Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa’s crackdown on civil society mirrors Mugabe’s era

By Michelle Chifamba

Posted on Wednesday, 1 December 2021 13:04
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends a rally against Western sanctions in Harare
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends a rally against Western sanctions in Harare, Zimbabwe October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

At the dawn of his presidency, Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa promised a new era marked by rule of law, democracy and good governance. When the military deposed Robert Mugabe in 2017 after 40 years of authoritarian leadership, Zimbabweans hoped that his legacy of political violence, repressive laws and restrictions on freedom of expression and association would disappear with him. However, four years on, civil society spaces are once again under attack.

Since Mnangagwa’s ascent to power, his government has introduced a flurry of restrictive measures, including the Patriotic Bill and the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which critics say restrict freedom of expression. He’s now pushing a new measure, the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, that once again has the civil society worried.

The new bill, according to Zimbabwe legislative tracker Veritas, aims to ensure compliance with recommendations made by the Financial Action Task Force, to prevent money laundering and abuse of private voluntary organisations (PVOs) for terrorist and other illicit activities. It would notably streamline administrative procedures and improve regulation of PVOs to prevent political lobbying.

Critics however say the bill poses a risk to the civil society, by giving too much power to the executive to monitor and interfere with the work of non-governmental organisations in the country.

“The main motive behind the introduction of such a law is the government’s preoccupation with power retention, especially as we head towards the 2023 polls,” says Blessing Vava, the national director of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 80 civil society organisations working for democratic change in the country.

Authoritarians love the law

Bhekezela Gumbo, a senior researcher with the Zimbabwe Democratic Institute, tells The Africa Report that Mnangagwa appears to be rewriting the law to regain some of Mugabe’s powers.

“Mnangagwa wants to create himself into an imperial president,” Gumbo says, notably by “removing oversight roles for civil society.”

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, for its part, says the new government is emulating restrictive laws of the Mugabe era, superficial reforms and threats to civil society.

According to Vava, Mnangangwa appears determined to consolidate political power in order to gain absolute authority. “The amendments are dangerous and are part of efforts to entrench a one-party state, authoritarian rule by weaponising the law.”

“This has far-reaching implications on democracy in Zimbabwe as we head towards the 2023 elections. These amendments seek to shrink and criminalise the work of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe,” Vava says.

By sidelining civil society, Zimbabwe also risks entrenching corruption. The country ranks 157th out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. Meanwhile, an Auditor General’s report for 2017 – 2019 found massive corruption in state-owned companies, ministries and local authorities.

By labeling good governance groups as enemies bent on destabilising the state, the government is thwarting civil society watchdogs and making it harder for them to hold the government to account on transparency and accountability.

Restricted spaces

Vava says the pending bill would empower the government to suspend PVOs’ executive committees and appoint a temporary trustee to run their affairs.

“This is an attempt by the government to exercise overbearing influence over the affairs of NGOs and restrict their operations,” he says. “The government is moving towards establishing state owned non-governmental organisations, and this has consequences on democracy, transparency and accountability.”

The government is moving towards establishing state owned non-governmental organisations, and this has consequences on democracy, transparency and accountability.

The Zimbabwe national chapter of the nonprofit Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) says in a statement that the proposed legislative steps will have a far-reaching impact on the ability of civil society to operate freely in the country.

MISA notes that the bill “seemingly seeks to target NGOs that are performing their watchdog role over the three arms of the state, which is at the core of citizens’ democratic participation in governance issues and economic development.”

Musa Kika, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, says the Mnangagwa administration’s legislative efforts to limit democratic space is making it more difficult for citizens to enjoy their right to participate in the political process.

“It is a trend of centralising and concentrating power in the executive and removing the citizen,” she says. “The (PVO) bill should not be allowed to pass, but should be trashed.”

Advocates say the bill could have a broad impact on everything: from electoral processes, to human rights, to good governance of the country’s natural resources and needs to be challenged in court.

“Crisis in Zimbabwe will embark on […] local and regional advocacy campaigns for the citizens to resist this undemocratic piece of legislation and hold the government to account,” Vava tells The Africa Report. “While at the regional level, we will engage SADC and the regional solidarity partners to intervene in solving the Zimbabwean crisis.”

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