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Strengthening National-Local Cooperation in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism in Uganda

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— 9 minutes reading time

On 25 October 2022, the Strong Cities Network convened 20 local and national officials and civil society stakeholders from Uganda for a dialogue on strengthening national-local cooperation (NLC) in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and ensuring that mayors and the cities they lead are empowered to play an active role in countering hate, extremism and polarisation in Uganda.

Participants included the Mayors of Entebbe, Masaka, Nebbi, Nanara, Kisoro, and the Deputy Lord Mayor of Kampala; senior national government officials from the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), the National Technical Committee on P/CVE (NTC), Counter-Terrorism Police, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and National Guidance; and Ugandan civil society representatives, including those who sit on the National Committee.

The dialogue was part of an ongoing Strong Cities-led project, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), to support the implementation of the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s good practices on strengthening P/CVE-related NLC. The Strong Cities Management Unit is currently developing a toolkit, in partnership with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) to assist cities in adopting these good practices, which will be launched in September 2023.

The opening session featured remarks by Eric Rosand, Strong Cities Executive Director, and Stephen Chwinyaa, Director of Counter-Terrorism within Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation, during which Mr. Chwinyaa emphasised the central government’s commitment to working more closely with local governments to enable the cascading of Uganda’s national P/CVE framework to the ground.

A dynamic discussion about the strengths and limitations of NLC and P/CVE efforts in Uganda followed. This included a presentation by Dr. Ashad Sentongo, Director of Programmes at Uganda’s Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on the key findings and recommendations from his SCN-commissioned report mapping NLC implementation, progress, gaps, needs and priorities. Anthony Michael Nakhaima, Coordinator at Uganda’s NTC, then gave an overview of Uganda’s national P/CVE strategy, which has yet to be officially rolled-out, to further frame the discussion.

Participants shared their different perspectives on the nature of the violent extremist and related threats in Uganda, the most effective approaches for addressing them, and barriers to stronger NLC.

Key barriers discussed during the meeting:

1. The politicisation and securitisation of P/CVE. Some felt that P/CVE efforts placed sole emphasis on Islamist extremism, and that this was being politicised in order to target Muslim communities and political opponents. Furthermore, many agreed that its securitisation and conflation with counter-terrorism often restricted P/CVE efforts to national government agencies and hindered cooperation between local and national entities.

2. The absence of a clear mandate or role for local governments in P/CVE. Stemming from the securitisation of this issue, there is a common perception among local government leaders that P/CVE is a security agenda whose responsibility falls under the exclusive purview of the security forces and other national government actors. Moreover, workshop participants highlighted how the P/CVE sphere is convoluted, with multiple overlapping or competing mandates among a multitude of actors at all levels, making cooperation difficult.

3. The lack of awareness of the national P/CVE framework and capacity at the local level. While a national P/CVE strategy exists, it has not been made public, and most actors at the local level were unaware of its existence. Moreover, it has not been localised and therefore there is a dearth of local-level infrastructure, capacities, skills and resources being leveraged for P/CVE objectives.

4. Lack of trust. This was frequently mentioned, and for some the most significant barrier to NLC discussed in the course of the day’s proceedings. While CSOs enjoy a comparably high level of trust among citizens, national government and security forces do not. There was a sense that national government are suspicious of CSOs, who are extremely active in the P/CVE sphere and are funded almost exclusively by foreign donors, as they feel they are encroaching on its mandate and do not fully understand their intentions. Any meetings between local and national government actors around the P/CVE agenda have typically been facilitated by external actors.

5. Lack of information sharing between national and local actors. There is no platform dedicated to the sharing of P/CVE-related information. While platforms for information sharing exist outside of the P/CVE space, they are not coordinated, resulting in confusion, a lack of direction and low levels of trust between actors. Participants identified ways to use existing platforms more effectively and opportunities to fill gaps with new communication mechanisms. In both cases, they emphasised the importance of meeting and reporting regularly to ensure sustainability and transparency.

6. Lack of adequate knowledge and capacity at both the national and local levels to understand, plan, implement and monitor and evaluate P/CVE programmes. Participants shared that local actors, including CSOs, cultural and religious leaders and the wider population, were not being fully incorporated into P/CVE efforts, and in many cases lacked the awareness and capacity to meaningfully contribute. There appears to be a knowledge gap that is impeding the ability of both national and local actors to formulate effective P/CVE responses or coordinate cooperative approaches.

7. Enduring identity-based grievances and conflict. Uganda is home to a multi-religious and multi-ethnic population, where identities influence the formation and leadership of political organisations and processes, access to national and local resources, as well as cooperation between national and local actors on agendas involving communities and the state in Uganda. The mayors in attendance from the political opposition opposed the identity-based political situation in Uganda, stating that their relationships with the national government are too often defined by their political affiliation rather than their needs. There was consensus among participants that trust-building requires first setting aside political differences and focusing on people.

