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Interview with Muzi Kamanga of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) on the 2009 Zambia NGO Bill

With the Zambia NGO Bill 2009 now introduced to Zambia’s Parliament, CIVICUS’ Civil Society Watch Program interviewed Muzi Kamanga of the organisation Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) to learn more about this bill and the dangers it poses to civil society.

1. With the Zambia NGO Bill now introduced to Parliament, what were some of the events that led that to formation of this bill and the reasons underlying government actions to regulate NGOs in Zambia?

In about 1996, Zambian NGOs out of their free will, borne of the numerous inadequacies in the Societies Act, decided it was time for the country to have a specific legislation that would regulate the operations of NGOs to bring about levels of professionalism, transparency, accountability and to enhance government administrative structures that oversee the work of NGOs in order to promote efficiency. The Societies Act is a legislative colonial legacy that is used to register and oversee the work of organisations and bodies such as political parties, religious groups, clubs and NGOs, yet it has not in any way enhanced the operations of NGOs in a manner that resonates with international best practice. As a result, Zambian NGOs in 1996 drafted the NGO Bill, which was hijacked by the government under the argument that it was necessary in order to create a more inclusive process for all stakeholders. Since then, the government has come up with three NGO Bills (2000, 2007, and 2009). However, an agreement between NGOs and the government has been difficult to attain.

In 2007, the NGO Bill of that year had little input from NGOs and was generally seen as oppressive. Most stakeholders refused the contents of that bill and it was withdrawn from Parliament during its first reading. That bill, to say the least, was defective and this was made known to the government. Agreement was reached that NGOs and the government should engage in consultations over the bill to clear some issues therein. The Minister of Justice engaged NGOs and submissions were made to him in March of 2008. However, the minister went on to reproduce essentially the same bill that was rejected in 2007 and disregarded stakeholders submissions over the bill.

A critical analysis of the 2009 bill forms the impression that it offers the government a golden opportunity to curtail the work and influence of NGOs in Zambia by micro-managing them. It is a fair comment to say that civil society is a sector in our country that is always viewed as a threat to the status quo and this proposed bill is very much a government vehicle of addressing such threats. This would seem to be the true motivating factors behind the government’s drive.

2. If passed by Parliament, what are some of the implications this bill will have on civil society in Zambia?

The most obvious and unfortunate implications of this bill if passed, is its encroachment on our peoples’ enjoyment of the freedoms of association, assembly, as well as that of expression. These are well enshrined constitutional prescriptions which this bill intends to undermine through its many untenable provisions. Ultimately, the NGO sector shall be narrowed and its influence reduced so much that it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to envisage independent NGOs in Zambia during the subsistence of this proposed law. And for a nation whose social service delivery system is significantly supported by civil society, the implications would heavily impact ordinary Zambians.

3. What actions have been taken by civil society in order to prevent passage of the bill and what has been the response from the government?

The NGOs in Zambia have so far presented their submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee over the bill and this committee is reporting on 5 August 2009 to the full House.

The NGOs had a consultative meeting with some Honourable Members of Parliament over the bill. Meetings have also been planned with chief parliamentary whips for the ruling party (MMD) and the opposition parties in Parliament (UPND and PF) to get their caucus meetings to look at the shortcomings of the bill and its implications.

A letter to the Republican President is to be sent in addition to a meeting with him and other opposition party leaders and some diplomats.

Our overall argument in all these meetings is that the 2009 Bill is defective with gross constitutional encroachments and shall not add any value to the work of NGOs in Zambia and must therefore be withdrawn from the floor of the House.