Angola’s Constitutional Court has ruled that a presidential decree that imposed severe restrictions on civil society groups violates the constitution. The ruling provides a big boost to nongovernmental organizations that operate in a politically contentious environment in which the courts typically side with the government.
Decree 74/15, signed by President José Eduardo dos Santos, required nongovernmental organizations to register with multiple authorities, including the Foreign Ministry, before they could operate and obtain a “declaration of suitability.” It also allowed authorities to determine the programs and projects that the organizations’ implemented.
To justify the restrictions, the government argued that it needed a strong tool to fight nongovernmental organizations that were involved in criminal acts, such as money laundering, or other activities that “threatened Angola’s sovereignty.”
After the decree took effect in March 2015, several human rights groups faced difficulties accessing their bank accounts, as some banks demanded to see the required approvals, even though the government was not issuing such documents.
The Angola Bar Association challenged the decree before the Constitutional Court, arguing that it allowed excessive and unlawful interference by the government in the work of civil society.
In a ruling dated July 5, 2017, made public on July 14, the court found that the president lacked the competence to regulate nongovernmental organizations. The ruling acknowledged the government’s concerns over the need to regulate organizations, but held that such regulation must come from the parliament.
The Constitutional Court’s decision sends a strong a message to the government that the courts will step in to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of association. It’s a breath of fresh air in a country where civil society struggles every day to operate free from political interference.