8. Political intolerance. Some participants felt that free speech, including the ability to talk openly and discuss with and critique the national government, was not permissible in Uganda. Attempts to do so in the past were often repressed by force, with those involved often being dispersed, intimidated or arrested.

9. Insufficient economic opportunities. A major driver of violent extremism in Uganda remains the lack of jobs, particularly among young people. Unemployment and underemployment, along with the idleness that results, create vulnerabilities to extremist recruitment narratives.

Steps for Strengthening P/CVE-related National-Local Cooperation in Uganda

1. Mapping city/community-level threats, needs and capacities. To implement programmes and interventions effectively, participants highlighted the need to conduct research and map threats and needs on a community level. This involves for example, conducting surveys, using technology to analyse emerging trends both offline and online, and sharing information among actors. It was suggested that, if national government lacked capacity or expertise to do this, that private sector industries and academia be brought in as implementing partners.

2. Raising awareness among national and local government actors about the role of the city in P/CVE. Participants championed a whole-of-society approach to P/CVE in Uganda and advocated for sensitising not only government stakeholders and CSOs, but also community leaders and the wider population about extremism and its impacts and the need for locally-owned P/CVE efforts. Participants underscored the importance of prioritising religious and cultural institutions which hold unparalleled access to communities in Uganda. This includes those who are vulnerable to extremism, including youth and marginalised groups.

3. Maintaining an inclusive platform (that includes CSOs and local government officials form all parties) to facilitate coordination and collaboration between and among national and local actors in P/CVE.Participants saw this as a way to overcome many of the barriers to NLC. Such a platform should service a wide variety of actors, including national and local government and CSOs, by facilitating information-sharing, providing forums for coordination and collaboration, convening dialogue sessions and ways to establish common ground and networking, all while ensuring that relevant information is funnelled vertically to the central government to serve as a critical link between the national and local. The presence of national stakeholders and a neutral third party could also provide the necessary transparency and accountability for constructive communication and collaborative efforts.

4. Identifying clear roles and responsibilities in P/CVE for different national security actors, as well as local governments and civil society. Participants expressed the need to adopt a whole-of-society approach to P/CVE, but the current multiplicity of actors and overlapping remits at the national level served as an impediment to NLC rather than empowering it. By outlining clearer mandates for relevant national actors and providing local governments with a clear remit, it would be easier to both coordinate P/CVE efforts and institutionalise the national P/CVE strategy.

5. Information sharing between national and local actors that balances national security and community interests.It was noted that security actors were often reluctant to share information due to fears of information that they deemed as “sensitive” or “classified” would be leaked. However, many participants expressed the view that it was difficult for local actors to conduct meaningful and long-lasting P/CVE initiatives without access to more information related to the threats within their communities. A framework or protocol should be put in place to facilitate increased information sharing (with the necessary privacy and other protections put in place) with local actors to ensure their P/CVE engagements are appropriately targeted.

6. Taking advantage of the existing local structures, including local governments, to help roll out the national P/CVE framework.Uganda has an elaborate decentralisation structure with authorities at the village, district, city and regional levels, all of whom can help facilitate and strengthen NLC and implement the national P/CVE framework. The importance of reaching those who are most vulnerable to extremist recruitment, which often include youth and the marginalised, such as those of the Sufi faith, was highlighted. It was therefore critical to partner with cultural and religious institutions, which enjoy both high levels of trust and influence across the country, as pathways to help implement the framework.

7. Encouraging a sustained dialogue facilitated by a neutral third party that can help depoliticise the discussions around what is a very sensitive topic in Uganda and thus build trust. The importance of dialogue as a trust-building tool was commonly espoused among participants. The iterative process towards building trust can only begin with dialogue, and having a regular forum facilitated by a neutral third party could be a critical step towards establishing this. Participants noted that they were able to have conversations while convened by SCN that felt impossible at home and were interested to pursue more opportunities like this one.

Ugandan national officials appreciated the importance of tapping into the knowledge and other comparative advantages that mayors and local authorities have in terms of prevention, which, if leveraged, could enable the localisation of the national P/CVE framework. They and the local government leaders expressed interest in having SCN continue to facilitate a NLC dialogue in Uganda, with a view to allowing for the framework to be translated into local action.

Ultimately, participants agreed that local governments in Uganda could be a custodian of local P/CVE activities, but such governments not currently see a role for themselves in what is still perceived exclusively as a national security issue. For meaningful NLC to be possible, local governments will need a clear mandate from national government to work on prevention and an opportunity to develop and address missing capacities and processes to help them understand the different ways they can contribute to P/CVE. The P/CVE-related NLC challenges are not confined to Uganda, but affect countries around the globe. With cities becoming increasingly relevant in whole-of-society P/CVE efforts, these NLC challenges are surfacing more often and the way forward can be unclear. The upcoming Strong Cities-GCTF Toolkit, launching in September 2023, will help address this gap, and will contain ‘how to’ guides, training curricula, case studies, and implementation checklists for different stakeholders.