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Zimbabwe's NGOs Fight government attempt to control and ban them

September 17th, 2021
topic: Political violence
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Zimbabwe, Egypt, Tunisia, Malawi, Angola, Nigeria
tags: Africa, democracy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, freedom of speech, NGO

An attempt by the Zimbabwean government to control the activities of NGOs and CSOs is seen as groundwork by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s party ahead of the 2023 election.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Civic Society Organisations (CSOs) in Zimbabwe have joined forces to fight off an attempt by the government to control and micro-manage their operations, moves which they see as unlawful interference.

This follows demands made in June by some provincial development coordinators for all NGOs, CSOs, private voluntary organisations (PVOs), churches and all other relief groups in the country to submit their work schedules for approval and monitoring. Thousands of these organisations had found the demand strange, and, therefore, only a handful of them complied.

With the government cash-strapped, non governmental organisations, CSOs and PVOs are key to the provision of humanitarian relief such as food aid, health and education. There are more than 1,000 NGOs working in Zimbabwe across a range of areas. In addition to those in the field of humanitarian aid, there are also service organisations and those working in political governance. 

In June, Harare provincial development co-ordinator, Tafadzwa Muguti, issued an order requiring the directors of all NGOs, CSOs and PVOs to start reporting to him, an order that was quickly replicated by his counterparts in other provinces of the country.

However, only less than 40 of these organisations complied with the directive to submit their work plans and programmes to Muguti’s office by the 30 July deadline, as most of them questioned Muguti’s own authority and the law under which he and the other provincial development coordinators sought to control them.

This resulted in an order declaring hundreds of the defiant NGOs, CSOs and PVOs banned.

Court Challenge Made

Muguti's actions prompted NGOs and CSOs to challenge the purported ban in court on the basis that both the order and the subsequent action were illegal. 

Coagulating under the banners of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Zimbabwe Human Rights (ZimRights) and various youth organisations, the defiant organisations said they could not comply with the unlawful order.

In an urgent court application filed by Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the organisations said that the directives were unconstitutional and, therefore, should be nullified.

“Muguti does not state in his statement the law under which he makes the declaration that NGOs will be stopped from operating,” the NGOs submitted.

“By purporting to have regulatory authority or power over applicants and other NGOs, Muguti has acted without jurisdiction. As a result, his Press statement and directives are a nullity and of no force and effect and liable to be set aside.”

The NGOs alleged that the directives violated the law in an attempt to “invade the privacy of organisations that do not fall under his purview.”

“The Press statement is in clear breach of the Provincial Councils and Administration Act and the Private Voluntary Organisations Act," they argued, adding that the orders also violated sections 57, 68 and 69 of the Constitution.

“Muguti’s statement caused uncertainty in their operations in general and that the matter requires urgent intervention of the court to stop the arbitrary exercise of administrative powers by an appointed official,” the NGOs stated.

Lawless Demands by ZANU-PF

“We agreed not to comply with the directive from these PDCs (provincial development coordinators) for two reasons,” a director of one of the defiant NGOs told FairPlanet in an interview. “Firstly, doing so would be validating these political appointees whose posts are not provided for in the Constitution. Secondly, these directives violate the Constitution […] we can’t be promoting two illegalities,” said the director, who could not be named because their case is now being handled by the courts.

Alex Magaisa, a constitutional lawyer who teaches at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, agreed that there was no obligation for the NGOs to comply with unlawful orders by officials who hold positions that are not provided for in the country’s law. 

“A decent bureaucrat would have said 'acting under X Act, I require the following information which is required in terms of the law',” said Magaisa, who helped draft the country’s new Constitution that came into effect in 2013. “But Muguti cannot do that because his role is a fiction created by the regime. He’s just a ZANU-PF impostor masquerading as a serious public officer. His demand in this poorly written letter cannot survive judicial review.”

Accusations meet Counter-Accusations

This is only the latest attempt by the government of Zimbabwe to strangle NGOs. It has always accused some these mostly foreign funded NGOs and CSOs of pushing a hidden political agenda, while most of these NGOs that provide relief aid to impoverished citizens accuse government officials of politicising food and other relief programmes for benefit of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

The latest tussle could be setting an acrimonious mood ahead of the 2023 elections, which President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s party has already started to campaign for.

ZANU-PF political commissar Patrick Chinamasa in July accused CSOs of being sponsored by hostile Western powers that wish to cause regime change in the country.

While some lower-level government and ruling party officials are in a hurry to control and or ban these NGOs, President Mnangagwa appear to be aware that for this to happen, fresh laws have to be crafted for that purpose.

During a state of the nation address last year, Mnangagwa said that the government would craft laws to regulate NGOs that, according to him, strayed from their core mission. The last such attempt was made in 2004 but it failed to pass into law. It is the provisions of the draft law that the government officials are trying to implement.

A Growing African Trend

A 2019 Freedom House report listed Zimbabwe as one of about a dozen African countries that had adopted legislation or policies that constrained the operations of NGOs.

Of these countries Egypt, Tunisia, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania had anti-NGO measures pending, while six of them - Kenya, Malawi, Angola, Nigeria, Congo-Brazzaville and Zimbabwe - had introduced such measures only to have them abandoned by the executive, rejected by the legislature or invalidated by the courts. 

In early August, Uganda announced the suspension of more than 50 NGOsthat the government of President Yoweri Museveni accused of straying from their mandates.

Image by: Nathaniel Tetteh

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe Egypt Tunisia Malawi Angola Nigeria
President Mnangagwa said that the government would craft laws to regulate NGOs that, according to him, strayed from their core mission.
© Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Uganda announced the suspension of more than 50 NGOs that the government of President Yoweri Museveni accused of straying from their mandates.
© Luke Dray via Getty Images
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