Promotion of democracy banned in Zimbabwe

HARARE, 2 September 2008 (IRIN) – Strict operating procedures for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Zimbabwe have been introduced since a ban on their operations was lifted, but pro-democracy organisations – perceived by President Robert Mugabe's government as fronts for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – remain banned.

A blanket ban on all NGO operations, apart from those conducting HIV/AIDS-related work, was imposed on 4 June, a few weeks ahead of the second round of voting in the presidential ballot on 27 June, for alleged political bias against the government. Mugabe, the only candidate, won the run-off ballot, but the election was widely condemned as flawed.

The social welfare ministry announced on 29 August that NGOs involved in humanitarian food aid, family and child protection, and the care of elderly and disabled persons would be permitted to resume their work, but NGOs concerned with human rights, justice and governance would remain banned.

Lancaster Museka, permanent secretary in the ministry of labour and social welfare, summoned the representatives of NGOs to a meeting on 1 September in the capital, Harare, to "clarify operational modalities".

Out in the cold

After the meeting, Fambai Ngirande, a spokesman the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), an NGO umbrella body, told IRIN: "It appears that the plan is to leave organisations working in governance, democracy and human rights out in the cold.

"There shall be a new requirement for organisations who have been allowed to operate to submit registration particulars, lists of personnel, budgets and workplans to the ministry. These will be used to monitor and evaluate their operations," he said.

"These details will also have to be submitted to district and provincial government offices and the local police. The effect of these requirements means NGOs which were operating as trusts, such as the National Constitutional Assembly, Crisis Coalition and Lawyers for Human Rights, will not be allowed to operate."

Ngirande said the work of civil society engaged in justice, human rights, governance and democracy could not be separated from organisations working in the relief and humanitarian sector. "It [the ban] does not recognise the inseparability of civil society’s social, economic, cultural, political and civic responsibilities."

Operating conditions for NGOs in Zimbabwe have become increasingly difficult in recent years, with an official annual inflation rate of 11.2 million percent, and shortages of basic foodstuffs, electricity and fuel commonplace. The UN estimates that about 5.1 million of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people will experience food insecurity by early 2009.

The price tag for NGOs resuming operations is a blizzard of red tape, which, if not followed to the letter, could result in prosecutions.

Museka told the government daily newspaper, The Herald, that "For those organisations dealing in food handouts, a declaration of purchase for both local and imported products, and how much has been distributed over the same period, will also have to be submitted."

Silencing democracy

Wellington Chibhebhe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), told IRIN the government was attempting to silence all organisations they saw as MDC-aligned.

"It is obvious that the thrust that has been taken is that of muzzling pro-democracy organisations. The move is designed to silence and divide the NGO sector, and that should not be accepted," he said.

"Talking and fighting for democracy is not a crime. The problem … is that we do not have a government, which is why those wielding power want to shut down those who advocate for democracy."

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an NGO lobbying for a new people-driven constitution, said although the organisation recognised that Mugabe’s government wanted to silence them, "The ban was unprocedural from the beginning, and we have never observed it."

He told IRIN that "We have been operating as an organisation because of freedom of association and not through registration. As NCA, we don’t need a licence or registration to exist. We have not heeded the so-called suspension and have continued with our civic work, be it at night or in private. Police have visited our offices and ordered us to close but we have resisted that."

Information and publicity minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said the civic organisations that remained suspended were "MDC NGOs".

"Some NGO organisations have been operating outside their mandate. We have reports that they want to smuggle themselves into communities in order to campaign for the MDC. If they genuinely want to assist the people with food aid then they should work with government structures," he told IRIN.

"We have organisations which call themselves ‘Crisis in Zimbabwe’. What crisis are they talking about? They are the ones who are encouraging the crisis, and as a government we can not accept that."