“You can crush the flowers, but you cannot stop the Spring.”
– Pablo Neruda
You know you are making progress when the backlash comes at you. On Wednesday night it came in the form of a police raid of our office in Kampala, Uganda.
When I got word that the staff were being detained, that all communications wires were cut off and that the police were searching our offices in Uganda, I felt a mix of emotions. I felt fear for my colleagues, their faces and names running through my mind. It was 4:30 in the afternoon – they are mothers that have kids who need tending to at home, they are fathers with families depending on them, they are children of elderly parents who need their assistance. They have lives that were being disrupted by this act of intimidation.
I confess I also felt some pride. If ActionAid and our close partners the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) were being raided, we must be making progress. Our work with social movements and many other civil society organizations – to defend women’s rights, land rights and democracy, fight corruption and hold the government to account – must be working.
We expect this to be just the first of a much broader attempt to shrink the space for civic engagement in Uganda. ActionAid and GLISS might have been the first, but we are not likely to be the last, unless a wave of active solidarity rises up from across the world – shining a spotlight on Uganda and all countries to demand that the right to be civically engaged is respected.
There are two important debates in Ugandan parliament. The first, waging on as I write, is about amending the Constitution to extend or remove any age limit for the Presidency. If the limit stands, President Museveni, who has been in power for 32 years, would not eligible to run for re-election in 2021 at age 76.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump hosted a lunch with African leaders, including from Uganda, and said that he has “so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They are spending a lot of money.”
Foreign direct investment in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa has come with a price, often paid by the most excluded people living in poverty in the country. Over the past decade we have seen a rise in land deals, with the backdrop of the second important debate looming in the Ugandan Parliament: an amendment to allow the government to take land for public or private investment without needing the agreement of the land user on the proposed compensation.
It is clear that the US Administration will likely not be allies to civil society actors that desire to ensure that people’s food and land rights are respected and that people can give free, prior and informed consent to any deals that would impact their land and livelihoods.
However, we have also seen throughout history that when people stand together, bolstered by those in solidarity across the world, power yields to the demand for justice. Now is the time for us to weave stronger and stronger bonds of solidarity so that we can defend the space of civil society to influence policies across the world.