On September 14, 2022, the High Court in Kampala ruled that the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) has no power to order the freezing of bank accounts of organizations suspected to be involved in terrorism financing.
This ruling followed a case filed at the High Court (Uganda Women’s Network and The Uganda National NGO Forum v Financial Intelligence Authority and Attorney General) challenging the actions of the FIA of freezing the bank accounts of the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) and the Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGOF).
This ruling resurrected a long-standing debate on the manner in which anti-terrorism laws within authoritarianism regimes like Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda among others have tended to be weaponized to curtail civil and political rights. The acts of FIA back in November 2020 on the two civil society organizations ahead of the 2021 elections were construed to be intentional in frustrating civic organizing.
The arbitrary actions of FIA to move swiftly and freeze the accounts of the two leading organizations of an election outfit, New Election Watch Uganda (NEW-U) on mere suspicions demonstrated a regime whose intentions were to demobilize civil society playing an active role in observing the 2021 general elections. A move that was successful in that regard.
Two years down the road, the court settles the matter with water under the bridge but with questions on the implications of this ruling to the fight against terrorist financing and anti-money laundering in Uganda.
Anti-money Laundering and Counter Terror Financing experts like Council Magelah Peter Gwayaka contend that the court ruling withstanding, Uganda needs the Terror financing legislations given that it’s a haven for money laundering and on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering. The relevance of the laws and the Financial Intelligence Authority in executing its mandate can’t be underscored. Only that the efforts of FIA should be channeled in the right direction as opposed to becoming a weapon of the regime to frustrate democratic processes.
Campaign Finance Expert, Counsel Robert Okot observes that there is need to revisit the Anti Money Laundering Act 2013, which puts civil society and charity organizations as accountable persons at the same level of standards as profit making organizations, which is wrong. In other jurisdictions, countries have tried to exclude civil society organizations or nonprofit organizations from either being accountable persons or being subject to the same standards as profit-making organizations. It’s only Uganda and Eswatini where it’s not the case and this is mainly for political reasons.
Its thus through such landmark rulings and strong independent courts of law that the abuse of well-intentioned laws like the Anti Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing by authoritarian regimes can be prevented or counteracted.
Ugandans and in particular civil society organizations working on governance and human rights should expect more backlash from government institutions hiding behind legal frameworks like the Anti Money Laundering as we head into 2026.