Understanding the disagreement on Reps’ bill on NGO

ON September 20, a short video by the President-General of Unity Schools Old Students’ Association, who was formerly at the helm of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, hit the waves of the social media. The video drew the attention of Nigerians to a bill seeking to regulate activities of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), which is currently undergoing the processes in the House of Representatives.

The bill, entitled: “An Act to regulate the acceptance and utilisation of finance/material contributions of donor agencies to voluntary organisations and for matters related connected therewith,” is sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House, Honourable Umar Buba Jibril. Largely known as the NGO Regulatory Bill, it immediately shot into public consciousness, pitching the House of Representatives against the vocal civil society.

Shortly afterward, media and publicity programmes were set up by a coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations to highlight the ills of the proposed bill and alert Nigerians that an instrument of dictatorship was in the works.

Professor Odinkalu, in the short video, described the bill as the most dangerous piece of legislation since the restart of democracy in 1999.

He said that the whole gamut of the civil society would be caged by the proposed law, which he said plans to give the government a sort of immunity against public criticisms and license to seize the voices of dissent.

He said churches and mosques were not going to be exempted from the looming danger of censorship.

In the past few days, the House has had to strenuously defend its intentions with the bill, as the sponsor personally released a statement on behalf of the chamber to clarify the bill, which is due for public hearing after scaling the mandatory Second Reading stage in July.

The House, in the statement, posed like an institution that would not allow itself to be cowed in the midst of loud and varied voices against the planned bill.

A statement by the Deputy Majority Leader, sponsor of the bill, indicated that religious organisations had nothing to fear if the bill came into force.

He took on the civil society which had spoken frontally against the bill, saying the manner they had gone about the protest was “not only shameful but condemnable.”

He said: “The Nigerian parliament is an institution governed by rules and traditions. When a bill is for public hearing you go there and present your views like other interested Nigerians and invited corporate bodies and government agencies for the standing committee to do justice to the bill. Period!”

The lawmaker further defended the bill, saying that operators of local quasi-financial institutions like the esusu, ajo and the likes had nothing to fear.

Honourable Buba Jibril said the bill was not peculiar to Nigeria, as according to him, it existed in many countries, including the ECOWAS sub-region as well as African countries.

He listed territories where such laws existed to include Europe and Israel and added that the regulatory bill came into force in Kenya in 1990.

The lawmaker stated that NGOs and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) were voluntary organisations expected to partner government at all levels and fill gaps wherever they existed.

“They are supposed to be partners in progress with the government; therefore, the need for a commission to serve this purpose arises,” he said.

He said many of them solicited several billions of naira on behalf of Nigerians from organisations all over the world, just as they recruited expatriates who could engage in series of abuses against the Nigerian system.

He listed some of the ills traceable to NGOs in recent years to include disappearing after soliciting funds, as he said happened in the North-East and funding activities of terrorists and insurgents.

The House Deputy Leader said: “The NGOs bill, therefore, is primarily to set up a commission to regulate their activities and provide a platform for robust relationships between them and the government for the interests of Nigerians.

“In addition, it is to ensure transparency and accountability in the manners the NGOs collect money and use them for Nigerians.”

With a tone of finality, Jibril declared: “Going on cheap propaganda and blackmail and even calling on world bodies, including the United Nation to help you withdraw a bill from our National Assembly will not help you.”

Some of the key highlights of the proposed bill included the setting up of a commission to be known as the Nigerian National Council of Voluntary Agencies, while the minister in charge shall have the power to direct the commission to sanction, punish or withdraw the license of any NGO.

Other features included the approval of all projects slated for implementation in the country as well as the work plan and budgets, while the registration certificate is renewable in two years. Any NGO that operates without a license is liable to prosecution, imprisonment for 18 months or N500, 000 fine. Licenses of NGOs can be withdrawn by the government.

Opinions have been varied and far between on the necessity of the bill and its true intentions. The NGO community has expressed fears that such a law and regulatory agency could become tools in the hands of a despotic government while shutting out opportunities for free speech.

