WITH the dates for a constitutional plebiscite and harmonised general elections now known, the race is on for government, political parties and civil society organisations to carry out voter education awareness campaigns.
But for civil society organisations, the need for comprehensive voter education programmes would extend to fulfilling a mandate for which donors would have poured in thousands if not millions of dollars.
Fears abound of a repeat of 2008 harassment of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have often been accused of campaigning against President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF. In the past 10 years, ZANU-PF has become critical of NGOs' operations, resorting to blanket bans towards past elections as a way of curbing criticism.
Even NGOs working in food security were not spared. So, with the referendum now slated for March 16, the limelight is again on the NGO sector.
An NGO is classified as any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group organised on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bringing citizens' concerns to governments, advocating and monitoring policies and encouraging political participation through the provision of information.
Some are organised around specific issues, such as human rights, environment or health. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements. Their relationship with offices and agencies of the United Nations differs depending on their goals, their venues and the mandate of a particular institution.
According to the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, there was an increase in the number of NGOs focusing on social, economic and political development of the Zimbabwean people in the early 1980s.
So, with the economic and political upheaval of the past decade, the huge numbers of NGOs in the country is not a surprise.
In fact, as political analyst Lovemore Fuyane puts it, it is a lucrative business. More so, in a country where unemployment is hovering around 90 percent any sector with the ability to create jobs is indeed welcome. Employment generation is already an election rallying call.
With the NGO sector having risen to become a preferable employer in the country, often with enviable perks for workers, the human rights awareness levels in the country have surely improved compared to past decades.
Although many people would have considered NGO work for its financial rewards, the work done by these organisations has been crucial to the direction the country is taking.
Said Fuyane: "I reckon because there is not much else economic activity, the private and public sector are all but crippled financially right now. Pure politics and NGO type work is the most lucrative pursuit, as is the case in all the world's poorest nations. But ZANU-PF itself has invited the proliferation of such NGOs through lack of accountability and acting with impunity. It's like if you don't handle the matters of your household well, you invite lots of external influence from well-wishing advisors to the worst kind that see a gap," said Fuyane.
With the flourishing of civil society organisations, Zimbabwe has witnessed a massive crackdown of these NGOs by State security apparatus, a development that has riled human rights activists. The crackdowns usually increase towards elections, with disastrous consequences.
More recently, the country's State security apparatus have been on high alert, monitoring activities of most civil society organisations resulting in several arrests of leaders of some of the NGOs.
Notably, offices of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were recently searched by police looking for "implicating" or subversive material. Such incidents have brought NGOs in the spotlight.
Organisations such as Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network and the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) among others, who have already been lobbying for a NO vote on the draft constitution, would be on the security radar.
The NO Vote campaign by the NCA and other like- minded organisations is at variance with the position taken by the parties in the inclusive government which are lobbying for a YES vote.
Other NGOs in Matabeleland have already voiced their concerns with the absence of devolution of power in the draft constitution. The NCA has already said it will go to the Supreme court if the dates of the constitutional referendum do not afford at least two months for voter education, setting themselves for a clash with the ruling elite.
But this will not be the first time that such a clash has happened. For instance, 29 NGOs providing services ranging from alleviating food insecurity to assisting the disabled in Masvingo Province were banned last year by Governor Titus Maluleke, sparking fears that this could be the start of a new wave of restrictions on the activities of civil society organisations like the blanket ban slapped on NGOs during the violent and disputed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2008.
Maluleke, a staunch ZANU-PF supporter, claimed that the NGOs had failed to register. His banning order was made in the presence of senior army and police officials amid claims by ZANU-PF that civil society is collaborating with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, viewed as a front for Western governments.
Harassment, detention and arrests of NGO workers is common, even when they are not banned. NGOs were outlawed in the weeks leading up to the disputed 2008 elections when there was widespread food insecurity.
Civil society organisations claimed the ban was instituted to prevent documentation of the political violence during the election period.
Since December last year, Okay Machisa of ZimRights and Dumisani Nkomo of Habakkuk Trust have been detained by the police along with three other ZimRights officials in what critics say is apparent harassment of civil society organisations by ZANU-PF.
The police are often accused of being pro-ZANU-PF, with Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri being a known supporter of the liberation war party.
United States ambassador to Zimba-bwe Bruce Wharton recently wrote: "The US is committed to a prosperous Zimbabwe which respects the rights of its peoples. As President Obama's representative here, I am deeply concerned about the pattern of harassment of civil society organisations and the use of violence against civilians by elements of the Zimbabwe Republic Police - such as occurred against protestors from Women of Zimbabwe Arise yesterday in Bulawayo.
"All citizens - individually and in organisations - have a responsibility to comply with the laws of their communities, and to honour the right to gather and protest by doing so in a peaceful and orderly manner.
"When citizens disagree with the laws of their communities, they should first work to change them through established means, not by engaging in illegal actions to impose their own way".
So such incidences have only served to increase attention and condemnation from the international community. So whichever way, the spotlight falls yet again on NGOs as the country goes to polls which are expected to be tightly contested amid concerns there should not be a repeat of the 2008 political violence.