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NGOs crucial to Zim democracy

My presumption is that President Robert Mugabe still appreciates the role advocacy networks such as non-governmental organisations play in the socio-political arena in Zimbabwe dating back to the country’s liberation struggle.

The president would do well to remember that organisations such as the International Red Cross Society and others funded the education of most of his colleagues and peers through provision of scholarships while they were languishing in colonial prisons.

Unless he decides, as he sometimes does, to have selective amnesia, Mugabe knows as a matter of fact that local organisations such the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJP) condemned human rights violations by colonial rulers against black Zimbabweans and called for democratic rule premised on the respect of fundamental freedoms.

International groups such as Amnesty International actually raised alarm in 1975 when Mugabe crossed the border to Mozambique to join the armed struggle following rumours that he was missing.

Human Rights Watch and other Northern NGOs insisted on the respect for human rights in colonial Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and the need for democratic rule in the former rebel British colony.

Both domestic and international advocacy groups called for norm-compliance by the Rhodesia government. They went further to call for black majority rule to end white minority rule.

When advocacy networks locally and internationally call for norm-compliance, like his colonial predecessor Ian Smith, Mugabe accuses them of harbouring a “regime change” agenda.

Surely if the government respects the rule of law, protects the fundamental rights of  its citizens as required by both domestic and international laws, advocacy groups will not be calling for norm-compliance which Mugabe interprets as attempts to force him out of power.

Mugabe and Zanu PF have remained stubborn and ironically copied all evil colonial-type fascist tactics of ruling. This is the critical reason why NGOs are calling for norm-compliance; respect for human rights and democratic values not necessarily a drive to oust Mugabe. If he were to be removed, it would not be through the work of NGOs but the ballot as a consequence of his failed rule and dictatorship.  Mugabe should know Zimbabweans are not passive recipients of oppression as Rhodesian rulers would testify.

However, because Mugabe knows a return to democratic norms of governance means loss of political power in credible elections, he twists the facts and claims he is being targeted for removal.

It is important to articulate the role of advocacy networks and the kind of work that they do in order to address the misguided belief and claims that NGOs, by definition, exist in Zimbabwe to remove Mugabe from power. As already pointed out, some NGOs actually helped Mugabe and his colleagues to rise to power.

Although there could be no gainsaying some NGOs have played “regime change” roles in some countries and campaigned for the toppling of certain leaders, trying to define the fundamental role and existence as well as links of civic groups with the broad society and people in such narrow and unsustainable terms is a travesty. Advocacy networks are organisations characterised by voluntary, reciprocal and horizontal patterns of communication and exchange. They are called advocacy networks because they plead the cause of others or defend a cause or proposition.

Groups such the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), Zimrights, Misa and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights are organised to promote causes, principled ideas, norms, traditions and values.

They were not formed for subversive activities or to remove Mugabe from power, but for the broader mission to promote and protect democratic values, human rights and accountability. That is why they involve individuals advocating for policy changes in areas of governance, human rights, environment, women and gender issues that cannot be easily linked to a rational understanding of their personal or individual interests.

Contrary to Mugabe and Zanu PF’s assertions, NGOs in Zimbabwe are particularly important in value-laden debates over democracy, human rights, infant health and media pluralism, among other issues.

In the case of the NCA, for over a decade the organisation has been fighting for an overhaul of the country’s constitution through a people-driven process, not a partisan exercise as is currently the case. To then for instance accuse the NCA of trying to remove political leaders is preposterous. Such views are informed by a gross misunderstanding of civil society and its dynamics.

Mugabe and his supporters are missing the point by a wide margin and the current rallying of Mugabe’s forces to crack down on NGOs shows how malicious they can be. The banning of NGOs by the governor of Masvingo province, one Titus Maluleke who is unelected, was clearly a directive from Mugabe.

It is also important for Mugabe and Zanu PF to appreciate that advocacy networks such as the NGOs in Zimbabwe that he is targeting usually emerge around issues where communication channels between them and their government are blocked or where such channels are ineffective for conflict resolution.

These groups will gather information on human rights violations and share it with other transnational groups.  In order to be effective in pushing for norm-compliance, these organisations apply pressure through information, accountability, and leverage politics.

In the case of Zimbabwe, information politics involves the ability by NGOs to quickly and credibly generate politically usable information and move it to where it will have the most impact. This involves collecting information about arrests, abuse of journalists, illegal detentions, police and military brutality against civilians, and sharing it with organisations such as Sadc, the AU, EU and UN, pleading for action to stop state-sanctioned violations.

These are legitimate struggles by NGOs that were waged against the Rhodesian regime and are now being fought against Mugabe’s government. Mugabe did not complain then but is now whining.  The fact is these advocacy networks have a legitimate right to continue doing the same until there is respect for the rule of law and human rights. The aim is not to overthrow the government but to influence democratic governance.


Ruhanya is a PhD Candidate, University of Westminster. Email: p.ruhanya@my.westminster.ac.uk.

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