This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

Arthur Larok
Arthur Larok is the country director of ActionAid Uganda.

Something is changing in Uganda’s civil society, as civic campaigning and protest is becoming more creative and original. In 2014, a youth-led protest movement called the Jobless Brotherhood (JB) captured public attention with some remarkable actions. The JB smuggled two live pigs into the parliament—the animals symbolizing politicians’ greed. The pigs were painted in yellow, the ruling party’s color. The protest aimed to shine a light on the government’s failure to address youth unemployment that some studies estimate is as high as 61 percent, and only 15 percent who complete university and tertiary education get employment.1 From that maiden action, the JB has grown and run several similarly eye-catching campaigns. Another pig protest involved ten pigs painted not just yellow but also in blue, the colors of the largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change—this reflected a general frustration with mainstream parties and the whole political system. In all this, the JB has attracted a huge amount of media coverage and forced the government to respond.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the academic Stella Nyanzi captured the public mood with her rather daring “pair of buttocks” campaign. She used suggestive language and references on social media to mobilize discontent with President Yoweri Museveni. She has now built on this with a campaign specifically about girls’ education: many girls in Uganda miss school during their periods because they do not have sanitary towels. Nyanzi has aimed her anger at Museveni’s wife and first lady, who is the minister of education. Like the leader of the JB, Nyanzi was arrested, and she was incarcerated for thirty-three days for offending the president. Her campaign for the girls raised significant amounts of money and elicited promises of support from the government. The “pair of buttocks” message that she created has become a widely used protest symbol (it has even been sighted at events in the United States protesting President Donald Trump).

These two stories are part of the creative activism sweeping through Uganda. This new face of civic activism is challenging the old-style, conformist, traditional forms of organizing. This change will likely have wide-ranging implications for civil society generally and the struggle for social justice. If the new forms of activism are nurtured, they could have a greater impact than any traditional civil society organization (CSO) has recorded in Uganda in recent times. But the so-called big ego and logo CSOs view the new activism as a distraction, if not a threat, and still need to strike a constructive partnership with it.

A Changing Context

The capacity of Ugandan civil society has gradually been reshaped by shifts in the country’s wider political context. For a long time, CSOs have been caught between the state and international donors. The former has often employed harsh measures to limit CSOs, while donors have exerted an outsized influence through their much-needed funds.

The immediate post-independence period was dominated by strong civic groups organized to pursue economic, ethnic, and political demands. Gradually, student movements and religious groups emerged to oppose the military dictatorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, European humanitarian NGOs were the dominant civic actors in Uganda, due to the near collapse of state authority after the difficult transition period following contested elections in 1980 and the rise of several armed rebellions. The 2000s saw an upsurge in advocacy and human rights organizations that entered Uganda in part as a condition for the receipt of donor aid.

It was this evolution that opened the way for the big ego and logo CSOs that have dominated the civil society space for the last twenty or so years—either as charities and development organizations working in a postconflict society or as advocacy organizations for rights issues. Donors have strongly favored these CSOs, and indeed the latter are almost the result of donor conditions asking governments to open space for civil society development.2

The international charity organizations have had limited impact on development, while advocacy CSOs have not succeeded in kick-starting political change. Meanwhile, the government has tolerated these organizations and perfected the art of shadowboxing with them. The government appears to embrace their proposals—be they about creating gender-sensitive budgets, passing progressive legislation on violence against women, improving youth employment, or fighting corruption—while in reality it is acting at odds with their principles. Government authorities, NGOs, and donors all seem to have been happy to play this game of low-level impact and legitimacy.

But the private sector and businesses are beginning to displace development NGOs as the authorities’ preferred partners for reducing poverty and creating wealth. As these civic organizations have become so ineffective, Ugandans now joke that NGO means “nothing going on.”

And from this situation, new protest movements, popular struggles, and creative campaigns have taken shape. One of the best known is the Black Monday Campaign against corruption—this campaign has workers dressing in black every Monday to protest against regime nepotism. It is not owned by any formal organization in particular. Activists like Stella Nyanzi create their own spaces through their practical actions. In another high-profile example, ordinary women carried out a nude protest in 2014 and forced the government to step back from a planned eviction of their land in the village of Apaa in northern Uganda.

Breaking Away

The new movements and popular struggles differ from conventional CSOs, whose missions and programs tend to creep toward donor priorities. They also set themselves apart from co-opted traditional groups like trade unions, cooperatives, and student or women’s movements, whose very existence tend to depend on favors from the state or different forms of patronage.

The emerging activism is driven more by dedication to specific causes, and not necessarily aligned with what the government desires or donors prioritize. It is an expression of authentic grievances and injustices rooted within Ugandan society. It is not driven by organizational structures’ financial incentives or survival motives. It operates in the domain of created rather than donated space.

As traditional civil society space is shrinking due to repressive legislation and the government is delegitimizing CSOs as agents of foreign powers and cultures, emerging movements and activists are creating their own, less constrained spaces. While traditional NGOs yearn to be invited to the next budget conference or hearing in parliament, or pay huge amounts of money to be on prime TV and radio, emerging activists forge their own path. They are aided by liberating technology that allows more authentic and unconstrained expression. They are perfecting their own media—and paradoxically, as they do so, it is the mainstream media who now seek them out, rather than vice versa.  

