Masvingo- State security agents are among agencies using non-existent laws to profile, monitor and threaten leaders of registered non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations, The NewsHawks has established.

Morris Bishi

On the other hand, officials from the ministry of Local Government are also asking for information from NGOs, which in any case was provided to the ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, which governs their operations.

 The increased monitoring and surveillance have put the existence of the organisations which are playing a critical role in assisting Zimbabweans in various sectors at risk, an investigation by The NewsHawks and Information Development Trust, a non-profit organisation that supports journalists in Southern Africa to report public sector corruption and bad governance has discovered.

 The overt targeting and profiling of the NGOs became evident in the post-2023 general elections phase, a period that also coincided with the systematic persecution of opposition-linked individuals, despite Zanu PF and its presidential candidate, Emmerson Mnangagwa, winning the August 23-24 polls, albeit controversially.

A revised Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill to accommodate amendments by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the proposed draconian law was gazetted on 1 March 2024 and it will be tabled before Parliament anytime from now for adoption or further amendments.Ezoic

One of the stated objectives of the Bill is to regulate PVOs in line with recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body formed to combat money-laundering, terrorist financing and the illicit proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

 Clause 9 of the Bill will insert a new section 22 into the Act requiring the minister, at least once every five years and with the co-operation of the Reserve Bank’s Financial Intelligence Unit, to assess the vulnerability of PVOs and other similar organisations to being used for terrorist financing. The Bill will abolish the PVO Board, a body with some PVO representatives which is responsible for approving the registration and de-registration of PVOs and advising the minister.

The board’s functions will be transferred to the registrar, a civil servant in the ministry. The registrar will be largely under the Minister’s control: he or she will have to comply with general policy directives the minister may give in terms of the new section 22D.

It is being implemented by members of the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) and the Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI) —which is the secret service arm of the national law enforcer — among others. The security agents are inviting leaders of NGOs to their offices asking them to submit information pertaining to the respective organisations, staff and linked individuals.

This includes banking details, names of their funders, personal addresses and contact numbers, board membership, scope of work and other information not directly related to the operations of non-governmental organisations.Ezoic

Our investigation confirmed that, in December, PISI details pounced on a Harare-based social inclusion non-profit organisation, whose identity is retained for fear of victimisation of its employees.

 Following the impromptu visit, PISI details ordered the director of the organisation to report to their offices in southern Harare where they interrogated him before letting him free on the same day.

The police intelligence details recorded information relating to: when the organisation started operating, its targeted beneficiaries and geographical focus, funders, names and addresses of staff and board members, as well as educational and professional qualifications of key employees.

Tawanda Majoni

Immediately after, PISI operatives from Harare Central Police Station set its eyes on IDT, calling its director, Tawanda Majoni (pictured above), on 27 December 2023 to enquire about the location of the investigative media outlet.Ezoic

 Majoni confirmed the call, adding that he supplied the caller with the IDT address but informed him that they were closed for the Christmas break and would resume work in early January.Ezoic

Despite that, investigations revealed, PISI officers comprising three females and two males visited the IDT offices on three separate occasions and quizzed other occupants of the building on what the non-profit entity did, size of its staff and details about its director.

After the festive break, Majoni visited the PISI offices in the company of a human rights lawyer, Tonderai Bhatasara, who had been seconded by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.

 “The PISI details who attended to us were surprisingly nice to us. They told us that they didn’t have a problem with IDT but were just working on ‘orders from the hierarchy’.

“They asked for our proof of registration, which we gave them before ending our engagement. The PISI details indicated that they had done thorough background checks on me and IDT,” Majoni told The NewsHawks.Ezoic

It was not clear, though, how PISI got involved in checking for IDT’s registration status, but subsequent interviews with trusted security sources revealed that an unnamed clique of powerful elites had misrepresented to both the CIO and PISI that IDT was unregistered.

 Established in 2015, IDT has over the years supported investigative work and research focusing on corruption and bad governance in the public sector, in addition to environmental, socio-economic and human rights violations by foreign investors, mostly Chinese miners. 

 The interviews are happening countrywide, including Masvingo, where this reporter is based. Commenting on developments in the province, Masvingo police spokesperson Inspector Kudakwashe Dhewa said the profiling of NGO leaders was a normal routine for police since it helps to maintain security.

 “This is not unusual if you look at our operations. This is done to make sure that citizens are safe. In case of theft of whatever, police will have their contact details and information about their residence or whereabouts, this is something normal,” said Dhewa.

