The Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) bill


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by Dickson Jere

Photoflag.gifMoves to finally provide Zambia with its first post-independence constitution have stirred up a political hornet’s nest, with President Levy Mwanawasa’s accusations of treason failing to silence dissent.

While there is a general acceptance that a written constitution for the former British colony is long overdue, the normally mild-mannered Mwanawasa’s involvement has led to another deep rift after last year’s divisive elections.

“The constitution should be the basis of unity in a nation (but) … the constitution debate has been very divisive,” said Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern Africa Centre for Conflict Resulotions and Disputes.

“Both sides must exercise a bit of restraint and engage in constructive dialogue.”

In a bid to reach a national consensus on the constitution, 43 years after the former northern Rhodesia gained its independence, a special conference is expected to be held later this year with participants from across the political spectrum invited to attend.

But analysts say the project is being seriously hampered by the involvement of Mwanawasa, with some key players vowing to boycott the conference as it has been tailored to produce a document that favours the president and his camp.

“The composition of the conference is biased towards government and politicians. We shall not go there,” said Marian Munyinda, spokeswoman of the Oasis Forum, a coalition of civic groups.

Such suggestions have particularly annoyed Mwanawasa who introduced a bill that means any new constitution has to be approved by a broad-based conference instead of parliament where his party has a comfortable majority.

On learning earlier this month that his opponents were planning to stage demonstrations against the conference he remarked that “should I hear any more nonsense … they will be arrested and charged with treason.”

Michael Sata, the populist opposition leader who lost last year’s general election to Mwanawasa, has refused to be silenced and argues that Mwanawasa is not interested in having a truly open debate about the constitution.

“The whole process is a fraud because Mwanawasa wants to use it for political expediency,” said Sata.

“My party is not going to take part in the fraud.”

The main disagreement revolves around whether the constitution should specifically entrench rights on social issues such as housing and education rather than solely concentrating on basic legal and human rights.

Mwanawasa is strongly opposed to the idea of specifically according such rights in a country where poverty is endemic.

“If these rights are enshrined in the new constitution, no government is going survive. Presidents will be impeached for failure to provide employment, education and food because that will be breaching the constitution,” he said.

Emily Sikazwe, a popular women rights activist, pointed out that other countries such as South Africa enshrined social rights even if she acknowledged they may not be attained overnight.

“We don’t understand why Mwanawasa is opposed to these progressive provisions in the draft constitution,” she said.

A draft constitution was written in 2005 by a commission appointed by Mwanawasa, which recommended a reduction in presidential powers and laying out detailed human rights.

But Mwanawasa and his government reacted coolly to the proposals and have since pushed for the conference in what opponents see as a diversionary tactic.

Justice Minister George Kunda said the process would continue, regardless of any boycotts.

“We have listened to their concerns and we have taken them on board,” said Kunda.

Diplomats have been largely sympathetic towards Mwanawasa, despite some of his more controversial rhetoric.

“I think he means well. We have met him several times on this issue and he comes out convincing to the extent that he wanted to resign,” said one senior European diplomat.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.

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It is rather shocking that the Justice Minister – George Kunda has been instructed by the President Levy P Mwanawasa, SC to present a new controversial bill to be enacted into law – The Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) bill. 

It is aimed at tightening the operations of civil society groups at a time when the same NGOs have been very vocal against the recommended constitutional adoption review and dismissed the roadmap proposed by the Zambia Centre for Inter-Party Dialogue (ZCID), as a “body of politicians” with self-interested motives. 

The bill was introduced last evening (Tuesday) amid accusations that the legislation is aimed at stifling criticism. The minister is quoted as saying … “I am a bearer of the message from the president (Levy Mwanawasa) that this bill be enacted into law”.  

“Government has sneaked in the bill in parliament without consulting the stakeholders. The motive behind this bill is very suspicious,” said Rueben Lifuka, president of Transparency International Zambia. 

This also follows media reports that some members of the opposition parties are not willing to put a stamp on government’s plan while the Catholic Information Service for Africa issued a similar demand from Nairobi seeking a people-driven constitution. 

According to the Nairobi report, government’s proposed modus operandi is faulty; firstly because it is politician-driven, secondly because it insists on parliamentary supremacy, and thirdly because it proposes that government should prepare Constitutional Bills for amendments of the Constitution. 

The minister contended that the bill wanted to enhance transparency and accountability among civil society groups and also seeks to provide guidelines for the establishment, registration and coordination of NGOs, including international organizations that have offices in Zambia.  

While we at the Zambian Chronicle find some excellent provisions in it such as its ability to enable the government to suspend civil society groups that fail to submit quarterly or annual returns or when they misapply funds they receive from donors, we find the timing rather suspicious.

If enacted, all international and local NGOs have to abide by the new rules and in some cases be deregistered if found to be non-compliant. The bill comes to the floor for full debate on Friday and is most likely going to pass … thanks a trillion. 

Brainwave R Mumba, Sr.

CEO & President – Zambian Chronicle

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