June 21. 2024. 2:26

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Fears Zimbabwe’s president aims to quell opposition before elections

Zimbabwe’s president has promised to assent legislation that critics believe is designed to intimidate and silence non-governmental organisations opposed to the ruling party in advance of this year’s general elections.

In early February the southern African country’s senate voted to adopt the highly contentious Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, but it must be ratified by President Emmerson Mnangagwa before it becomes law. Amnesty International has called on Mnangagwa, who is running for a second term in office, to reject the bill in its current form, saying it will have “dire consequences” for civil society and rights groups in the country. “This bill, if passed by the president, could be used to deny registration of human rights organisations due to the work that they do, including defending rights such as freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty said in a statement.

Among other things, the new legislation forces all non-government organisations (NGOs) to register as a PVO and to get the government’s permission to make significant changes to their management and funding structures. Furthermore, it enables the state to revoke their registration and replace their leaders if an organisation is deemed a “high risk” or “vulnerable” to misuse by terrorist organisations. The new bill also includes severe penalties, including imprisonment, for administrative offences. However, writing in Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail last weekend, Mnangagwa promised to make the bill a law of the land, saying the NGO sector “had become a veritable refuge for the deviant and wayward, and for actors with sinister motives”.

“No amount of foreign noises will stop the passing of the PVO law,” he wrote in his weekly column in the state-run newspaper before adding, “Once the bill is cleaned and sent to my office, I will sign it into law. Speedily, too!”

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While local civil society groups, opposition parties and human rights bodies will be most affected by the PVO bill, international development agencies are also in the firing line. Ireland’s overseas development aid programme, Irish Aid, and numerous Irish aid agencies work in Zimbabwe. If ratified, the bill could negatively affect their work there. The Irish Times asked international agencies for their views on the bill, but they declined to comment over concerns to do so might negatively affect their ability to operate in the country.

However, diplomatic sources said that if Mnangagwa went ahead and signed the bill into law it could affect Zimbabwe’s efforts to rejoin the international community, from which it has been alienated for more than two decades. “Zimbabwe’s government has put a process in place to engage with international creditors and the global community, which creates an incentive for the president to think twice before passing this bill into law,” the source said.

In addition, signing the new bill into law would put thousands of jobs in Zimbabwe’s NGO sector under threat and leave its poorest citizens in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Millions of impoverished Zimbabweans rely on food and health assistance provided by international and local aid organisations to survive.

The diplomatic source said that what happens to the bill next “will likely depend on how confident Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF feel about retaining power” in this year’s general elections, which have yet to be officially scheduled.

Mnangagwa initially became Zimbabwe’s interim president in November 2017 after a military-led coup forced the country’s long-standing leader Robert Mugabe to relinquish power after 37 years.

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However, the man dubbed “the crocodile” because of his political cunning has failed to deliver on a range of political and economic reforms he promised voters during Zimbabwe’s 2018 general and presidential elections. Zimbabwe’s economy remains on its knees, and opposition parties and antigovernment activists are regularly threatened, harassed and attacked by the state’s security forces. As a result, the tentative support for Zanu-PF that emerged after Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe has dissipated dramatically in recent years.

A survey of Zimbabwean voters in January found that Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, would win 53 per cent of the vote, and Mnangagwa only 40 per cent.

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Conducted for the Johannesburg-based think-tank, the Brenthurst Foundation, the survey also indicated that Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party would win Zimbabwe’s coming parliamentary election. Although the CCC is the strongest of Zimbabwe’s opposition parties, it was only formed in January 2022, when the official opposition party in parliament, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, fractured due to infighting. Since it first came to power in 1980 following independence from colonial rule, the former liberation movement’s approach to contesting national elections has been to win at all costs.