Zim waves goodbye to the last freedom

By Steve Kibble

THE railroading through Parliament of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Bill means the government of Zimbabwe has now completed its strangling of three basic freedoms.
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Freedom of association has now joined freedom of information and freedom of assembly in the oxygen tent in line with government’s strategy of shutting down all independent voices and democratic spaces. By contrast, the government-sponsored youth militias operate with impunity.


Zanu PF’s strategy for survival and retention of its ill-gotten assets is a holistic strategy of repression with mutually reinforcing elements. Increased militarisation sees military and security sectors immune from the law and occupying increasingly prominent positions in the intelligence, provincial administrations and electoral authorities.


Secondly the regime has used its presidential powers to amend the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, allowing police to hold opponents of the regime supposedly to counter corruption.


Thirdly the judiciary is almost completely compliant, as shown in its confirming most of the contentious legislation. The neutralising of the judiciary has important knock-on effects in areas like press and media freedom and intimidation, information starvation, freedom of the opposition to assemble and be heard, politicisation of the police, further land “resettlement”, human rights violations, show trials of the opposition, politicisation of governmental-controlled food aid, public order and the like.

The NGO legislation bans foreign funding for political governance, human rights and anti-corruption work and effectively proscribes international NGOs from carrying out such work. It makes registration of NGOs subject to arbitrary authority under a government-controlled NGO council and provides severe penalties including shutting down NGOs and imprisoning staff for contravention of the Act.


Very wide-ranging definitions leave much to ministerial dictat and arbitrary decision-making from both formal and informal government structures. It is unclear how much the Act will affect the churches in Zimbabwe; government assurances that they will be fine if they stick to “religious matters” contrast with the police closing down meetings held in churches to discuss the Act. The Act went through despite its running contrary not just to the Zimbabwean constitution, but also to several regional and international rights conventions that Harare has signed up to, and despite its likely economic impact given the numbers employed in the NGO sector and its effect on foreign exchange and tourism (what is left of it).


The NGO law, the Electoral Amendment Act as well as legislation to provide payments to collaborators (non-combatant forces in the 1970s liberation war) are all in the context of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. These are set for March 2005 although the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is currently suspending participation until the conditions for a free and fair election are met.


The combined legislation will severely limit any check on the government, make illegal non-governmental funding for civic and voter education and ensure government control of the electoral process and support from a potential opposition force of “collaborators”.


It is widely believed that “a dirty dozen” of NGOs mostly operating within the human rights arena were the primary target although the Bill would affect all NGOs. This would include the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and Transparency International Zimbabwe.


Although the immediate target are indeed NGOs (foreign and national) the wider context is control of rural Zimbabweans to ensure not just obedience but the impossibility of thinking any other way than in channels laid down by Zanu PF and of destroying the MDC.


The Act has been on the way since 2000 when the government saw the result of civil society lobbying in the rejection of the government’s draft constitution in a referendum. It was given additional impetus by Zimbabwean civil society providing much of the evidence for the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights report on Zimbabwe. It was this year submitted to the African Union amid outrage from Harare at being criticised by fellow Africans.


President Robert Mugabe’s government is convinced that NGOs are a front and money conduit for the MDC which Zanu PF says is a front for British premier Tony Blair — a position hardly helped by the Blair statement of July 14 in the UK parliament that he was working for regime change in Zimbabwe.


In fact the Act could be said to be already in operation before its official date. A climate of fear and arbitrariness around NGO work has existed for some time with local Zanu PF activists and youth militias feeling free to determine who is allowed into “their” area whatever local governors might say.


Work permits (TEPs) for outside NGO staff are being refused almost as a matter of course. To see how the proposed NGO council would look, says a local human rights activist, we should examine the workings of the supine pro-government Media and Information Commission.


The Act has served its purpose of dividing and confusing civil society as to the best response to the legislation — pretending it is not happening, ignoring the plight of others and carrying on programmes as much as possible, seeking friendly “godfathers” inside Zanu PF, relocating or shutting down in Zimbabwe.


The use of repressive divide and rule tactics make the NGOs the latest in a series including the judiciary, the media, the churches and farmworkers and farmers. Internationally and regionally the government has divided or silenced critics with even the limited sanctions regime ineffectual, despite their renewal in Europe and in the United States this year.


Mugabe’s control strategy appears bent on his party surviving until the elections and securing an African “free and fair” verdict which would take the heat off, challenge the international community to lose interest and give it a strong hand in post-election negotiations with the MDC. This would also give Thabo Mbeki a vindication of “quiet diplomacy” even though Harare is in undoubted breach of the Sadc electoral protocol it signed up to in Mauritius in August.


Meanwhile, the debate on whether free and fair elections can be held or not is critical for the coming months. Some form of transitional administration, with international support, will be needed. But how can such a transitional arrangement be brought about? In the end the whole system of neo-patrimonialism and endemic corruption presided over by the regime needs root and branch change. The authoritarian mindset has little ability to think alternatives other than repression and blame on outside conspirators.

In the words of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition: “Slurs, verbal abuse, violence and intimidation may win arguments, but they can never reconstitute, heal or rehabilitate societies.”


*Steve Kibble is Africa advocacy officer of the Catholic Institute for International Relations.

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