Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have often been described as agents of regime change in Zimbabwe.
Government has even tried to thwart their operations and most of the activists affiliated to human rights organisations have been harangued by the authorities.
One such case is that of Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who faced charges of allegedly attempting to recruit people for military training to try and overthrow government.
But Abel Chikomo, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Human Rights NGO Forum, recently appeared before the Parliament Thematic Committee on Human Rights chaired by Zaka Senator Misheck Marava and told senators that the perception that NGOs were fronting regime change agendas was wrong.
Chikomo said the perception was engineered to try and distract people from the human rights breaches by government, resulting in the serious onslaught on NGOs.
“I am aware that politicians have labelled human rights NGOs and defenders as illegal regime change activists,” said Chikomo. “I want to say that it is a wrong perception and humbly submit that it is an attempt by politicians to deny people their rights.”
Chikomo said labelling NGOs as regime change activists was a propaganda tactic which was dangerous to the extent that it ended up affecting the genuine humanitarian work that these human rights groups were doing.
Chimanimani Senator Monica Mutsvanga, however, felt that a lot of NGOs had mushroomed in the country and that some of them had agendas that were not explicitly clear to the state.
She said the way NGOs were funded by outside countries also raised concern, resulting in suspicion that they were promoting agendas of Western countries.
“There have been quite a number of human rights organizations mushrooming in Zimbabwe in the past 10 years.
“They do not work under one umbrella and people have questions how these human rights organisations are funded,” said Mutsvangwa.
However, Chikomo said the question of how NGOs were funded was only used as a smokescreen to label them regime change agents.
“I want senators to know that the role of human rights NGOs is not about changing political leadership in this country.
“Our business is about changing society. We actually do not care who the leader is, but we worry about how leaders execute their power,” Chikomo said.
He said human rights NGOs were highly unpopular with politicians because they demanded observation of the rule of law as well as respect for human rights, which those who were found in breach of did not like.
“We demand the observance of the rule of law and respect for human rights. If calling for the separation of powers is what you are calling regime change, then I would be happy to be called a regime change activist because I demand these basic principles from the present government,” he said.
He said even if another government were to come, human rights NGOs would still demand for the rule of law to be observed because their aim was to protect the rights of the people.
A lot of governments the world over, he said, were often found wanting in matters to do with human rights and a lot of people had been victimised for political reasons.
“For those politicians who are harbouring bad things, they should be warned that human rights organisations will be there calling for the same things.
“We owe our allegiance to the protection of human rights and not to any other person.
“We believe in the protection of human rights, especially the rights of the weak and marginalised,” he said.
Responding to a question by Senator Marava who demanded to know if human rights NGOs were really non-partisan, Chikomo said NGOs did not wish to be in power, but had to play a watchdog role on politicians and anyone who had the power to deny people their rights to liberty.
“Politicians, if left unchecked, can really drag a whole nation to that state of nature.
“We are watchdogs and have to expose excesses of government if they happen to consider political survival at the expense of the security of the nation,” said Chikomo.
He said the work of NGOs therefore required them to engage with political activity without supporting any political party.
He said presently, Zimbabwe’s human rights record was not good because as a country not in a war, which attained independence 30 years ago there was no need to kill each other for political gain.
“I am not saying we have a very horrible human rights record in terms of that we kill each other daily, but we are saying Zimbabwe must be a mature democracy and yet in terms of tolerance the country was still far from achieving that.
“That is a minus to the inclusive government,” Chikomo said.