Should Congoma go, what next?

Hon Folks, as we head towards the 2019 tripartite elections, inter-party battles are raging so much that MEC has already started talking to leaders of major parties to slow them down on spewing vitriol on the campaign trail.

The big three—Peter Mutharika, Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima—are tearing into each other, chiding character and ability to lead Malawians out of poverty.

I, for one, expected the recent Ipor study, which heaped political leaders at the bottom rung of people’s trust, to be the ‘agent’ of change among them.  Which prospective head of State can be indifferent to a study revealing that political leaders are trusted much less than chiefs who, an earlier Afrobarometer study revealed, are perceived to be very corrupt!

Why sling mud at each other when whoever wins next year is likely to need the support of the other two? They may be rivals now but it’s a fact that their popularity is so low that, added together, their collective rating at 70 percent barely beat the 66.17 percent the late Bingu wa Mutharika garnered in 2009.

A broken democracy awaits the lucky one among them who’ll emerge the winner in 2019 on first-past-the-post. The next President could win with less than 30 percent of the votes, largely drawn from an ethnic stronghold!

Besides, none of the major political parties—APM’s DPP, Chakwera’s MCP and Chilima’s UTM—currently enjoys a 36 percent popularity rating. I see the question of mandate looming large after the elections.

To unite the nation and have government bills sail through in Parliament, the winner may have to pair with major rival on the government side next year. Hence, the need to stop the insults and start articulating issues. Malawians want to hear strategies for reducing poverty, growing the economy and improving the people’s living standards.

But rivalry isn’t just among contestants in the 2019 tripartite elections. Right now government is in a tug-of war with Congoma which claims to be an umbrella body for “all NGOs” since 1985.  On the surface the dispute is over the NGO Act Amendment Bill 2018.

But if passed, the Bill will render Congoma itself superfluous since NGOs will only be required by law to register with NGO Authority (hitherto NGO Board), government’s own oversight and regulatory tool for NGOs operating in Malawi.

Is this a positive development? Displacing Congoma may not be much of an issue but the real casualty will be what Congoma describes as closure of “civic policy space.”

NGOs have complemented government in the development especially of rural Malawi. These days when rampant corruption and evidence of poor public finance management record have eroded donor confidence in government, a substantial amount of development aid is disbursed through NGOs, an arrangement referred to as off-budget channel.

Sadc, AU, UN and various global institutions also do recognise the important role NGOs play in the governance sphere anywhere in the democratic world but more so in Africa where the majority of the people are too poor and too weak to effectively monitor what their elected leaders do.  On issues of human rights and governance, the global community generally listens to both the government and NGOs. If government regulates NGOs, the world will hear government version from both government and NGOs!

Coming after NGOs have successfully mobilised public support for demonstrations against government excesses; after the President himself and the governing party have been challenged in court on matters to do with the abuse of public funds; after NGOs have reported government to various international organisations on poor governance, can we say the government-controlled NGO Authority is intended to “promote freedom of association?”

I remember it’s only in July when APM attacked donors and CSOs, accusing them of being on a “mission to destabilise government”. Could it be that putting NGOs on a short-leash is the reason why government wants Congoma to go so it can be replaced with an NGO Authority?

When many of us Malawians are regretting having too much power vested in the presidency, the last thing we should be allowing is having NGOs regulated by government. They are there to essentially watch the same government which wants to regulate them.

In the name of democracy, should Congoma go, what next? Your guess is as good as mine.

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