Chakwera irks NGOs


President Lazarus Chakwera’s decision to assent to amendments to the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) act has not amused members of Malawi’s civil society.

CSOs in Malawi had been up in arms urging President Chakwera not to append his signature to the bill, arguing it will severely hinder the work of NGOs in Malawi, could shrink their civic space and result in human rights violations.

It is clear their plea was not heeded as on Friday, State  House announced the news; prompting Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation executive director Michael Kaiyatsa to describe the day as a sad one for NGOs in Malawi, saying the decision shows that Chakwera does not respect the Constitution which guarantees freedom of association.

What NGOs are against in the act

Parliament  passed the NGO Act Amendment Bill which defines roles of the NGO Board and Council for NGOs in Malawi (Congoma) besides demanding accountability for funds in March.

The Bill, unanimously supported by both sides of the House, revised the registration fee for NGOs from K50, 000 to K5 million (approximately US$5,000).

Section 36 of the Amendment Bill will impose punishment on a civil society organisation in contravention with a provision of the Act with a K5 million fine, or an amount equivalent to the financial gain generated by the offence or whichever is greater.

Section 37 of the Bill proposes to increase the fines introduced through ministerial regulations for international NGOs from K25,000 to K1 million (approximately US$1,000).

Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders argued in a letter to Chakwera that the exorbitant fee hikes and the broad types of punishments imposed, will discourage the opportunity for citizens to peacefully express dissent and hold the government accountable for human rights violations.

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Some of the members of NGOs captured in this file photo.

According to them, Section 20 subsection 2 of the Act should be revisited to ensure that it provides an adequate legal framework for operations of NGOs, without undue influence from the State or other actors.

“The provisions of the Amendment Bill,  represent a serious threat to the protection of the right to freedom of association and the broader shrinking of civic space in the country.

“It is also a matter of significant concern that Parliament took the decision to pass the Bill despite a clear 2019 Court Order restraining the legislative arm of government from proceeding with the Bill until the case is finalised. This matter is still pending judicial review before the Supreme Court.

“The flawed process carried out by Parliament in passing the Bill in defiance of the Court order undermines the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. An independent judiciary plays an important check on abuse of power by the government and is critical to the protection of human rights and fostering a culture of respect for the rule of law,” read a letter to the President.

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Tsunga: Fears the amendment would lead to withdrawal of NGOs licences

Chairperson of the grouping, Arnold Tsunga pointed out that the amendments will limit CSOs and shrink the space of human rights defenders and are a resurgence of authoritarian regimes and weakening of democracy.

This he indicated will result in operational difficulties for civil society organizations noting that without people’s involvement on matters affecting them, this will promote impunity.

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Muchena: A reflection of the regional Acts to control the civic space

Tsunga noted the legislation in question has the effect of undermining enjoyment of fundamental rights like freedom of expression, movement and in protecting larger interests as a society.

Through the proposed new legislative framework, they fear government will try to do intelligence on who's funding NGOs and for what purpose and this is meant to create unnecessary control consequently leading to withdrawal of their licences and imposing authorities preferred boards which will be a fundamental breach of human rights.

Deprose Muchena from Amnesty International branded the move as a reflection of the regional Acts to control the civic space instead of focusing on mobilizing resources to ending poverty.

Government's take

Tabling the Bill in Parliament, Deputy Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Agnes Nkusa-Nkhoma asked the House to pass the amended law because it would bring sanity in NGO operations and ensure that they account for their money.

“Currently, donors or development partners are providing financial support to Malawi through NGOs on off-budget arrangement. There is evidence that shows that most of these resources are not benefiting the common Malawian.

“It is, therefore, imperative to streamline and strengthen the capacity of the NGO Board while ensuring that NGOs are aligning their interventions to the national development agenda,” she said.

The bill also received support from opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spokesperson on legal affairs in Parliament Bright Msaka and United Democratic Front (UDF) spokesperson in Parliament Lilian Patel who ar said the main opposition party supported the amended law as it would compel NGOs to account for resources that they receive on behalf of the poor just like government is asked to be accountable.