 National police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi told The NewsHawks that the IDT incident is an old issue which happened more than two months ago.

 He said police interrogated Majoni after a certain group of people raised a complaint about the organisation and police wanted to investigate if there was any commission of crime. He also said there is nothing unusual when police interrogate NGO leaders.

 “The IDT incident is an old story which happened two months ago. Majoni of IDT is fully aware that as police we intervened after a certain group of people complained that they were being harrassed by IDT through their operations. As police it is our duty to intervene and launch investigations when such reports are made. We interrogated various groups including Media Institute of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and other senior journalists over the issue.”

“There is nothing sinister when police interview NGO leaders like what you said about a child protection organisation in Harare which went through that process. You should also be aware that there are many organisations claiming to be representing children and it is the duty of the police to understand their operations,” said Nyathi.

 In January, the government through offices of district development coordinators in Insiza, Bulawayo and Beitbridge ordered the seizing of operations by NGOs who failed to submit their credentials to their offices.

 This prompted human rights lawyers to challenge the unconstitutional move. There are over 1 000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Zimbabwe across a range of areas. These include humanitarian aid, service organisations, and political governance.

NGOs can be identified by their registration or main objectives, but often overlap within the different categories. Three organisational types define NGOs in Zimbabwe and these are private voluntary organisations (PVOs), trusts and common law universitas.Ezoic

 PVOs which constitute the majority of NGOs in Zimbabwe are registered under the Private and Voluntary Organisations Act through the Department of Social Welfare under the ministry of Labour and Social Services.

These are mandated under the law to conduct humanitarian work, charity, human rights work and legal aid for the benefit of the public, families, individuals and animals. It is mandatory for organisations conducting this type of work to register under the PVO Act.

 A programmes officer for one of the NGOs based in Masvingo said he was summoned to PISI offices at Masvingo Central Police Station sometimes in January where he was asked a lot of questions regarding the operations of his organisation.

He was asked to give profiles of key persons in the organisation, account signatories, amounts received for projects, banking details of the organisation, among other issues.

 “I was shocked by the depth of information they required. We submit reports to district heads and we saw no need for them to involve members of the security sector since information regarding our operations is always submitted to relevant authorities including the parent ministry, which is Social Welfare. They also asked about our personal details including educational qualifications, contact details and home addresses, information which raises suspicion about their motives,” said the programmes officer.Ezoic

 Another senior employee of an organisation based in Chipinge, Manicaland province, said intelligence agents are trailing them every time they go to the field to implement projects.

He said at times they are asked to include ruling party activists in their programmes even if they do not meet requirements. A senior PISI officer based in Masvingo told The NewsHawks that the government views most NGOs as hostile as they are believed to be implementing the regime change agenda.

“I am now a senior in this department and this is also done by members of the CIO, who on daily basis monitor operations of NGOs and even movements of their leaders. To tell you the truth these organisations are viewed as hostile by the state. We have security files for these organisations which are updated from time to time as we get new information about their operations or leaders,” he said.

“Other organisations are denied the permission to operate before or during every election time and you can see the fear of the state. The surveillance can even include monitoring of movements for leaders of NGOs, including even after work.”

On 17 January 2024, Insiza district development coordinator Zacharia Jusa wrote a letter to all NGOs operating in the district to stop operations if they fail to submit certain information which the office was demanding.Ezoic

The letter was similar to the one written to NGOs in Bulawayo and Gwanda, which was later challenged by human rights lawyers from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and the National Association for Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango).

“An ongoing operational audit requires your organisation to submit the following information to the Chief Executive Officer of the Insiza Rural District Council and the office of the district development coordinator in line with the continuous monitoring exercise:- registration status, areas of specialisation, profiles of key persons (directors), profiles of implementing partners (organogram), passport size photo and police clearance of administrative employees, funding partners, source of funding, amount received for project, banking details, financial statements, amount granted for previous programme, expenditure for previous programme, partnerships, foreign partners, local partners, impact assessment, relationship of NGO/CSO activity with NDS 1 [National Development Strategy],” read Jusa’s letter.

“Whilst preparing the above documentation may you stop all operations with immediate effect. The prior requested 2024 development programs are still due.”

 Human rights lawyer Wilbert Mandinde confirmed that the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and other NGOs wrote letters to Insiza, Beitbridge and Bulawayo districts highlighting that the demands they were making on NGOs were not based on law.

