By Adewale Kupoluyi
Another controversy is raging in the National Assembly, as a result of the bill sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Umar Buba Jibril from the Lokoja/Kogi Federal Constituency. The bill is recommending the setting up of yet another government agency, to be known as the NGO Regulatory Commission. The agency is meant to issue licences to all NGOs, which would require renewing such licences, every two years. In other words, if the commission’s board declines to renew any group’s licence, the NGO would cease to operate in the country. The board would further look into how funds received from donors are spent, and if any NGO spends its funds without the commission’s permission, it would amount to a crime, which could attract a prison term of up to 18 months.
In addition, the commission would be headed by an Executive Secretary, as the President’s appointee for five years as well as a 17-member Governing Board, to be led by a Chairman. The bill also provides that all NGOs should submit reports to the Board about their finances, where they get it from and how much. Before an NGO spends any money it has received, it should disclose such and if it refuses, it has violated the law. Not only that, the bill requires NGOs to comply with all national and foreign policies, as any violation of the bill remains a crime that is punishable with prison terms.
Similarly, any judgment of the court against the body cannot be enforced, except with the express permission of the serving Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF). The bill also provides that the NGO board would oversee a voluntary code of conduct for the NGOs to be adopted by the first 100 NGOs to be registered by the board. National Council for Voluntary Agencies would operate the Code. According to the sponsors of the bill, the initiative is to ensure transparency and accountability in the ways NGOs collect money and use it, arguing that the bill is not peculiar to Nigeria; but exists in many African and European countries.
For emphasis, a non-governmental organisation is a non-profit, independent and voluntary citizens’ group that is motivated by people with common interest. They perform crucial service and humanitarian functions, public accountability, advocating and monitoring policies and encouraging political participation. No doubt, NGOs have constituted crucial contributors to the process of implementing policy and delivering services as major providers of public information and sustenance of democracy, across the world.
Why should the lawmakers have a rethink on the bill? The idea of creating yet another federal agency, which would add serious burden to public bureaucracy by drawing on the lean resources just for the purposes of restricting free speech and shutting down avenues, through which the civil rights of citizens are promoted, is untenable. Civil society bodies are very important component in the task for the expansion of the democratic space and citizen rights. They play strategic role in enlightening the people and promoting their access to issues like social security, justice, liberty and the abolition of certain harmful socio-cultural practices that hamper human rights and personal dignity. NGOs also complement efforts of the media in making government accountable and calling attention to how the people can be better served. The unpopular bill would make civil society organisations become parastatals of government. The bill could be said to constitute a deliberate violation of people’s freedom of thought, opinion and expression and freedom of association, as provided by the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) and other international laws to which the country is a signatory.
To be sincere, some NGOs can engage in excesses, such as corrupt practices and the promotion of strange foreign traditions such as same-sex marriage or activities that can be said to be against existing laws. Recent developments have equally shown that some people have registered NGOs to solicit funds for selfish motives. NGOs were also reported to have funded the activities of insurgents and anti-democratic elements. Not only that, the upsurge in the exploitation of the sick, the needy and the physically-challenged persons could be attributed to the operations of many unregistered and illegal NGOs in the country.
The proliferation of NGOs could be linked to the 1990s, following an attempt to expand both the liberal democratic approach and a neo-liberal economic order to governance. NGOs are then seen as the key engines in the drive towards positive change. In Nigeria, the rise in the activities of NGOs actually began in the late 1980s. With the progression of such platform, proliferation of the NGOs may actually not be divorced from the prevailing economic climate, whereby unemployment is a big issue as many able-bodied men and women continue to roam about the streets. As no jobs are forthcoming, they would ordinarily want to try their hands on anything, just to survive. Of course, one of such options could be the floating of NGOs with people of like-minds.
Despite much criticism, the Deputy Majority Leader has said that the house would still pass the bill, to forestall illegal activities of some of the organisations, saying churches, mosques and market women associations are not affected by the bill. This posturing is wrong and undemocratic. However, as beautiful and well-thought out that the bill may appear to the law makers, a fair assessment of the pros and cons of the bill shows that its disadvantages far outweighs its merits. Such was the case of a similar anti-people bill that was once proposed by the Senate before it was dumped when the people rose against the initiative. Titled the “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith”, it sought to control online media by imposing a two-year jail term for an abusive statement released by any user.
The bill, which was sponsored by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, from the Kebbi South Senatorial District, was meant to imprison or impose a N2 million fine or both, if a person transmits false information about a public servant through the platform. The bill further proposed up to seven years in prison or $25,000 fine for anyone, who intentionally propagates false information that was capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message. It equally provided that ‘anyone disseminating an abusive statement, which intends to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law’, via the social media also faces two years in prison or $10,000 fine or both. At the end, Nigerians strong kicked against the bill and it suffered sudden death. Such rejection should be repeated, now.
Therefore, in the interest of collective will, good governance and democratisation process, it is better for the House of Representatives to suspend further deliberations on the proposed bill. I am aware that many people are signing petitions in this regard, through the social media. Beyond these measures, Nigerians should ensure that further legislative actions on the bill are stalled by participating in the public hearing. By that, the citizenry would be seen as being participatory, patriotic and very active in running the affairs of their nation.