Lusaka — Zambian president Rupiah Banda has signed legislation regulating the operations of civil society, sending shock waves through the sector, which fears its independence will be severely compromised.
Presidential assent means the 2009 NGO Bill, withdrawn in 2007 after widespread protests by civil society and opposition parties, now only needs gazetting to become legislation that will require "the registration and co-ordination of NGOs" and can "regulate the work, and the area of work, of NGOs operating in Zambia".
Dickson Jere, a special assistant to the president for press and public relations, confirmed in a statement: "His Excellency the President Mr Rupiah Banda has assented to 13 Bills, which were recently passed by the National Assembly, including ... the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill."
The new stipulations will compel NGOs to re-register every five years and submit annual information on their activities, funders, accounts, and the personal wealth of their officials; failure to comply could result in the suspension or cancellation of registration.
On 28 August civil society organizations held an emergency meeting in the capital, Lusaka, to plan a response to the looming regulations, which the NGOs have termed "unconstitutional".
"We have already resolved to carry out a peaceful demonstration next week on Friday [4 September 2009] in Lusaka, and there are arrangements going on so that people in the provinces also carry out the protests. I think the court action [a proposed injunction] is a definite intervention as well, but we are still talking," an NGO worker, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
Engwase Mwale, executive director of the NGO Co-ordinating Committee [NGOCC], an umbrella body for civic organizations promoting gender issues, told IRIN after the emergency meeting: "We wish to register our dismay and shock at President Rupiah Banda's assent to the NGO Bill.
We still find it upsetting and retrogressive that in a democratic society such as Zambia, the president could see it fit to assent to a proposed law that has brought constitutional encroachments on our well-entrenched constitutional rights of freedom of association and expression
"Although we appreciate the constitutional obligation that he has to assent to any proposed bill that he wishes, we still find it upsetting and retrogressive that in a democratic society such as Zambia, the president could see it fit to assent to a proposed law that has brought constitutional encroachments on our well-entrenched constitutional rights of freedom of association and expression," she said.
Mwale said the law was conceived without consultation with civil society, and government's "micro-management" of the sector would impact negatively on Zambia's social development.
"As NGOs, we recognize the legality of our existence and therefore we are resolved not to allow any unconstitutional means, let alone illegal legislation, to regulate the existence of NGOs ... and have requested an audience with the president so that we can put before him some of the development challenges as well as constitutional deviations of the NGO law that he has just assented to," Mwale said.
"As president, he's still got an opportunity to reconsider his decision ... before it finds its way into the gazette," she said. A bill can take from a few days to a few weeks to come into effect after the president has signed it.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]