same time, however, the Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity stated on February 8, that the Bill "does not enjoy the support of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet."

In addition, the proposed Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill, 2010 remains pending. The Press Bill contains proposed amendments to the Press and Journalist Act 2001, which is the law that governs media practice. The proposed Bill has been criticized as being overly punitive in nature. For example, the Bill reportedly contains wide-ranging and ill-defined powers enabling the authorities to revoke the license of a media organization if it publishes material deemed to be "prejudicial to national security, stability and unity," or which is "injurious to Ugandan relations with new neighbors or friendly countries;" causes "economic sabotage" or breaches any of the conditions imposed by the license."

The Institution of Traditional or Cultural Leaders Bill, 2010, which was tabled in Parliament early in 2011, reportedly threatens the inherent rights to speech, association, movement and right to participate in the governance of cultural or traditional leaders. The Bill has raised criticism among civil society, religious leaders and traditional institutions.

Following the adoption of the National NGO Policy in October 2010, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, through the national NGO Board, is reviewing the NGO Act. To that end, the NGO Board called for proposals relating to amendments to the NGO Act from NGO stakeholders and the general public. The amendments are intended to align the Act and Policy. Initial reform proposals were due on July 15, 2011. Among the proposals submitted by NGOs were the following:

  1. Removal of the stringent registration requirements, including yearly permits;
  2. NGOs should have representatives on the national NGO Board to allow for inclusion and dialogue;
  3. Relaxation of the rules relating to operation in rural areas and specifically removal of the 7-day notice requirement to the Resident District Commissioner (RDC); and
  4. Provision of appeal mechanisms in courts of law for aggrieved NGOs seeking to challenge registration and involuntary termination decisions.

In addition, there are unconfirmed reports that the government is drafting new laws that mandate Members of Parliament (MPs) belonging to the ruling party (National Resistance Movement) to support party official positions in Parliament. The measure comes after several party members challenged the government’s policies in recent debates.

Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

Ugandan law makes provision for the establishment of a variety of civil society organizations. The CSOs that can be formed include:

Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs)
NGOs are governed by the NGO Registration Act of 1989 which was amended by the NGO Registration Amendment Act 2006. The NGO Registration Act 1989 defines an “organization” as “a nongovernmental organization established to provide voluntary services, including religious, education, literary, scientific, social or charitable services, to the community or any part of it.” (NGO Registration Act, section 1(d)). Examples of NGOs include umbrella NGOs, intermediary organizations, specialist organizations, and local, national and international NGOs.

Trusts and Foundations
Trusts are governed by the Trustees Act, Cap. 164, 1954; and the Trustees Incorporation Act, Cap. 165, 1939. Foundations can be registered either under the Trustee’s Incorporation Act or as companies limited by guarantee under the Companies Act, Cap. 110, 1961. Trusts and foundations are established to provide grants and in some cases loan financing at a more affordable rate to NGOs, CBOs and private organizations in support of their goals and objectives.

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

Community Based Organizations (CBOs)
CBOs are predominantly self-help oriented, with the principle aim of improving individual or household welfare, although a few groups play a wider, community development role. They are defined by their relatively small size (usually involving 10-20 households) and limited geographic area, and are generally formed along communal work lines, e.g. forming groups to work collectively on members’ farms or to support funeral ceremony preparations. CBOs with larger, community development roles are supported and sometimes initiated by organizations outside the community. CBOs are registered through notification to area Local Councils (LC 1 and LC 3) for official recognition or with the District administration (section 7 (e) (2) of the NGO Registration Amendment Act).

Public Benefit Status

The NGO Registration Act defines as covered “organizations” those providing “…charitable services to the community or any part of it” (NGO Registration Act, section 1(d)). The Act, however, does not define the term “charitable services.” Nor does the Trustees Incorporation Act define “charitable purpose” as the term is used in the section on establishing a trust.

Notably, however, the Income Tax Act restricts "exempt organization" status to organizations, institutions or irrevocable trusts that qualify as religious, charitable, or educational institutions of a public character that have been issued a written ruling by the Commissioner currently stating that it is an exempt organization (Income Tax Act, Section 2(bb)).

Charitable organizations established under the Companies Act do not benefit from any tax exemptions.

Barriers to Entry

Mandatory registration
Ugandan law does not permit individuals to act collectively through unregistered groups or organizations (Section 2 (1) of the NGO Registration Act 1989, Section 4 of the NGO Registration Amendment Act 2006, Regulation 3 of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009). Regulation 18 of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009 requires CBOs to register with the district local government. Upon registration, the district local government shall issue a certificate of registration specifying the area of operation of the organization and the activities the organization is authorized to operate (Regulation 18 (3) of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009). There are penalties for carrying out activities through unregistered organizations (section 4 of the NGO Registration Act 1989, Section 4 (b) of the NGO Registration Amendment Act 2006, Regulation 8 (3) of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009).

Burdensome registration procedures
NGOs must submit a registration application to the NGO Board. Applications must be accompanied by specification of the area of intended operation, organizational chart, two copies of the organization’s constitution, valid reservation of its name by the Registrar of Companies, a work plan and budget for one year, recommendations by two sureties and the Chairperson of the Local Government Executive committee of the sub-county council and the Resident District Commissioner.

