BY TAWANDA MAJONI
FROM the turn of the millennium, the late former president Robert Mugabe and his successive governments gave non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society, human rights defenders and the independent media, among other watchdogs, a very painful time.
Their members were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, maimed, intimidated, jailed without cause, hounded out of their homes and their homeland and even killed.
That happened because of this naughty and opportunistic but extremely unhelpful tendency in the ruling elite to bunch up non-governmental activities and commissions as the work of people seeking to kill the sitting regime.
Mugabe was then deposed with the help of the military in late 2017. You will remember the euphoria that came with Bob’s removal from power. Thousands of us celebrated Mugabe’s exit.
It is also safe to say that thousands also saluted the takeover by the regime grabbers who then christened themselves the new dispensation, also known as a second republic.
While the likes of the late Morgan Tsvangirai, then leader of the MDC, warned that the regime grabbers were never going to be different from their old selves during Mugabe’s time, I must confess that I was among those that guardedly agreed that we must give them a chance.
The thinking was that they had learnt quite a number of useful things in the past and would want to leave a legacy by doing things right for the first time since independence in 1980. For me, this measured optimism was also stuck in personal considerations.
Given a chance, I would have hugged Emmerson Mnangagwa and Constantino Chiwenga for leading the power grab. I so much loved the fact that the power grab also came with the exit of Augustine Chihuri, the then police commissioner-general. That old dude ordered my arrest on Thursday September 9, 2002.
He wanted me killed because of a story that I had written in the maiden edition of The Daily Mirror in which I revealed that his subordinates wanted him out because of serious health issues and bad management skills. Sympathetic intelligence officers and detectives revealed the assassination plot to me.
They said he wanted me to be sent to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison on the fast track. Once there, the rest would follow. So, you see, while in 2009 I shared the same table with him at Morris Depot where my vice-chancellor had sent me to represent her at a police graduation when I worked as a director of public relations at a local university, and him and I joked about my arrest, I never forgave Chihuri. My son, who was in early primary when I was arrested, called Chihuri a “gororo”, meaning murderer in Shona. And my son was abundantly passionate about it.
But I digress. The thing is, all the optimism that came with Mugabe’s removal has fast dried out. Why? Because the regime grabbers are in no way different from their old selves. Tsvangirai was absolutely right.
Just look at how the current administration is treating NGOs and other human rights defenders now. Exactly the same way things used to happen in the Mugabe era. If not worse. Late last week, Mnangagwa was in Gokwe on some mission. He addressed a bussed-in crowd.
He gave an unsettling order to executives at urban and rural councils, to say never allow NGOs easy access to your jurisdictions. If an NGO intended to operate in their areas, they must refer it to the provincial minister. It was the minister who would then decide if he liked the NGO or not. And the president gave a chilling warning to the executives: “Don’t start crying if we then take action against you for not heeding my order.”
This is what his statement means. Local authorities are the first port of call in the vetting of NGOs. But they are just mere passengers in the gatekeeping process. It’s the provincial minister, who will use his political whim to decide whether or not to let an NGO or civic society oganisation (CSO) carry out its activities in the area.
Referring the NGOs to the minister comes with the usual punishing and intimidating bureaucracy. From past experience, the vetting is done by the spooks. And spooks are just that, spooky.
The vetting relies heavily on the political bias of the minister and, naturally, the spooks. It’s got nothing to do with the merit of the NGO. Now, all provincial ministers are ruling Zanu PF functionaries. Zanu PF doesn’t like NGOs, despite benefiting from them so much. Since Zanu PF doesn’t like NGOs, the so-called second republic cannot like NGOs. In fact, it doesn’t.
Since the government and Zanu PF hate most NGOs, except a few grovelling ones, chances are slim that the non-governmental agencies will be allowed to operate in Zimbabwe’s provinces. Not without a big fight, at least. The narrative is all too familiar now. And things are bound to get worse as we rattle towards the next general elections in 2023.
But it’s also brazenly clear that Mnangagwa lacks tact and prudence. The order that he gave to the local authorities at the Gokwe event is clearly illegal.
There is nothing in the laws that gives local authorities the power to interfere with the work of NGOS. Even the NGO Bill that these power-seeking elites are looking to turn into law doesn’t say anything about that.
That’s number one. Two, provincial ministers have no legal standing to regulate the work of NGOs. The fact that they have been doing it or trying to do it doesn’t make it legal. Show me a single word or phrase in the constitution, for instance, which empowers the ministers to regulate NGOs.
Surely, we must have had enough of this kind of nonsense. In June, the provincial co-ordinator for the Harare metropolitan, Tafadzwa Muguti, ordered all NGOs and CSOs in the province to report to him so that he could authorise or bar their operations. He even had the audacity to ask them to submit their schedules of activities to him. A few intimidated ones did.
The majority, gladly, stood its ground and told Muguti and whoever had sent him to go hang on the next washing line. And Muguti never came back with his macabre demands. Why? He knows all too well that they were illegal. He was just trying his luck.
So, what’s this thing about a whole president — who claims to be a lawyer for that matter — making an illegal order now? Granted, he could have been swayed by the frenzy of political grandstanding, as is usually the case here in Zimbabwe.
But the president mustn’t be naïve to the reality that he is standing on a slippery slope. What he does today will haunt him tomorrow. There is this thing called impeachment. Section 97 of the constitution is clear on that.
If you wilfully violate the constitution, you are impeachable. If you engage in serious misconduct, you are impeachable. If you fail to uphold the constitution, they will impeach you again, never mind the fact that you feel immune or untouchable today. After all, there are so many red-eyed chaps in Zanu PF who are waiting for the slightest provocation to impeach Mnangagwa.
All this aside, this disjointed sequel of the first republic must just disabuse itself of seeing shadows wherever it is. NGOs and human rights defenders are there to provide humanitarian and watchdog services. It’s only the guilty who see things otherwise.
- Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org