Professor Odinkalu, the rallying voice of dissent against the bill in a piece he made available to Nigerian Tribune enumerated some of the ills, declaring that the proposed law contains measures to constrain the civic space and destroy dissent.

He said that its 58 sections were “of extraordinarily bad drafting, jumbled thinking, and un-concealed ill-will.”

He highlighted some of the fears thus: “The bill proposes to create an NGO Regulatory Commission, which will be headed by an Executive Secretary appointed by the president for five years and a 17-member Governing Board, led by a chairman, all of whom shall also be appointed by the president.

“The board will have powers to license all NGOs. Without the license of the board, no NGO can operate. The license of the NGO board alone (not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission) will confer legal personality and perpetual succession on NGOs. “However, such a license must be renewed every 24 months. If not, legal personality is lost. Clearly, no one told Honourable Jibril that the idea of renewing legal personality defeats the entire purpose of corporate personality.

“The board can refuse renewal for no reason. It can also capriciously waive all the requirements of the law, including registration.”

Odinkalu further highlighted what he called the key challenges contained in the bill, as he called on the civil society to rise up against its passage by making their voices count at the public hearing.

He stated: “First, the bill will governmentalise NGOs in Nigeria. Second, it will suffocate NGOs with exponential bureaucratisation at a time when official government policy is to ease transaction costs for small entities. Third, filled with a cocktail of whim and caprice, the bill is a boon to official corruption. Fourth, it will militarise the civic space and make it impossible for anyone who harbours views different from those of the government to organise with legal protection around those views. Fifth, the bill interferes with constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in a profoundly partisan and impermissible manner.”

An oncologist at the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba, Abia State, who is also knowledgeable in civil society matters, Professor Charles Adeyinka Adisa, in his analysis of the bill, believes that the government and its agencies should concentrate on implementing “already extant rules and regulations instead of proliferating and duplicating responsibilities with the attendant increase in cost of governance.”

While believing that the bill should not pass, he provided what appears a balanced view of the bill.

He said one of the good things going for the proposed law was that it had a board with broad-based membership from the government, NGO representatives and others, whom he said might not easily give in to dictatorship.

To him, the fact that the chairman of the board will be recommended by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly provided checks and balances.

ALSO READ: Reps defend controversial NGOs regulation bill

He also praised what he called the introduction of some privileges such as import waivers and tax relief.

Even at that, the medical practitioner said the fears associated with the bill included undue bureaucratic bottlenecks, leading to increased cost of governance; fear of civil service antics blocking effectiveness and encouraging corruption.

He said there was the fear a rogue government could hide under such law to muzzle “real and perceived opposition.”

He recommended that the government could enhance NGO monitoring by incorporating some of the positives in the existing Acts and institutions like the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) as well as the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).

One man who would not to the middle of the road approach on the matter is a development economist and public affairs commentator, Dr Odillim Ewagabara, who frontally spoke in favour of the proposed law.

He told the Nigerian Tribune in Abuja that he was in full support of the bill.

According to him, the proposed law would not only ensure that NGOs operating in the country were not used as instruments of espionage but also ensure that NGOs were no longer used for money laundering and financial crimes.

He said: “There can’t be no better time to stop NGO operators in Nigeria from acting as a parallel government in countries like ours where such activities are highly unregulated.

“That explains why most of them are simply set up purely as an instrument of blackmail, either to blackmail a government in power in favour of the opposition or blackmail opposition in favour of the government in power based on pursuing western interests.

“Because it is true that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it is equally true that western powers that pick the bills of the NGOs operating in Nigeria have systematically used them to constantly determine their preferred direction our democracy and economy should be going but doing so to make sure that at the end of the day, the ultimate is purely to promote their imperial interests.”

He, however, dropped a caveat; the NGO regulatory bill must be “comprehensive and all-encompassing including mandating security agencies to constantly keep a close watch over the activities of NGOs in the country.”

Notwithstanding the heat already generated, the day of reckoning for the bill is still ahead. Protagonists and antagonists alike would have their day in the chambers of the House of Representatives when a public hearing is called. It is the preponderance of opinion at the hearing that would determine the way forward.

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