•Insist Act will stifle civil society rather than promote it
By Romanus Okoye
Prominent members of civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have expressed disapproval of the proposed NGO Regulatory Bill sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Umar Buba Jibril. They allege that the bill would stifle the voice of the civil society, increase the operational cost of NGOs, and create bureaucratic bottlenecks that would make their operations almost impossible.
Notably, the bill seeks to create an NGO Regulatory Commission for the supervision, co-ordination and monitoring of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, among others.
In a letter to the National Assembly, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba, implored the National Assembly to drop the bill as there was no need for it.
“Civil society is concerned by the implication of this bill and can see no reason for its proposed enactment as there is a plethora of laws on our statute books regulating activities of NGOs in Nigeria.”
Agbakoba stated that the growing perception was that the bill was an attempt to proscribe some NGOs in Nigeria: “I am shocked that 18 years after defeating the military and enthroning democracy; civil society still has to fight to exist in a democracy. I urge the National Assembly to withdraw the bill,” he noted.
For Ms. Toyin Adesola, who is the Executive Director, Sickle Cell Advocacy and Management Initiative (SAMI), the bill must not pass as an act. Adesola said that health care in Nigeria was grossly ineffective and it was only the NGOs like hers that provided effective counselling, training and management to those living with the disorder.
“Having lived with Sickle Cell for 50 years, I understand the challenges of dealing with it,” she said. “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.”
Adesola like many others believe that the bill would worsen the situations. She said, “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, that the bill tends to stifle our voice and therefore must die. Yes, there may be a kind of regulation but not the type being proposed by this bill.”
Also, the Committee for Relevant Act, CORA/Arterial Network Nigeria described the NGO Regulation Bill as a threat to freedom of civil association and Nigeria’s rich art and cultural heritage. In a statement by the Chairman, Jahman Anikulapo, and National Coordinator, Ayodele Ganiu said: “The bill will not only restrict the active constitutional role of civil bodies, but also limit arts contributions to the promotion of Nigerian cultural heritage.”
According to them, if passed into law, the commission would be empowered to issue licences to all NGOs, renewable every two years. In the event of the commission’s refusal to renew any group’s licence, that NGO will cease to operate. Every NGO will also have to receive permission before it executes projects. Its board will also interface with how funds received from donors are spent, and if any NGO spends without the agency’s permission, it will amount to a crime which attracts a jail term of up to 18 months.
“The bill is not in the interest of the country in general and the arts and culture sector in particular. Many art organisations in Nigeria are registered as NGOs. Not only do they promote the rich culture and heritage of Nigerians, art organisations play prominent
role in civic education and public enlightenment, which strengthens democracy and human rights. Many art NGOS organise book festivals, film festivals, exhibitions, live concerts and other cultural events that provide platforms for artists’ works, some of which critique government policies.”
At a national dialogue organised by Nigeria Network of NGOs, the Executive Director, Oyebisi Oluseyi, disclosed 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 organisations.
“The bill portends for instance, 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 Act (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 may be pullout that section to serve as the commission rather than duplicating efforts especially with a system that keeps complaining ofno funding.
“Moreover, the bill did not take into consideration the existing structure. The entire bill is detrimental to non-profit organisations. 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.”
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. 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. That bill is more divisive rather than unifying. Yes, the CSO must self regulate; that they are doing already; the issue may be, to become more effective. But the bill is not necessary.”
Summarising the flaws in the bill which he said were too many, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, who chairs the Council of the Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) of the Nigerian Bar
Association (NBA) said: “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 boom 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 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.”