HomeOpinionEditor’s Memo: NGOs control: Dearth of a democracy

Editor’s Memo: NGOs control: Dearth of a democracy


ZIMBABWE has a robust heterogeneous civil society. Some refer to these as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But in June 2014, then European Union Ambassador to Zimbabwe Aldo Dell’Arricia had conservative views about how the government perceive civil society organisation (CSOs).

Dell’Arricia said: “Civil society has a role to play but I have the impression that you are a little bit anchored to the past where instead of seeing NGOs one perceives AGOs, anti-government organisations. And if you start catching the flair of the time, the trend, there is an opening to be worked upon.”

To the government, NGOs seem to be anti-government organisations and this has prompted the recent gazetting of a draconian Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill that seeks to bar NGOs — interchangeably referred to as CSOs, from political lobbying. The proposed Bill will also seek to add to section 10 of the principal Act by bringing in a clause to bar PVOs from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary or local government election.

The Bill is yet to go through public hearings, parliament and presidential nod but this is a given as the ruling Zanu PF party enjoys a two-thirds majority, which gives it a lee-way to pass amendments.

After government through the provincial development coordinators, in July this year, failed to control NGO operations, it has resorted to tighten the grip via the law. Some call it law fare.

But what is the end game? It is clear that the government is bent on shrinking the democratic space as the 2023 plebiscite approaches.

NGOs raison d’être is to nourish democracy through pursuing public non-partisan causes in humanitarian, charity and developmental works in vulnerable communities. However, some CSOs are deeply embedded in governance issues and have a symbiotic relationship with the opposition MDC. Government suspects that some NGOs are used as conduits to channel funding to the opposition. This explains why the state is maintaining a firm grip on such entities it deems anti-government organisations. Unfortunately, all this is done to the detriment of democracy as NGOs keep the state on its toes to account for human rights violations.

In most countries, NGOs are allowed to operate with minimal interference from the government. But it is always a different story in fragile constitutional democracies such as Zimbabwe.

World Bank scholar Bob Edwards once argued that CSOs are good for democracy. Hence, that should be protected when the PVO Amendment Bill goes through public hearings.

Edwards, in an article published in 2000 said; “… it is important to remind ourselves that the role of civil society — and especially NGOs — is to fill in the spaces in a healthy democracy and not to substitute for government.”

In other words, for democracy to mature in Zimbabwe, civil associations must be allowed to operate with minimal state interference. The heavy handedness against dissenting voices speaks to a tyrannical regime, which has been preaching reforms. It is an oxymoron.

Zanu PF will stop at nothing to control the political space. It has decimated the MDC. The opposition is undergoing seismic shifts in its structures. The internal convulsions are palpable; the MDC is at weakest, so are CSOs.

By election time in 2023, Zanu PF aims at a one-party state with fringe opposition parties which do not pose any serious threat.

Other regional NGOs have written to government to dump the proposed PVO Amendment Bill. So should the citizens during public hearings.

Zimbabwe has enough pieces of legislation which define an authoritarian regime. The Patriotic Bill is a good example. The PVO Amendment Bill is equally invidious.

NGOs which government does not tolerate are those with competing views. Other pro-government CSOs are not under any attack. Thus, 41 years after independence, the Zanu PF government must discard authoritarian tactics and allow citizens and other organisations to operate freely without weaponising the law to shut the democratic space.

The government has shamefully battered its reputation for the past two decades. There is no need to worsen the situation.

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