ZAMBIA Council for Social Development executive director Leah Mitaba says any law that is going to regulate NGOs must be done in the spirit of recognising the critical role that NGOs play in any progressive democratic dispensation.
Mitaba said even more important, CSOs should be adequately consulted and assured of a good law that was in line with the Constitution and other regional and legal instruments that Zambia was State party to.
She said the current law falls short on such aspects because it does not guarantee CSOs their right to freely associate and assemble.
Mitaba said this was worse on advocacy-focused CSOs.
“The current form actually contravenes our own Constitution and puts Zambia in bad light to the international community and among its people who through the return to multiparty system wished to ensure that Zambia thrives through having active citizenry able to hold their government accountable,” said Mitaba.
The Zambian government in 2007 embarked on a process to regulate operations of non-governmental organisations through an NGO law.
Due to lack of consultation with affected stakeholders, as well as highly restrictive provisions affecting freedoms of association for Zambia NGOs, civil society resisted the NGO Act once it became operative in 2009.
Civil society, with the Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD) playing a vital role along with others, engaged in sustained advocacy, and a majority of organisations refused to register or comply with this law.
Following the initiation of a legal challenge of the NGO Act in court, government agreed not to enforce the Act if the court case was held in abeyance and parties would review the NGO policy and legal framework.
The process stalled but in the past three years, the government has focused more on pursuing review the legislation.
Mitaba said additional pressure had been brought to bear on the government’s desire to comply with international obligations on Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT).
She said multilateral institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force have more recently obliged the government to put in place regulatory frameworks for various sectors, including the non-profit sector, to show that the country waas complying with its AML/CFT obligations in order to open channels to potential additional international investment.
She said one deliverable appears to be the enactment of a new NGO law, which clearly and explicitly includes a provision that includes FATF-related recommendations.
Mitaba said the government had established a Technical Working Group (TWG), with representation from civil society, including ZCSD.
She said the Zambia Law Development Commission had prepared a new draft and together with the TWG, embarked on a consultative process with stakeholders, including civil society.
Mitaba said this presents an opportunity for civil society to engage the state to ensure that any proposed legislation complies with Zambia’s international and continental obligations, as well as best practices and offers an enabling environment for civil society.
She said civil society must be alert to potential threats that the new NGO law would continue to be restrictive as government tries to justify that it is taking its AML/CFT obligations seriously in an effort to improve its creditworthiness.
Mitaba said the urgency with which the government was now pushing for finalisation of a draft law for consideration in parliament makes the advocacy initiatives urgent.