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Lockdown not a time for CSOs to hibernate, but reflect and be creative

Despite posing many challenges, the lockdown, a move to stem the spread of COVID 19, must not lead to the hibernation of civil society actors. Under these difficult times, the lock down delivers a rare opportunity for civil society actors to deeply reflect and explore ways of achieving greater impact on the socio-economic justice front.

Several articles have been generated, all making a compelling case on how poor, but resource rich African countries are incapacitated to respond to fight COVID 19. Most of the articles concur, developed countries are struggling to cope but it can be an apocalyptic scenario for poor African countries.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) in its report warns “malnutrition and disease means COVID-19 could be more deadly in Africa than elsewhere in the world. And health systems in Africa have limited capacity to absorb the pandemic.”

All this evinces that civil society has a mountain to climb in its quest to ensure benefits from extractives cushion citizens from pandemics like COVID. Already, Mukasiri Sibanda, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA)’s Economic Governance Officer argued in his blog “without brushing off Chinese Aid, where is money from our mineral wealth going?”

Because now is the time to reflect and explore, one area we believe civil society in Zimbabwe can leverage to increase transparency in the governance of extractives, is effective engagement with the office of Registrar of Companies. The Registrar of Companies registers companies and other business entities with a responsibility of making sure companies comply with the Companies and Other Business Entities Act.

More often, emphasis on revenue transparency overshadows the need to understand the DNA of behind mining activities. No wonder why the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global standard that elevates open and accountable management of the oil, gas and mineral sector embraced public Beneficial Ownership (BO) registry in its new standard. This goes beyond the numbers. The thrust is about telling a story of the real people who hide behind corporate masks to unfairly benefit through corruption and illicit financial flows.

Importantly, Zimbabwe which appears to have shut its doors on EITI, included a BO registry under the new Companies and Other Business Entities Act. Government’s move on BO registry was necessitated by the desire to comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) directives on curbing money laundering and finance for terrorism. A major challenge with the new BO requirement in Zimbabwe is that the BO register is not open to the public, note Anna Sophie Hobbi in her blog post Joyce Nyamukanda, Publish What You Pay Campaign (PWYP) campaign coordinator laments that “Space is closed for civil society to pivot the BO register for accountability purpose when the register is confidential.”

Interestingly, there are data morsels from the Registrar of Companies which the public can digest to improve the advocacy diet for the transparency and accountability in the mining sector. Such an initiative, perhaps, can help to mend the wheels of Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign in Zimbabwe. Government’s timid efforts on joining EITI has punctured the campaign.

What is even worse is that the mining transparency framework has not been aligned to the Constitution. Information which the campaign can feed on from the Registrar of Companies’ offices include company details of directors and physical address. On the surface, such information appears to be of less use on fuelling accountability demands. But a close and keen eye can unearth advocacy opportunities from such data.

Because a company is not a natural person, but a juristic person, its intelligences are its directors. Knowing the names of the directors enables civil society and communities to understand the identity of the company’s aspiration, motives and ethics. Knowing and understanding the person making decisions creates avenues for engagement. Such avenues include exploiting social capital, for instance, at church, sports club or bar.

A human touch to the struggle is important. If the director goes to the church, this is an opportunity to reach out to the pastor, for example, to bring out community concerns against the company he or she directs. Knowing the directors of a company shifts gears on engagement with the mining company which is largely focused on the management or other lower level employees.  The management is accountable to the directors who have a fiduciary duty to protect the interest of the company.

By profiling the directors of a company, civil society and communities can gain intel whether the directors have strong political ties or government officials are involved. Pending before the courts is a case in which the former deputy minister of higher education procured computers from a company he directed together with his daughters. What this case proves is, at times, without digging deeper, corruption red flags can easily be raised by gleaning simple publicly available records.

ZELA piloted this work in Mutoko and Marange under its community data extractors project. Malvern Mudiwa, from Marange Development Trust (MDT) made interesting observations after his interactions with the office of the Registrar of Companies in Harare. Malvern explained that “it is costly for a community member to travel to Harare to access the office of the Registrar of Companies.”

He argues “it is important community-based organisations (CBOs) to rely on official documents to cement advocacy initiatives with credible data rather than relying on hearsay.” His regrets were “we failed to access the any details on Mbada diamonds.”

Failure to access documents which are supposed to be publicly available can be an advocacy asset. It is a clear demonstration of the gaps between the law and practice. If such evidence is harvested from different communities and made public, it can jolt the Registrar of Companies into action as she/he becomes increasingly aware the office is being watched publicly.

For companies that are directly listed locally or international like Zimplats, the details of directors can be accessed from their websites. The challenge is that they are very few listed companies operating in Zimbabwe and the bulk of which do not have their own websites. This is also another research opportunity for community data extractors.

Aside from opportunities associated from accessing details of directors, knowing the physical address of the mining company civil society or communities want to engage with is also critical in many ways. A mere glance of the physical premise of the head office of the company can tell a lot in terms of the integrity of the company we are dealing with.

Obviously, we must not loose track of the old wisdom – don’t judge a book by its cover. It can be possible that a company may not be operating at the registered premise or have no legible name of the company at their premises. Simple walk in at the company head office can also create space for civil society actors and communities interact with the top management of the companies. The top management of several mining companies may not be operating at the mining site, but head quartered in big towns like Harare or Bulawayo.

From Malvern’s experiences, community data extractors must be empowered by PWYP to interact with the office of the Registrar of Companies, document their stories on how hard or easy it is to access the data.

Further, community data user stories can be generated to pick and reflect on variety of experiences from different community data extractors. PWYP is in the process of recruiting more members especially from Matebeleland and Midlands provinces. Having a clear value proposition, for instance, work members can do can help to manage expectations and reduce conflicts associated with workshopping opportunities.

COVID 19 is certainly causing mayhem for now, but civil society and communities must be forward thinking. Undoubtedly, strategies to mitigate the COVID 19 are critical. However, they must not drain the focus on the bigger picture. The Punctured PWYP campaign in Zimbabwe must using the lockdown opportunity to find innovative ways to mend its advocacy wheels. ZELA’s community data extractors programme, which drew energy from PWYP international offers interesting learning points for the campaign.

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