In the case of a foreign organization, a recommendation is required from the diplomatic mission in Uganda of the country from which the organization originates.
Re-registration requirement

The NGO Board shall issue a permit to the organization at the time of registration; the permit shall be issued in the 1st instance for a period of 12 months. NGOs must seek re-registration on an annual basis. NGOs are also required to pay the registration fee upon application for a renewal of a permit.

Lack of Procedural Safeguards
*There is no fixed time period within which the NGO Board must review and decide upon registration for NGO applicants.

*The law does not provide objective reasons on which an NGO application can be denied. Decisions are therefore subject to the discretion of the Board to accept or reject a registration application.

*Similarly, for CBOs, there is no fixed time period within which the district local government must review the application made by the CBO and decide upon registration. The district local government may deny registration of a CBO if it does not satisfy the requirements for registration. However, the law does not provide reasons for the denial of registration for CBOs.

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

Barriers to Operational Activity

Restrictions on purposes and activities
Ugandan law sets restrictions on the purposes and activities of CSOs. Regulation 13 of NGO Registration Regulation, 2009 provides that an organization must, in carrying out its operations, comply with the following:

  1. Not make any direct contact with the people in its area of operation in Uganda unless it has given seven days’ notice in writing of its intention to the local councils and Resident District Commissioners of the area;
  2. Cooperate with the local councils and the relevant district committees in the area; [article 26 (j) of the Local Government Act, Cap. 243, 1997];
  3. Not engage in any act which is prejudicial to the national interest of Uganda;
    Restrict its operations to the area of Uganda in respect of which it is registered to carry out its operations;
  4. Hold itself responsible for all acts of its members and employees; and
    Obtain the approval of the Board for any goods for which it seeks exemptions.

Staffing requirements
Regulation 14 of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009 provides that an organization shall comply with certain staffing regulations. Thus it is a requirement for every organization to submit to the NGO Board a chart showing its structure and staffing, particularly specifying: foreign workforce requirements; requirements of the Ugandan counterparts of foreign employees; planned period to replace foreign employees with qualified Ugandans and must comply with the labor laws of Uganda.

Termination and dissolution

Involuntary dissolution may result by order of the NGO Board in a variety of circumstances, including where, “in the opinion of the Board it is in public interest to do so” or “for any other reason the Board considers necessary in the public interest.” Such vague and overbroad grounds invite government overreaching. Recently, NGOs working in Northern Uganda were ordered to account for donor funds or risk being de-registered for failure to do so. They were given two months to report.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

CSOs in Uganda are not prohibited from criticizing the government and advocating for human rights and democracy. Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees every person the right to freedom of speech and expression; CSOs wishing to speak out and engage in advocacy rely on this constitutional protection. Even though there are no express legal restrictions on CSO engagement in advocacy activities, the Government often intimidates CSOs that seek to promote human rights and democracy.

CSOs in Uganda are allowed to participate in peaceful activities to influence the policies of government (Article 38 (2) of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda). And although there are no set rules governing the engagement of CSOs in legislative making, CSOs in practice do engage in legislative activities. For instance, once a bill is tabled in Parliament, various stakeholders, including CSOs, are invited to share their views through consultative meetings, workshops and other means.

However, CSOs under the law are not allowed to engage in political activities or belong to any political group. As such they cannot directly or indirectly support a political candidate for elected office. But since they are regarded as partners with government in promoting good governance and democracy in the country, they can actively participate in the election process through monitoring, observing and documenting flaws in elections, sensitizing people on the qualities of candidates and urging them to vote wisely, and proposing ways of improving the electoral process.

Most recently, the Ugandan Parliament enacted the Regulation of Interception of Communication Bill. The new law will allow the Government to intercept any postal, telephone, email and text message communications.

However, that interception is only possible with the consent of a Judge of the High Court and not the Minister in Charge of Security as Government had earlier proposed. It is unclear at this time how the new law will impact on civil society.

Barriers to International Contact

Under the law CSOs are allowed to contact and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business and government sectors, both within and outside the country (Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda). However, Regulation 13 (a) of the NGO Registration Regulations 2009 provides that an organization shall not make any direct contact with the people in any part of the rural area of Uganda unless it has given seven days’ notice in writing of its intention to the local council committee and the Resident District Commissioner of the area.

The law or government does not impose restrictions on participating in networks or accessing the Internet or World Wide Web.

There are no legal provisions requiring advance notice of international cooperation, or prohibiting conferences or restricting travel. Article 29 (2) of the Constitution guarantees every person the right to free movement in and outside Uganda.

Barriers to Resources

Foreign Funds
The law requires all organizations receiving monies in convertible currency to open and operate an external bank account with the Bank of Uganda (government-controlled bank) in which the currency is deposited and through which transactions are conducted (Regulation 15 (3) of the NGO Registration Regulation, 2009). The requirement is not perceived as a problem per se since it is not strictly enforced. In practice, many NGOs do not even have the said account, and government has not sought to strictly enforce it.

News and Additional Resources

UgandaWhile we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at

This article was first published at ICNL: NGO Law Monitor.