Battle lines appear to be drawn between governing DPP and opposition MCP on the scheduled tabling of NGO (Amendment) Bill in Parliament which civil society organisations (CSOs) have protested as threatening their civic space.
While leader of the House Kondwani Nankhumwa yesterday indicated there was no notice of withdrawal of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Amendment Bill of 2018, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) said it was meeting the CSOs through the Council for NGOs in Malawi (Congoma) before taking a final stand.
In a telephone interview yesterday, MCP chief whip in Parliament Lobin Lowe, who is Lilongwe Rural Central legislator, sympathised with the civil society, saying: “In principle, we can say this Bill takes away freedoms of the civil society and if we make our final stand on this matter, chances are high that we will stop this Bill.”
Parties represented in Parliament are set for a tussle over the proposed NGOs Amendment Bill of 2018 scheduled to be tabled in the House during the current sitting as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) are set for a showdown on a matter that has divided opinion.
On the other hand, Nankhumwa, who is also Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, said the Bill was circulated to legislators.
In a written response, he said: “I am yet to hear from the minister [of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Cecilia Chazama] who is the sponsor of the Bill as to how she wants us to deal with it.”
But reacting to the CSOs’ calls to withdraw the Bill to pave the way for wider consultations, Chazama dismissed fears that the law would limit civil liberties.
She said: “We discussed with them [CSOs], heard them out and, as a ministry, we responded to their concerns accordingly.
“In our view, Congoma and its affiliates are jumping the gun. This process is only an amendment and after this, there will be a Special Law Commission to review the whole Act.
“To us [government], it is a question of accountability and transparency. We feel there must be a regulatory body to check what CSOs are doing.”
The reactions follow a joint Congoma and Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) lobby to the Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya and legislators to dismiss the Bill over alleged lack of consultations.
In a statement signed by Congoma Council chairperson Steve Duwa, the CSOs argue that in its present form, the amendment proposes to usurp Congoma’s powers by creating a separate regulator called the NGO Authority.
Congoma and HRDC leaders met Chazama and her ministry officials to present their grievances on the proposed amendment Bill.
The reaction from the civil society is a precursor for an expected street fight between the State and CSOs most of whom the government has accused of lack of accountability and being critical by holding demonstrations.
President Peter Mutharika has a number of times admonished some CSOs for their knack in pressing the government on various social issues affecting lives of Malawians.
In September, CSOs under the banner of HRDC organised mass demonstrations in which they gave the government petitions to address some concerns among which were to end blackouts, investigate the theft of four million litres of diesel for generators at Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) and other governance concerns.
In its statement lobbying Parliament to throw out the amendment, Congoma says the move by government is a product of malice which falls within the description of draconian laws that the group finds to be unreasonable and in conflict with the dictates of the country’s Constitution.
In part the statement reads: “The amendments are meant to completely close the civic policy space which is undemocratic and not in national interest. The government is arbitrarily preventing Congoma, a registered trust, from performing its registered mandate as the amendment grabs Congoma’s functions and transfers them to the proposed NGO Authority.”
In an interview yesterday, Congoma board of trustees chairperson Benedicto Kondowe warned that the move by government would spark a big tussle as Congoma and its membership were not in a position to give away an inch of their ground to protect the interests of the civil society in the country.