Emerging movements and activism are much less dependent on high-cost events and are driven more by their leaders’ imagination. So, while traditional civic groups are locked into a vicious, unproductive, and consumptive culture of per diems, transport refunds, and endless reports, emerging movements are masters of their own time with less bureaucracy and fewer time-wasting ventures. Rather than perfecting internal systems and the like, they expressly prioritize improvisation—an ethos of building the boat as it sails.

Take the Jobless Brotherhood as an example: in a traditional CSO, this idea would have been dragged down by accounting rules and administrative requirements relating to purchasing the pigs. But, embodying a newer form of activism, the group just focused on the immediate action and not the process involved. In another example, the Crusaders for Peaceful Transition in Uganda—campaigning for a peaceful transfer of power from Museveni—have gained considerable momentum because they have not waited for donor money.

Emerging movements and new forms of civic activism are agile and adaptive. Traditional CSOs have become more like bureaucratic governments or UN agencies, conditioned by donors and constantly waiting for permission to switch funds from one budget line to another. Decisionmaking in new movements is generally faster, more imaginative, and creative. These movements care about doing what is right in the moment, not about doing things in what is ostensibly the right way.

This often succeeds. Instead of CSO actions being determined by donor money, in many ways, money now follows action. This happened, for example, with Stella Nyanzi’s campaign. Without taking risks and being bold and getting arrested, Nyanzi would never have earned all the support that eventually flowed to her campaign.

Finally, an important characteristic of Uganda’s emerging civic activism is that it is led by young people—or it is focused on their interests. Young people are more drawn to creative and higher-risk activities, and they are the ones that government and donors have failed. Young people are the biggest losers of the status quo and are therefore more adventurous in their activism to change it.

Implications

Traditional forms of civic organization in Uganda need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. They still have an important place in civic activism, but they must re-imagine their role and learn new, adaptive, and creative ways of working. They must unlearn the obsession with log frames and other buzz concepts instilled in them by donors. Instead, they must spell out more clearly how they believe change can happen—through better theories of change and critical pathways to reform. And they must relearn the ethos and value of solidarity and collective action rather than getting caught up in the cutthroat competition among NGOs that celebrate brands and logos rather than substantive change. Traditional CSOs need to move away from big egos and logos to work more closely together.

Conventional civil society organizations must map out exactly how they can add value within the new civic sphere. They can and should play a role supporting new movements without seeking to become movements themselves. This support role was demonstrated by the response CSOs gave when Nyanzi was arrested—they showed solidarity, visited her in prison, and provided pro bono legal support. Or in the case of the Jobless Brotherhood, they helped with security and personnel training, connected the JB to other movements, provided healthcare to torture victims, and offered legal support for the endless court battles in a country where there is rule by, rather than of, law. Or in the case of Apaa, NGOs are helping to connect the villagers’ struggle to a wider campaign against land grabs. To play this kind of role, conventional civil society must bring in a new breed of leadership that sees complementarity in the work of emerging movements and activists rather than seeing those groups as threats to NGOs’ space.

Mainstream and conventional civil society and their supporters need to become more political. Achieving social justice in a profound and lasting manner is fundamentally a political project. NGOs’ “non-everything” approach—for example, being nonpartisan and nonpolitical—has failed to grasp this. Social, economic, and political justice will be achieved when power shifts from the privileged few to the oppressed majority who directly bear the brunt of injustice. This power shift will not be delivered in meetings held at the Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala but in freer, more creative, more inclusive spaces and theaters of nonviolent action.

Conventional CSOs must spend less time hand-wringing and more time acting. Currently, they agonize endlessly about shrinking civic and political space, issue press statements about police brutality, make loud calls to the deaf about the need to respect law and order, and focus on the regime’s likely constitutional amendment to remove the age limit for the president without organizing to resist it. While their preferred technocratic approach is important, CSOs have gotten away from the popular struggles that the new activism is now addressing. They must get the balance right.

Conclusions

It is important not to overstate the influence of Uganda’s emerging civic movements and new expressions of civic activism. However, something is clearly changing, and the new civic activism is undoubtedly adding important elements to conventional civil society.

The new movements and activism are caught between the unholy trinity of a repressive state, risk-averse donors, and a frightened, traditional civil society. The risk is that they will be crowded out or co-opted. The lure of donor money may tempt them into the log frame mind-set, they may be co-opted through state patronage, or they may be delegitimized by conventional civil society as being part of “uncivil” society. The new activism could be pushed underground, making it less transparent and more radical, even violent.

For their part, new movements and civic activism show signs of being too dismissive of conventional CSOs. They can demonstrate an overconfidence of what has been called the arrival mentality—when someone is prematurely satisfied with early successes—making them very intolerant of others and undermining the plurality of voices and methods among civil society actors. New forms of activism and emerging movements could in this way undermine the development of a more inclusive, plural, and connected civil society. In fact, emerging movements and new forms of activism could still end up fading away like yet another fad, leaving greater disillusionment and an emboldened repressive regime.

Despite the need for caution, emerging movements and new forms of activism undoubtedly represent an important wave that should be better understood and supported. What Uganda needs is a refined form of bothestablished CSOs and new movements. This will require creative imagination at the frontier of new civic activism in Uganda.

Arthur Larok is the country director of ActionAid Uganda. He is a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

Notes

1 See ActionAid Uganda, “Strengthening Struggles for Social Justice,” forthcoming, 2017.

2 See Arthur Larok, “Re-invigorating Civil Society in Uganda: An Agenda for the Future,” ActionAid Uganda, forthcoming, 2017.