The NGO Bill before the House of Representatives has set off series of backlash from Nigerians. Kauthar Anumba-Khaleel writes
Despite attempts by federal lawmakers to clear the air on the controversy that has trailed the Non-Governmental regulation Bill, the Yakubu Dogara-led House remains intensely criticized for proposing a legislation that seeks to set up a federal agency to be known as the NGO Regulatory Commission to regulate activities of NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) across the country. Move critics say is aimed at gagging the organizations and affect religious organizations.
It would be recalled that following the passage of the bill for second reading in July 2016, NGOs in Nigeria criticized the legislators for initiating the bill. However, the House recently drew the wrath of Nigerians when its plans to hold a public hearing on the bill upon resumption from its annual recess became public. Since then, the green chamber is being getting a lot of flak from critics.
An erstwhile chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, tore the bill to shreds arguing that it was unnecessary given that there are already enough laws and institutions regulating NGOs. He added that it would affect religious bodies, humanitarian agencies and even the “esusu” system being practiced in some communities.
According to him, “The House of Representatives is presently considering what perhaps qualifies as the most dangerous piece of legislation to come before the National Assembly since the return of civilian rule in 1999. The bill is stunning in its audacity, far-reaching in its scope, and a danger to elective government in Nigeria. It should not be allowed to pass. The NGO Regulation Bill is the latest among these measures to constrain the civic space and destroy dissent. It comprises 58 sections of extraordinarily bad drafting, jumbled thinking and un-concealed ill-will,” he said.
Odinakalu who asserted that the Bill may be intended as a tool to emasculate civil society organizations (CSOs), which often give voice to the opposition, ahead of the 2019 general elections also picked holes in the provisions of the proposed creation of a regulatory commission which will be headed by an Executive Secretary appointed by the president for five years and a 17-member Governing Board that will have powers to license all NGOs without which an NGO cannot operate. “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 registration 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 Hon Jibril that the idea of renewing legal personality defeats the entire purpose of corporate personality,” he said.
In the same vain, Activist, Zainab Haruna expressed worry at the crop of bill passed by the House which according to her, seem to have the tendency to want to stifle the populace and curb avenues for questioning government. Posting on her twitter handle, Haruna said, for any government to function, the role of the civil society is pivotal. It acts as a conscience for the government. And in the case of Nigeria, CSOs in many instances, offers services that ought to be provided by the state actually. To attempt to subject activities of civil society groups to government approval in a country is to permanently stifle them.
“While I do see certain merits in managing how organizations raise funds and distribute such funds, I do think overall that this should be managed on an individual basis where allegations of corrupt activities within certain NGOs should be subject to prosecution”.
On his part, Sen. Shehu Sani kicked against the bill. In a tweet from his official twitter handle, the senator vowed to fight against it whenever it comes to the Senate. He said: “The bill on NGOs will reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I’ll oppose it,” he tweeted.
In justifying the bill, its sponsor and deputy majority leader of the House, Hon. Umar Buba Jibrin said the bill was necessary due to alleged misappropriation of funds by some NGOs. According to him “NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) are voluntary organizations that are registered to partner government at all levels to fill gaps wherever they exist. They are supposed to be partners in progress with the government; therefore, the need for a commission to serve this purpose arises. Secondly and naturally, for them to carry out their activities, the NGOs and CSOs solicit for funds from all over the world and collect billions of naira on behalf of Nigerians! Thirdly, they recruit expatriates to help them run their activities in the country with lots of abuses.
“The NGOs bill 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 interest of Nigerians. Recent developments have shown that some people registered NGOs to solicit funds for selfish motives. Also, recently, in the north-eastern part of the country, some NGOs were reported to have funded the activities of insurgents,’’ he alleged.
Explaining further, Jibrin said the bill is not peculiar to Nigeria as it exists in many countries, particularly in the ECOWAS sub- region, Africa and other continents adding that religious organizations and quasi financial institutions are not affected by the proposed law as inferred in some quarters and called on critics to quit the blackmail.
“Going on cheap propaganda and blackmail and even calling on world bodies to assist in withdrawing any bill from the National Assembly will not be popular,’’ he said.
Reacting to the development, speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara insists that the House will not go back on the bill nor will it be cowed by falsehood about the motive of the bill.
Dogara who said this in his address welcoming members from their recess, said that a public hearing was the appropriate avenue for stakeholders to make known their views instead of taking a swipe at the institution and also informed that the objectives of the bill is to ensure transparency, and accountability and assured that activities of NGOs will not be stifled but noted the need for the CSOs to welcome the opportunity to be part of what they have always canvassed for.
Dogara who decried attempts by some individuals at pitching religious and cultural organizations against the legislature, explained that churches, mosques, Esusu, market women organizations and local quasi financial institutions do not form part of NGOs.
This would be the second time the National Assembly would attempt to provide a framework to regulate activities of NGOs in the country. Recall that in 2013, a similar bill was introduced but did not see the light of day following barrage of criticism from a cross section of Nigerians. Whether this bill will be passed and eventually become law, remains to be seen.