By Romanus Okoye
Civil society organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Nigeria have vowed to deploy all legal means to ensure that the proposed NGO Regulatory Bill, sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Umar Buba Jibril, does not become an Act.
The NGOs claimed that the bill which had passed its first and second reading stages and now at the committee level in the lower chamber of the national assembly was undemocratic and targeted at stifling the voice of the civil society.
At a national dialogue organised in Lagos recently by network of NGOs, various speakers gave reasons for their position, insisting the bill was needles as it was only aimed at crippling the activities of the non-profit organisations which are part of the democratic process.
In her statement, Ms. Toyin Adesola, a sickle cell warrior and Executive Director, Sickle Cell Advocacy & Management Initiative (SAMI), said that health care in Nigeria was grossly ineffective and for the NGOs that work in the health sector to save lives, the situation would be made worse, with such a bill.
“Sickle Cell Disorder (SCD) is a major epidemic in Africa with about 200,000 infants dying yearly. I have been living with Sickle Cell for the past 50 years. According to statistics, an estimated 200,000 infants in Africa are born with sickle cell disorder every year. Nigeria accounts for three quarters of these births.
“Today, about 5.2 million Nigerians suffer from the condition. I am one of them. Still, I count myself lucky because I’ve been fortunate enough to have family and friends that are very supportive and financially capable to help me through the trauma.
“Having lived with Sickle Cell for 50 years, I understand the challenges of dealing with it. But that’s just me. There are millions of Nigerians out there who are not so lucky. So many people with Sickle Cell have lost their lives unnecessarily because they lacked the necessary financial and moral support. Others have suffered from social stigma not only from the general public but even from their family members.
“The bill will worsen the situations we find ourselves now. People are dying daily and urgent attention is needed to save lives. People want immediate solutions. The bill will create unnecessary bureaucracy that will lead to loss of more lives. We must let the world know our challenges. The bill will stifle our voice. Therefore the bill must die. Yes, they may be a kind of regulation but not the type being proposed by this bill,” she added.
The Executive Director, Nigeria Network of NGOs, Oyebisi Oluseyi, in his opinion, said that the over 75,000 NGOs in Nigeria unanimously say no to the bill. “Our thought is that the bill negates all international standards around our work. It infringes on our fundamental rights, like freedom of expression, freedom of association, and it will stifle our judicious use of resources.
“We have about four regulations and there are government institutions responsible for the implementation of these regulations. So we say, let’s strengthen the laws that are already in place. Let’s ensure that the regulations are fit for the purpose; that they will enable us work effectively.
“In fact, there is a department in Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) responsible for non-profit organizations. The bill for instance, is saying that if a child is dying of malaria in Ibadan, that I must obtain approval of a government agency in charge of malaria, for me to attend to that child. Imagine how many people that will die before we complete the bureaucracy? Remember, what we are doing is not our work. It is the government’s responsibility. But we know the government cannot do it alone. We must be seen as development partners. We are not competing with the government. We are there just to fill the gap. So the bureaucratic bottlenecks are unnecessary.
“The Company and Allied Matters Acts (CAMA) have sections that already take care of the regulations. Also, there is full directorate within the CAC and dedicated sections of the CAMA that deal with non profits. Yes, there may be need to have commission. But what we need to do is to maybe pull out that section to serve as the commission rather than duplicating efforts especially with a system that keep complaining of no funding. The bill did not take into consideration the existing structure. The entire bill is detrimental to non-profit organizations. Is it the part that says, we should re-register every two years, thereby creating more cost? So it must die. The civil society no doubt, must ensure that they chase out charlatans. But the bill as it is presently constituted must die,” he declares.
Also speaking, the Executive Director, InnerCity Mission for Children, Victor Nosegbe said, “so many sections in the bill seek to stifle the civil society. That’s not what we need. We need to open up the civil space for development. NGO should be seen as developmental partners.
We are doing what the government needs to do. So we are here to plan strategies to confront the bill and offer alternative solutions.”
Similarly, Chief of Party, USAID Civil Society Project at Chemonics International, Charles Abani said, “I think the federal government of Nigeria has regulations for the civil society. The CSO are already over-regulated. In fact lots of government agencies are already doing that which is even cumbersome. But the question maybe, is there a lacuna? If there is, the best way to do it will not be to centralise it by giving undue authority to one agency. No. Civil voice and the diversity of civil society are parts of the democratisation process. If you have a bill that requires me to renew my registration every two years, you may as well require me to renew my citizenship as well. The CSOs are registered as on-going concerns. So that bill is undemocratic.
“At a time like this, the National Assembly ought to concentrate on more serious areas that would unite and impact positively on the lives of Nigerians. The bill is more divisive rather than unifying. Yes, the CSO must self regulate, which they are doing already, the issue may be, to become more effective. But the bill is not necessary.”
Before the national dialogue, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, who chairs the Council of the Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), noted that the flaws in the bill were too many to be covered in the space available. He however highlighted seven of such flaws.
He said: “First, the bill will governmentalize NGOs in Nigeria. Second, it will suffocate NGOs with exponential bureaucratization 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 organize with legal protection around those views. Fifth, the bill interferes with constitutionally protected rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly in a profoundly partisan and impermissible manner.
“When he introduced the bill in 2016, Deputy Majority Leader, Jibril, claimed that there was no existing framework ‘to supervise the mode of operations’ of NGOs. This was deliberately misleading, wrong and inaccurate. It is plainly obtuse. This adds a sixth to the problems with the bill – overreach. With no hint of modesty, the bill proposes to eviscerate the responsibilities of multiple Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), including the National Planning Commission; Corporate Affairs Commission; Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS); Customs Service; Immigration service; EFCC; National Planning Commission and even the National emergency Management Agency.
“Above all, at a time of poor public finances, it seeks to create yet another pointless parastatal and add to government overheads,” Odinkalu, added.
He also explained that part of the bill proposes to create an NGO Regulatory Commission, which would 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, he noted would have powers to license all NGOs, and that without the license of the board, no NGO could operate. The license of the NGO board alone, Odinkalu, noted (not registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission) would confer legal personality and perpetual succession on NGOs. However, such a license, he added, must be renewed every 24 months. If not, legal personality would be lost.
Odinkalu further said: “the board can refuse renewal for no reason. It can also capriciously waive all the requirements of the law, including registration. The minister of Interior can direct the board at his whim as he deems fit, including, presumably, registering or de-registering any NGO. All NGOs must submit reports to the board where they get their money from, how much and how they spend it.
“Before an NGO spends any money received, it must secure the permission of the NGO board. If it does not, it violates the law. That’s a crime under the bill. The board will also license NGOs on co-operation with international bodies. The Bill requires NGOs to comply not merely with all laws but also with all ‘national and foreign policies,’ whatever that means. Any violation of the bill when passed into law is a crime punishable with up to 18 months in prison. The board will enjoy substantial immunity under law and from process and any judgement against it cannot be enforced except with the express permission of the serving Attorney-General of the Federation,” Odinkalu, declared.