Zambian civil society is up in arms against the government’s recent decision to introduce new legislation to monitor and regulate the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs.) Some of the groups fear that once enacted, the new law will compromise their work or even allow the government to shut them down. From Lusaka, Voice of America reporter Sanday Chongo Kabange tells us that NGOs argue the government is trying to silence dissent and curb free speech.
The bill has already been presented before Parliament by Justice Minister George Kunda, a move critics call a desperate attempt by Zambia’s government to hamper civil society from acting effectively.
It is not likely the bill will be turned down, considering the government enjoys majority support in the legislature.
If the bill becomes law it will empower the minister of home affairs to form a 10-member board made up of 8 government officials and two representatives from civil society that will receive, discuss and approve the code of conduct for NGOs.
The board will also provide policy guidelines to ensure that NGO activities complement the government’s national development plan. It has not yet been decided whether these guidelines will be voluntary.
Emily Sikazwe is the executive director of the Non-Governmental Organization Coordinating Committee (NGOCC) an umbrella group of civic organizations involved in gender issues. She says the proposed legislation would harm the rights of women and children in Zambia:
“The bill was done in bad faith and disregards the good work that civil society is doing, and we think that the bill should be thrown out of parliament until stakeholders are consulted and we provide for self regulation. It’s killing our young democracy and we will not allow them. Even if they close all NGOs, their time will come when we will get NGOs working again.”
NGO’s are registered by the Registrar of Societies, a quasi-governmental organization. But after registration, the government has little power to prevent NGOs from voicing political dissent, and any attempt to de-register an NGO usually involves long court battles. In the proposed bill, NGOs will have to register annually.
Most Zambian NGOs are funded by western donors, not by the Zambian government.
The anti-corruption body Transparency International says the bill is dictatorial and seeks to constrain and limit the space for civil society in Zambia.
Reuben Lifuka is president of the group’s Zambia chapter.
He says NGOs are an extension of freedom of expression and association, meaning that regulating NGOs would be an infringement on the freedoms provided for in the constitution.
Lifuka says the bill is trying to regulate expression, and that the government came up with the legislation without consulting civil society or pro-democracy bodies:
“There are so many things that are happening that require the active involvement of NGOs. For instance, government is on record as having ratified the UN Convention against Corruption. The UN Convention against Corruption requires active involvement of civil society. The Africa Peer Review Mechanism equally requires the active involvement of civil society. It therefore comes as a surprise that in the midst of all these processes which require active engagement of civil society, you then want to start legislating the work of civil society.”
Government spokesperson Mike Mulongoti says the bill is designed to make civil society more responsible and accountable. He cited no examples of civil society appearing irresponsible or corrupted.
Mulongoti says NGOs should not just be asking government to be transparent or accountable to the people, he says they should also do the same.
Mulongoti says it is necessary to have a legal framework to regulate the conduct of NGOs.
This is the first attempt by the Zambian government to regulate civil society since the onset of multiparty democracy 16 years ago. In 1991, Kenneth Kaunda, president since Zambia's independence from Britain in 1964, was unseated in 1991 by former trade unionist Frederick Chiluba.
Zambian civil society has been a strong force for change. It was pivotal in forcing then-president Kaunda to abandon one-party rule and adopt multiparty democracy. Civil society also helped block Mr. Chiluba's bid for a third term of office in 2001. And during the tenure of current president Levy Mwanawasa, civil society has maintained pressure for the adoption of a new constitution.