Malawi rights defenders accuse govt of plot to stifle civic space: NGO fees hike raises governance questions

Malawi Human Rights Defenders Forum has lamented the manner in which the government has raised non-governmental organisations (NGOs) annual fees by almost 1 900 percent to about K1 million, alleging that there were sinister motives behind the increase in annual fees.

According to the Non-Governmental Organisations (Fees) Regulations of 2017 gazetted effective January 1 2018, the annual registration fee has been increased to payable within the first three months of the year.

An NGO that used to pay K50 000 in annual fees will now be required to pay K1 million, an increase of 1 900 percent.

In a joint statement signed by Timothy Mtambo (chairperson), Khumbo Soko (Secretary) and Gift Trapence , the rights defenders forum decried that the newly introduced fees are meant to kill civil society space.

“Such a hike represents a huge step backward for freedom of association in Malawi and an attempt to stifle NGOs and drive underground any civil society organizations that cannot afford to pay these exorbitant fees. What we are likely to see in the wake of this regulation is a lot of CSOs going underground. This is an assault on the very tenets of democracy that Malawians fought hard for in 1994,” the statement endorsed by CSOs reads.

It said that restricting NGOs to this degree eliminates the opportunity citizens to peacefully express dissent and hold the government accountable for human rights violations, thereby violating a number of constitutional principles, including Section 32 (1) of the Constitution of Malawi, which stipulates that “Every person shall have the right to freedom of association, which shall include the freedom to form associations,” ndMalawi’s commitment to international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The rights defenders call upon the government to reverse the fees and immediately start a process of meaningful and substantive consultations on the matter, saying despite its potentially devastating impact, CSOs were not consulted on the matter.

“The manner and the sheer speed at which this regulation has been gazetted raises serious governance questions. It beggars belief that government, which is still delaying implementation of important legislation such as the Access to Information Act, would be so much interested in fast tracking this obnoxious regulation despite its potentially devastating repercussions on the operations of NGOs,” reads the statement in part.

The rights defenders said the move by the government renders credence to the conjecture that the Peter Mutharika administration is bent on closing the civic space by suffocating the operations of NGOs.

The fees are in four categories of levels of annual income and corresponding fees, as outlined in the Second Schedule.

Category A is for NGOs with annual incomes below K100 million who will be required to pay annual fees of K100 000; category B is for those with incomes above K100 million, but below K500 million which will pay K250 000 fees while those with earnings above K500 million and below K2 billion will pay K1 million in annual fees.

An NGO with annual income above K2 billion, usually international organisations, will be paying a K2 million annual fee, according to the schedule.

NGOs whose payment was not made when the regulations came into effect on January 1 2018 have until March 31 2018 to pay the annual fees.

According to Section 6 (3) of the regulations, the annual income declared in the financial statements and audited accounts which the NGOs submit annually will form the basis of the fees.

Failure to pay the fees will incur penalties and the NGOs will face suspension of their operations if they fail to pay within three months, according to the notice.

Section 7 reads: “Where an annual fee is not paid within three months of the commencement of the calendar year, a surcharge of 5 percent of the fees due shall be payable within three months after which period the board shall suspend operations of the registered NGO in accordance with the Act.”

The rights defenders said their major concern is that the fee hikes are in most cases unreasonably high and strongly believe Mutharika led government has a hidden agenda on the matter.

“It is no coincidence that in the last few months we have seen various attempts by the current administration aimed at suffocating CSOs at play, including an attempt to introduce a restrictive NGO Policy and using the NGO Board to intimidate and threaten CSOs deemed critical of government with closure. The fee hike is the latest in a series of attempts by the government through the NGO Board to stifle the voice of CSOs,” reads the statement.

NGO Board has been asked to find other means of generating revenue, rather than punishing CSOs with such exorbitant fees.

The civil society said they are closely monitoring the development and will not hesitate to resort to legal action should the government not reverse its decision.


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