 “As Human Rights NGO Forum we wrote with instructions from NGOs operating in Insiza and Beitbridge and after the letter Beitbridge confirmed that they are not going to implement the contents of the letter. We wrote to the DDC and highlighted that their directives were not based on any law,” Mandinde said.

“As non-governmental organisations we met in Bulawayo together with representatives from ministry of Social Welfare and Local Government where we highlighted our concerns and they promised to address the issues. What is being done by other DDCs is against the law and there are cases which we have taken to court and the likelihood for victory against the DDCs is high.”

In a letter dated 23 January 2024 addressed to Insiza district and written by Vera Musara, thr Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum’s executive director, the forum advised Insiza district that it was not the mandate of Local Government to oversee the operations of NGOs since the organisations fall under the ministry of Social Welfare.

The NGO Forum threatened to take legal action if the ban is not lifted.

 “NGOs report to the Registrar of PVOS who holds the office of the Director of Social Welfare in terms of section 5 of the Act. The DDC or CEO of a Rural District Council are not included in the governance of these organisations. The DDC’s functions within an area are prescribed in the Provincial Councils and Administration Act [Chapter 29:11], and the functions include promoting the implementation of development plans, and the audit of accounts of NGOs is provided in Part IV of the Act. The books, accounts and records must be kept to the satisfaction of the Registrar and it is the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare who appoints the inspecting officer,” Musara said.

“Our instructions are that your conduct in calling for NGOs to submit some requirements to you is ultra vires the law. The Registrar is responsible for the governance of NGOs under the Act. We further note that your circular does not cite any Act or Regulation under which the requirements are being sought for.

“The supreme law of the country, the Constitution of Zimbabwe, provides under section 68 that every person has the right to administrative conduct that is lawful. The powers that you purport to exercise are not lawful and are contrary to the Constitution.

“We reiterate that your directive is unlawful and of no effect at law. The NGOs have no basis to report to your offices or submit any documentation to you. We advise that you should withdraw your circular and continue to work within the confines of the law.”

Ernest Nyimai, the Nango executive director, said the directive to cease operations is a breach of the law and a violation of sections 57 and 68 of the constitution, hence the need for the government to clarify issues before embarking on actions which could disadvantage communities served by the NGOs.

Nyimai confirmed that Nango wrote letters to three districts — Beitbridge, Bulawayo and Insiza — where member organisations were issued a directive to stop operations after demands by DDCs in January this year.

He said Beitbridge and Bulawayo responded positively by withdrawing the directives while Insiza is yet to respond but organisations are still carrying out their operations.

On 24 January 2024, Nango board chairperson Lamiel Phiri also wrote a letter to Insiza district development coordinator advising him that his directive to NGOs to cease operations was in violation of existing policy provisions. He said there is a need for engagement between the authorities and CSOs to find a balance between regulatory oversight and smooth operations of the organisations.

“Reference is hereby being made to your letter dated 17 January 2024 directed to all NGOs and Civil Society Organisations operating in your district of Insiza. We are writing to express our concern regarding the directive for CSOs to stop all operations with immediate effect unless they submit the required 22 documents outlined in your letter. We believe these requirements impose undue burdens to civil society organisations and their vital contribution to the development of communities in your district.

“There is seemingly a challenge on the ministry that NGOs should directly report to as the regulator. In terms of the current regulatory framework available to the NGO sector, it is the Ministry of Public Service Labour and Social Welfare that has mandate in terms of the PVO Act to regulate CSOs and as such it is desirous to the sector to have clarity on the administrative requirements demanded by local authorities.

“The directive to cease operations immediately implies the breach of the law or violation of an existing policy provision, which should be clarified and addressed through a more transparent and reasonable process. Finding a balance between regulatory oversight and the smooth operation of CSOs is crucial for fostering a conducive environment for civil society operating in your district under your leadership,” reads part of the letter by Phiri.

In 2021, Harare provincial coordinator Tafadzwa Muguti banned the operations of several NGOs in Harare accusing them of failing to report to him.

 Among the organisations which were banned were Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZimRights, Zimbabwe Peace Project, and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.

In 2019, human rights lawyers successfully challenged the government’s decision to suspend the operations of Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development Trust (Cotrad), a Masvingo-based non-governmental organisation.

 During the 2023 elections, police in Harare raided and arrested Zimbabwe Election Support Network staff in Harare accusing them of planning to announce election results after a parallel tabulation. The raid move was condemned by international election observers.

This story was commissioned by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and published by Newshawks.