HomeOpinion & AnalysisPVO Amendment Bill: The end of active citizenship in Zim

PVO Amendment Bill: The end of active citizenship in Zim

By Dzikamai Bere

We are living in times of increasing authoritarianism, contrary to the hope and promise of the new dispensation.

Many who had imagined the departure of Robert Mugabe as a moment of salvation for Zimbabwe stand disappointed as the new dispensation scales new heights of authoritarianism.

This is no very clear with the proposed PVO Amendment Bill, the Patriotic Bill among many other measures that the government is employing to tighten the leash on its citizens.

But these measures are not isolated.

We are seeing the new dispensation moving to attack every resemblance of opposition, independence or dissent.

In the dark night of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Supreme Court ruling marked the overthrow of a legitimate opposition, taking over of its headquarters, funds and seats in Parliament.

We saw the attacks on health professionals with police arresting nurses for demanding better working conditions.

We saw this escalate into the full scale militarisation of the health sector.

In that Covid-19 darkness, Parliament lost its role in government as the new dispensation passed over 60 statutory instruments, making law without the participation of the law-making body.

The masterstroke of course was the unconstitutional passage of Constitution Amendment Bill Number 2, which led to an avalanche of litigation and protests.

Determined to capture the judiciary and castrate Parliament, the new dispensation dragged the Bill, breaking the law and jailing activists, and listening to no one.

Over six organisations challenged either the amendment itself, or aspects of it.

Among them was the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) which has now become a target of the new dispensation.

A malicious case has since been brought to the High Court, challenging the monopoly of the LSZ.

These developments show that the new dispensation has remained relentless in authoritarian consolidation.

Therefore, it was not a surprise when on November 5, 2021, the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill (PVO Bill) was gazetted.

In earlier pronouncements before Parliament, the President had said a proposed PVO Amendment Bill will be gazetted, to “deal with NGOs and PVOs operating outside their mandates and out of sync with the government’s humanitarian priorities”. (Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa threatens to crack whip on NGOs”, Zimbabwe Independent, October 23, 2020)

According to the Bill now gazetted, the Bill seeks to amend the PVO Act for reasons including:

l to comply with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF);

l to facilitate the easier registration and operation of PVOs; and

l to prevent PVOs from engaging in political activities.

The FATF is a multilateral body created to ensure that measures are in place to fight money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF). FATF has developed 40 standards and these include recommendation 8 which focuses on non-profit organisations (including PVOs). Under recommendation 8, Zimbabwe is required to apply ML/TF measures:

l only to non-profit organisations/PVOs that have been identified to be at risk (not the whole non-profit/PVO sector);

l to consult with non-profit organisations / PVOs in the process; and

l to apply equal, fair, balanced and focused measures.

While the Bill is ostensibly gazetted to fulfil FATF recommendation 8, the reality is that the Bill does little on the issue of MF/TF, but more on restricting the work of all PVOs, and not just those that are deemed to be at risk of ML/TF.

In the process, the Bill violates important human rights and affect communities that depend on the work of PVOs.

The Bill opens for greater regulation of NGOs, allowing for targeting of those NGOs that may be perceived as anti-government, for even greater regulations, scrutiny, and oversight by the government, including interference with the internal governance of the NGOs.

In pursuit of these political ends, the consequence of the Bill is that it limits the ability of citizens to access health, legal, humanitarian and other support that is offered by PVOs.

About three reports have been produced so far by various civil society organisations.

On Friday, February 4, ZimRights released a report “The Great Gift of Active Citizens: How the PVO Bill Threatens Active Citizenship in Zimbabwe.”

The report states that the PVO Bill is an attack on active citizenship. While there are many concerns about the Bill, the angle taken by ZimRights is a call for ordinary citizens to awaken and be alert to the new dispensation’s latest offensive.

When they came for the opposition, some thought they were not politicians and needed not worry.

When they came for the activists like Hopewell Chin’ono and Makomborero Haruzivishe, some thought it was none of their business.

Every day we are seeing the new dispensation advance into sectors they believe are an obstacle to authoritarian consolidation.

