Global Policy Forum

NGOs Tiptoe through Africa’s Political Minefields


By Cris Chinaka

October 11, 2005

The most cautious discuss politics in whispers, watching nervously over their shoulders. It is a reflex that has become second nature for many working with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Africa -- a way of surviving in political environments where they are sometimes seen as the enemy.

Thousands of NGOs operate across Africa, promoting health, education and food provision and tackling an AIDS pandemic ravaging the world's poorest continent. Yet some African governments have accused Western-backed NGOs of being closely aligned to the governments that fund them and whose aid they distribute. "Although NGOs are very important in advancing economic and social development and in alleviating poverty and hunger, some governments regard them as part and parcel of Western powers they have problems with," said Andrew Mudehwe of Zimbabwe's National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO). "NGOs here are treated with suspicion, and politically they are walking on slippery ground," he said.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has led an assault on NGOs with a draft law tightening registration and barring foreign funding for NGOs with political and human rights programmes. Critics say the government used the bill as a psychological weapon but was prevented from closing some organisations by a deepening economic crisis. Mugabe has not signed or implemented the draft law since it was passed almost a year ago but activists it has already crippled many NGOs. "The whole drive of having such a law has left a pervasive sense of fear and paralysis in some organisations, but there are others who see the new environment as a challenge to be overcome," said Professor Brian Raftopoulos of the University of Zimbabwe's Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS).


Mugabe says Zimbabwe has been targeted by foreign opponents of his nationalistic policies, led by former colonial ruler Britain. He says most of Africa is firmly on his side. He has accused Western-funded NGOs and charity organisations of siding with their home governments and Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in a drive to oust him. "Zimbabwean politics is very difficult to follow. They want help but they want everything on their terms," a top official with a Western aid organisation said. "The government is paranoid, so fear-ridden that it must watch its own shadow with great suspicion ... That paranoia has become infectious because in some of our offices, people discuss Zimbabwean politics in whispers to try to avoid feeding the suspicion that NGOs are out here to take out the government."

Zimbabwe has resisted calls to make a formal appeal for food aid for an estimated 4 million people facing shortages, saying it will rely on its own efforts despite its failing economy. Mugabe says those who want to help are welcome, but he is adamant that "we are not going to beg". The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is helping to feed some 1.1 million Zimbabweans.

But in a move illustrating tensions with the aid community, the U.N. is sending a top aid official to Harare to smooth differences with Mugabe over a stalled $30 million humanitarian relief programme it offered after the government demolished thousands of shacks and squatter settlements this year. Mugabe, whose latest political battle cry is "Zimbabwe will never be a colony again," has vowed to reject any assistance that compromises Zimbabwe's sovereignty, saying regularly: "They can keep their 30 pieces of silver."


Zimbabwe is just one of several African governments which see NGOs as Trojan horses for Western governments. In Sudan's troubled Darfur region foreign aid agencies have accused officials of denying access to the hardest hit areas. In the past year, Sudan has tried to expel Save The Children UK's country director, accusing the British aid agency of breaching Sudanese law and interfering in domestic affairs. It has also sent a letter of warning to British charity Oxfam and arrested two Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) workers over a report on rape in Darfur.

Sudan later dropped charges of spying against the pair, but in August President Omar Hassan al-Bashir issued a temporary decree that aid workers say severely restricts their activities. "It essentially undermines everything we've tried to do, it creates a virtual state of emergency and gives the government control over everything we do," said Wendy Fenton, former head of Save The Children in Sudan.

Aid workers say the law reflects the government's fear that charities will uncover human rights abuses in Africa's biggest country -- a view supported by Arnold Tsunga, co-ordinator of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which works with NGOs. "I don't believe these organisations are married to their governments, but African countries tend to be very sensitive to outside criticism," he said.

In Eritrea, the government issued a proclamation in May, requiring international NGOs to register on an annual basis, have a minimum $2 million at their disposal in Eritrea and pay tax on imports of items for relief aid, including food. In July, the government asked the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to stop its operations in the Red Sea state, saying it was uncomfortable with the agency's activities in a country heavily dependent on food aid.

Tsunga said African governments having problems with charity organisations are mostly those accused of human rights abuses. "When NGOs share values, and echo opinions supporting common values, that doesn't make one a puppet or foot soldier of this or that country or power," he said.

(Additional reporting by Katie Nguyen in Nairobi)

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