The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the country have become a disgrace to say the least. CSOs used to be the conscious of the nation. They were crucial players during the first two multiparty regimes of presidents Bakili Muluzi and the late Bingu wa Mutharika.
This was the time Malawians largely groped in the dark over issues of civil liberties and good governance.
But today, the sector has been infiltrated with opportunists who have failed in other professions and for them, being a rights activist is a way to self-employment. What most of them do is to mobilise their cousins and nieces and register them as board members while the movers retain the position of director. And have you observed that most of them call themselves “executive” directors?
It was delighting then to see Chairperson of Human Rights Defenders’ Forum, Timothy Mtambo, come in the open and confess that the CSOs have lost the trust of the public. Mtambo rightly blamed greed as the driver behind lack of ethics among the so called activists as they are interested to fill what he called their pot bellies.
Mtambo decried what he termed as serious political infiltration by the government in the CSOs.
Let’s begin our interrogation by acknowledging that most rights activists do understand what their role entails. The activists also live in false bliss that they are the pioneers of activism in Malawi and therefore can abuse their roles at will.
By the way, elsewhere, the CSOs sector covers the independent media and faith groups not just some toytoying busy-bodies.
Activism is as old as the country itself. During the days of slavery, missionaries organised community members and chiefs to defend human rights by speaking and acting against slave trade. At the dawn of the 20th Century, John Chilembwe championed women empowerment, right to property and personal dignity. He established home management schools for Nyasaland women, set up conventional schools and training institutions in agriculture. He also sensitized the natives about equality of human beings beyond the skin colour.
In the one party era, CSOs existed but the focus was on national development. So, the CSOs were developmental in nature until we reverted to multi-party democracy where issues of civil liberties were resurrected.
But what the young crop of self-styled activists is doing is pure blackmail. The late Bingu was right when he said CSO leaders would bark with an intention to be silenced with money and other incentives.
They would then keep quiet and start barking again after the money is finished.
Today, some activists have specialised in haunting leaders of statutory bodies and other public entities. They pick up an issue of genuine public concern, go to the public institutions and demand money or threaten to organise street demonstrations.
Because most public officers have skeletons in their cupboards, they succumb to the blackmail and perpetually live in bondage.
These activists have teamed up with some operatives in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party who use their privileged positions to sniff for trouble in public bodies. The operatives then link up with the so called activists to go after the public figures.
This explains the confusion that is in the CSOs’ sector where there is duplication of roles.
Ironically, Mtambo has some explanation to do to Malawians as well. We have the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), a networking of human rights defenders, which has for years done a very commendable work. We know how activists such as Rogers Newa became so powerful by virtue of their role as leaders of the HRCC.
Why is it then that instead of supporting HRCC, Mtambo and his colleagues have set up another grouping called Human Rights Defenders Forum? What rights does the forum want to address that HRCC is failing to do? Is the creation of the Forum not an act of burning the candle on both ends? Such disintegration of the CSOs is what is weakening the sector.
Then we have Forum for the Defence of the Constitution which did a commendable work in fighting against change in the presidential term limit. Today, we have Forum for National Development.
What do the activists mean by national development? Have they deliberately made their mandate broad so that they exploit every available loophole? Besides these fora, the country is inundated with so many CSO platforms and “political spaces”.
Interestingly, one would notice that it is the same faces that are found in different platforms, forums, networks or coalitions. One wonders whether these loose groupings that claim to operate on behalf of Malawians need a kind of regulation. The danger is that they refuse to be subject to legislation that governs Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) but they want to operate as and assume the powers of NGOs.
Part of the blame should go to the donor community.
Donors use divide and rule tactics to infiltrate the CSOs. When they want to advance an agenda, they fund some vocal activists to stir the waters. No wonder some donors promote chaos in the CSOs by resisting efforts to sanitise the sector through regulation.
Malawians need to rethink this very important sector and redirect its energy towards national progress. Our neighbours in the Sadc Region have instilled sanity even in religious circles. Otherwise, instead of being the civil society organisations they are morphing into evil society organisations as Mtambo rightly observes.
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