This is with dire consequences.

Thus the attack on PVOs must not be seen as any isolated incidence, it is part of the scheme.

And it is a devious scheme, especially for a country that depends so heavily on humanitarian support.

Every year, the World Food Programme (WFP) takes the begging bowel to the world to beg for food on behalf of Zimbabwe.

Many communities in Zimbabwe are food insecure.

On her visit to Zimbabwe in November 2019, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, found that despite the constitutional protection of the right to food and a sophisticated set of human-rights based national laws and policies, man-made starvation is slowly making its way in the country, with more than 60% of the population now considered food-insecure due to extreme poverty, high inflation, and poor agricultural productivity, among other causes.

Our health and education sectors depend on support from the aid community.

This aid comes through UN agencies and NGOs because of massive corruption in government.

International NGOs and UN agencies are able to reach the most vulnerable communities due to the good work done by national NGOs as well as community based groups.

While the government has developed intense hatred for NGOs and may wish to do away with them so that they get their corrupt bureaucrats on the feeding trough, this will have dire consequences because the government has shown a tendency to manipulate food aid for political gain.

Because of this legacy of corruption, both the international community and the communities do not trust the government.

A 2017 Afrobarometer study found that three-fourths of adult Zimbabweans trust religious leaders and non-governmental organisations the most in the country, as opposed to the government.

The study notes that NGOs continue to play a critical role in terms of filling developmental gaps in areas where the government is financially constrained.

However, what matters to people is more than just food.

Democratic rights are equality important. Democratic deficits are shown through apathy in governance and democratic processes.

Policies that are drawn from top to bottom do not resonate with the citizens at the bottom of the pyramid.

The World Bank has stated that growing evidence confirms that under the right conditions, citizen engagement can help governments achieve improved development results in creating links between citizen engagement and improved public service delivery, public financial management, governance, social inclusion and empowerment.

These issues here in Zimbabwe are tackled by NGOs who provide the much-needed tools to communities to enable them to participate meaningfully in development and governance processes.

Contrary to the good tenets of good governance where this work by NGOs must be celebrated and encouraged, the government in Zimbabwe, growing paranoid by the day, has started stirring hostility against NGOs.

It now appears that the PVO Bill is the culmination of this paranoia, which is a shame for the government that has over the years shown an inability to meet the needs of the people as well as incapacity to consult broadly on matters of governance.

If the government continues this trajectory proposed in the PVO Bill, we will see the end of active citizenship in Zimbabwe.

Activists that are working tirelessly to defend environmental rights against business interests will be silenced.

Mining companies in Hwange will have a field day as families will be displaced.

Food aid will be distributed to those who show allegiance to the chosen political parties.

Agricultural inputs will find their way back from Masvingo to the black markets of Harare.

Participation in public hearings will become a ritual and citizens, once again will lose their rights to organize and stand for their communities.

This will be a tragedy for democracy. Therefore, a few weeks ago, at the UN Human Rights Council, member states roundly condemned the law and pleaded with the government of Zimbabwe to stop the PVO Bill.

Prior to the UPR session, Mr. Clement Voule, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly expressed deep concern over the PVO Amendment Bill that it could gravely impact civic space.

Because of its bad impact on democracy, good governance, civic participation, and accountability, as well as its impact on the enjoyment of social and economic rights, the PVO Bill must be stopped.

There may be need for the establishment of a platform dedicated to facilitating interface between government and civil society on issues of concern.

This would be a platform where issues such as regulation would be discussed for all stakeholders to find a better way to advance CSO regulation, most likely self-regulation which does not erode the rights of the citizens to organise in their communities.

As Alexis de Tocqueville said, “The health of a democratic society maybe measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”

If the PVO Amendment Bill become law, in Zimbabwe there will be no active citizenship to talk about, only active government.

The name for that arrangement is called ‘dictatorship’.

Woe to all of us who will sit back and watch this happen.

  • Dzikamai Bere is  national director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights). Comments to this article can be sent to info@zimrights.org.zw

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