- Civil society in Zambia fears that the imminent introduction of legislation aimed at regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will severely compromise their work and independence, and could even result in their operations being closed down.
The NGOs bill, introduced this week in the Lusaka parliament by Justice Minister George Kunda, calls for "the registration and co-ordination of NGOs - [and] to regulate the work, and the area of work of NGOs operating in Zambia".
If the bill becomes law it would empower the Interior Minister to form a 10-member board, comprised of government members and two representatives from civil society, which would "receive, discuss and approve the code of conduct [of NGOs], and ... provide policy guidelines to NGOs for harmonising their activities to the national development plan of Zambia."
Civil society leaders and human rights activists told the UN media 'IRIN' the new law was a ploy by government to silence their critics and erode the role of civil society. "We believe that this is a very sad moment in the life of Zambia's civil society. The bill is dictatorial and seeks to constrain and limit the space for civil society in the country," said Lee Habasonda, director of the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], a human rights and good governance watchdog.
"This sends very wrong signals and threatens the existence of NGOs, in that if the board is to be directly under the Minister of Home Affairs, then it means this same board will be de-registering, at will, any NGO whose style the government does not like," Mr Habasonda added.
NGOs are currently registered by the Registrar of Societies, a quasi-government organisation, but after registration the government has little power to restrain NGOs from voicing political dissent, and any attempt to de-register an NGO usually involves long court battles. In the proposed bill, NGOs will be obliged to register annually.
SACCORD was de-registered by the government last year, only to have its NGO status reinstated by the court. It is once more embroiled in a legal battle after the government deregistered it again this year, but this time the court has allowed it to retain its NGO status until the outcome of the legal action.
"They [government] have been failing to put an end to our activism or existence, because there was no legal basis for de-registering us for holding dissenting views [from the government]," Mr Habasonda said. "This bill reduces the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association; it reduces the efficacy of NGOs, because if they can't effectively criticise the state, then it means democracy is losing ground and dictatorship is now creeping in."
This is the first attempt by the Zambian government to regulate civil society since the onset of multiparty democracy 16 years ago, when 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 Kaunda to abandon one-party rule and adopt multiparty democracy; helped block President Chiluba's bid for a third term of office in 2001; and, during the tenure of current President Levy Mwanawasa, has maintained pressure for the adoption of a new constitution.
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