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Outcry over NGO law
Njabulo Ncube, The Financial Gazette (Zimbabwe)
July 29, 2004

President Robert Mugabe, wary of civic groupings the government suspects are working in cahoots with the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to wrest political power, is leaving nothing to chance to "bury" the opposition in next year’s parliamentary polls.

President Mugabe, whose recent electoral changes have been dismissed by critics as the beginning of the road to nowhere, has already declared next year’s parliamentary polls as a fight against his arch-enemy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his perceived "puppet", the MDC.

To this end, the veteran leader — whose claims to a popular mandate to rule Zimbabwe are bitterly disputed by the opposition — is already pushing forward stringent legislation to regulate the operations of non-governmental organisa-tions (NGOs).

The proposed legislation is envisaged to be passed into law when Parliament resumes sitting in August. The measures are seen by analysts as tactics to push out NGOs and civic organisations likely to drum up political support for the MDC, especially in the rural areas, the ruling party’s stronghold.

On one hand, most of the NGOs in Zimbabwe, just like in most Third World countries, are funded from the West. On the other, the MDC is accused of being a Western front being used to effect regime change in the country.

The government claims that Western countries, led by Blair, sponsor most of the NGOs indirectly through various shadowy intelligence organisations linked to their respective governments.

The West, on its part, makes no secret of its impatience with President Mugabe. It has just come short of demanding that he resigns as it believes that a new man at the helm could do better than the incumbent.

It is against this background that President Mugabe accuses non-governmental organisations of meddling in Zimbabwe’s domestic politics and now wants to outlaw funding of NGOs by foreign sponsors or donors, among other proposed stringent measures. This is widely seen as an attempt to thwart groups seen as sympathetic to the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC.

"Non-governmental organisations must work for the betterment of our country and not against it. We cannot allow them to be conduits or instruments of foreign interference in our national affairs," President Mugabe said during the official opening of the Fifth Session of the Fifth Parliament of Zimbabwe.

"My government will, during this session, introduce a Bill repealing the private Voluntary Organisation Act and replace it with a law that will create a Non-Governmental Organisation Council, whose thrust will be to ensure rationalisation of macro-management of all NGOs," said President Mugabe, much to the delight of ZANU PF supporters.

The proposed Bill, a draft of which has been seen by The Financial Gazette, has sent shivers down the spines of local NGOs, the international community and the opposition, who view the envisaged legislation as another assault on democratic forces in Zimbabwe.

Many rights groups say the proposed Bill, if enacted into law in its present state, would close a majority of NGOs operating in Zimbabwe in the same "crude and cruel" fashion the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) shut down three private newspaper within 12 months.

"The proposed NGO Council is an MIC (Media and Information Commission) in the making," said an NGO representative, speaking on condition that he is not named. "Just like AIPPA, the proposed Bill reeks," he added.

The draft Non-Governmental Organisations Bill, 2004, when it is passed into law by Parliament in which ZANU PF enjoys a majority, prohibits local NGOs from receiving outside money, carrying out activities relating to governance — a general term for human rights issues — and civic education.

Analysts said it would be extremely difficult for local NGOs to operate without foreign funding and the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO) has issued "Bill alerts" advising its membership on the draconian nature of the proposed law.

The draft of the Bill, which is now circulating among NGOs in Zimbabwe, states that foreign non-governmental organisations involved in human rights and civic education will not be registered.

The proposed Act will also provide for the creation of a Non-Governmental Organisations Council as well as the creation of a new position of a registrar of NGOs.

The draft states that all NGOs must be registered with the state council and no foreign organisation could operate "if its sole principle or objective involves or includes issues of governance".

It reads in part: "No local non-governmental organisation shall receive any foreign funding or donation to carry out activities involving or including issues of governance."

The proposed NGOs Council’s main function will be "to consider and determine every application for registration and every proposed cancellation or amendment of a certificate of registration."

The council, to be made up of five appointed NGO representatives and eight appointees from different government departments as well as from the President’s Office, will also formulate a code of conduct for NGOs.

Registered NGOs will be required to submit to the registrar a copy of audited accounts for a year. Inspectors, appointed by the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, will have the right to examine the books of any NGO.

The minister, wielding the power to de-register or dissolve any NGOs, will also rule on appeals brought by aggrieved NGOs.

Brussels-based Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog, has categorically slated the latest manoeuvres by President Mugabe to interfere in the operations of NGOs. It said the proposed legislation had been crafted specifically to silence President Mugabe’s critics among civic groupings.

"As with other legislation in the past two years, the government will use this new Bill to silence critical voices and further restrict the right to freedom of expression. It is a clear attempt by the government to suppress dissenting views as parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2005 draw closer."

Amnesty International called on President Mugabe to immediately repeal or amend all legislation which violated the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The organisation said President Mugabe should bring national legislation in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter and other international human rights standards.

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