THE draconian Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill — which awaits President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s assent after it was passed by senate this week — could cost Zimbabwe up to US$1 billion in development funding — with devastating economic, social and humanitarian consequences ahead of the upcoming general elections.
The Bill has triggered uproar within civil society circles at home and abroad, especially after the government recently deregistered 291 non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
International human rights group Human Rights Watch has demanded that government withdraw the proposed law and re-register the 291 organisations. This followed local outrage over the issue.
Various studies have warned about the dire ramifications of the coming legislation designed to monitor NGOs, relief groups, civil society and opposition political parties, while stifling freedoms of association and expression.
It is largely targeted at the opposition and critics ahead of elections due by July, but it will have serious unintended consequences.
For instance, a research study titled Punching Holes To A Fragile Economy?, compiled by Prosper Chitambara, Clinton Musonza and Phillan Zamchiya, last year said the proposed law will have a far-reaching negative impact and implications not just for civil society organisations, but also for government development programmes and the poor who rely on aid for survival and access to critical social services.
“NGOs play a critical role in bridging the huge financing gap in the critical sectors of the economy such as social protection, education, health, water and sanitation among others,” the report said.
It said the proposed law could cost Zimbabwe US$800 million, last year alone. The impact is already being felt.
Human Rights Watch said the government should stop deregistering NGOs and also cancel an amendment that would bar groups from “political” activity under threat of criminal penalties.
On 22 January 2023, the Zimbabwean authorities announced they had revoked the registration of 291 NGOs and civil society organisations for “non-compliance with the provisions of Private Voluntary Organisations Act.”
Human Rights Watch initially warned the coming law was repressive when it was being initially mooted in 2004 under the late former president Robert Mugabe and raised the alarm on its potential violations of the right to freedom of association.
“Zimbabwe’s repression of civil society organisations needs to stop, especially in light of the general election this year,” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz , deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government needs to stop using the Private Voluntary Organisations Act as a tool to silence the exercise of fundamental democratic rights.”
Budoo-Scholtz said the Private Voluntary Organisations Act is incompatible with international human rights law standards on freedom of association to which Zimbabwe is a party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Labour and Social Welfare minister Paul Mavhima said some NGOs were because they had allegedly failed to submit audited accounts for money raised from donors, while in other cases the revocation was for national security reasons, or for allegedly straying from their mandate.
However, analysts say the move signifies democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation under Mnangagwa’s rule and a harbinger of worse things to come.
Mnangagwa’s current autocratisation programme has left many Zimbabweans saying he is just the same or even worse than Mugabe.
“The law is now an instrument of repression for the civil society sector,” a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
“The right of existence and operation is under threat because the requirements of this law can easily be used to shut down organisations and apply criminal law against NGOs and civil society leaders. This deregistration seems to carry the message that you either comply with our regulations or you perish.”
Critics say the restrictions are meant to silence civil society and grassroots groups working with communities and ordinary people ahead of elections.
In November 2021, the government proposed an amendment to the Private Voluntary Organisations Act to further restrict the operations of civil society groups. The amendment would allow the government to cancel the registration of organisations deemed “political,” with criminal penalties for the groups’ leaders.
The government said it is aimed at curbing terrorism financing and money laundering to comply with the recommendation of the country’s Financial Action Taskforce.
But there is no doubt that the adoption of the amendment will further threaten the already compromised right to freedom of association in the country, Human Rights Watch said. For this reason, the amendment should be withdrawn, it added.
A member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum told Human Rights Watch that the fact the amended law may come into effect before the general election means that groups that typically play an important role in the lead up to, during, and after, elections, will be shut out and prevented from doing so.
“What it means is that we may not have NGO-sponsored election observers and election monitoring by civil society organisations,” the rights defender said. “This would definitely undermine the credibility of the election because independent organisations that observe and compile reports on the electoral processes would not be able to do so. For many of us, it is very clear that there are specific organisations that this NGO law targets, and these are organisations that work on human rights and governance issues.”
Mnangagwa has on several occasions threatened to expel groups not loyal to his party and government or interfere in politics.
Human Rights Watch said the African Union and the Southern African Development Community must intervene to stop a move which further shrinks the democratic space in Zimbabwe.
“The credibility of the upcoming general election, and whether it guarantees Zimbabwe’s citizens the right to genuinely chose their representatives, will be closely linked to the ability of civil society to monitor and report on the election process,” Budoo-Scholtz said.
“Groups, especially those working on governance issues and acting as observers during elections, need to know they can operate without any fear of deregistration or criminal penalties.”