Knocks for House of Reps over NGO regulation bill
These are not the best of times for the federal lawmakers. They have been in the news for mostly the wrong reasons in the recent times. It is either their outrageous salaries and allowances or their superiority contest with the executive are on public discourse. The narration includes alleged self-serving interventions in bill considerations such as padding of the appropriation bill and introduction of bizarre clauses in the ongoing constitution amendments process, where they seek to grant immunity to principal officers, while at the same time rejecting other provisions considered noble by majority of Nigerians.
For instance, the Senate, irrespective of the current agitation for restructuring dismissed the quest for devolution of power, although the senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki has said it would be reintroduced. Until that is done, the fact remains that the country will stay the way it is.
Now, the House of Representatives is considering passing a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) Regulation Bill sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House, Hon. Umar Buba Jibril.
The Bill comprises 58 sections. It 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.
According to the bill, the Board will have powers to licence all NGOs and without the licence of the Board, no NGO can operate. The licence of the NGO Board alone (not registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission) will confer legal personality and perpetual succession on NGOs. Worst still, such a licence must be renewed every 24 months. If not, legal personality is lost.
The Board can refuse renewal for no reason. It can also at its will, 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, to register or de-register any NGO.
The bill also provides that all NGOs must submit reports to the Board about their money, where they get it from and how much. Before an NGO spends any money received, it must at the same time secure the permission of the NGO Board. If it does not, it violates the law. That’s a crime under the bill. Besides, the board will also license NGOs on co-operation with international organisations.
In addition, the bill requires NGOs to comply with “all national and foreign policies.” Any violation of the Bill when passed into law is a crime punishable with up to 18 months in prison.
Interestingly, the Board will enjoy substantial immunity under law. Any judgment of the court against it cannot be enforced except with the express permission of the serving Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF).
Not done with its bizarre provisions, the bill also provides that the board will also oversee a Voluntary Code of conduct for NGOs to be adopted by “the first one hundred NGOs to be registered by the board.” National Council for Voluntary Agencies will operate the Code.
“Clearly, no one told Jibril that the idea of renewing legal personality defeats the entire purpose of corporate personality. The bill perhaps qualifies as the most dangerous piece of legislation to come before the National Assembly since the return of civilian rule in 1999,” said Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, council chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) and immediate past chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
His words: “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.
“There is a context to this NGO Regulation Bill which is important. It comes at a time when the Federal Government, led by the same party whose parliamentary caucus Jibril leads in the House, has signaled enthusiasm and desire to establish a commission to regulate social media content. This, despite the fact that a similar measure previously sponsored by Jibril’s counterpart as the Deputy Majority Leader in the Senate, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, had earlier failed to pass.
“Around many states of the country, social media activists are routinely persecuted. With the active encouragement of the Federal Government and the ruling party, free expression is being chilled and dissent criminalised.
“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.”
According to Odinkalu, the flaws in the bill are legion. However, he said seven of such flaws deserve to be highlighted.“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 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; Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (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. As military ruler in 1984-85, President Muhammadu Buhari showed single-minded intolerance for dissent. When he ran again for the Presidency in 2015, he sold himself as a converted democrat.
“A President and ruling party already under considerable suspicion for intolerance do not need the distraction of this bill. It has already passed first and second readings in the House and has been remitted to committee,” he revealed.
Odinkalu, who insisted that there is an existing regime of regulation for NGOs, noted that those NGOs that do good work also do good compliance.
In September, the House of Representatives Committee on Civil Society, he said, will hold a public hearing on the bill. “If the Committee does not kill the bill, it will label the President and his party as politically toxic at a time that neither of them needs that. This bill deserves to die,” he declared.
Following his twitter campaign against the bill with a hastag #NoNGOBillNG, many Nigerians have given the House of Representatives some knocks for considering the proposal and condemned the bill.
In his opinion, Stanley Ibe believes the bill, if it sails through would make civil society organisations parastatals of government. He said: “The proposal for an NGO bill is to make voluntary organizations parastatals (departments) of government.”
Kenneth Gyang described the NGO regulation is as an unintelligent. “This NGO bill thing is unintelligent, at best,” he quipped. Edetaen Ojo said the bill seems to be an initiative by a legislator to control non-governmental organisations.
His words: “Since it is not an Executive Bill, we should assume that it is not a government initiative but a legislator’s idea to control NGOs.”Olufunke Weke lamented that the NGOs already face a lot of challenges and therefore do not need more problems. “From funding to getting people to believe in you and many more. We don’t need more,” he stated.
For Boco Edith, what responsible government will set up a commission to specifically regulate NGOs? She concluded that the aim is to stifle freedom of expression. “Whoever is looking to make this a law is a worse tyrant than Idi Amin. A modern day enemy of freedom,” said Omojuwa J.J.
However, it was not a total condemnation for the lawmakers. The 2nd vice chairman of the NBA, Monday Ubani said the bill is a good idea. His words: It is a good idea. Anything not properly regulated can become dangerous to the health of the system. We must support it for transparency can become real when NGOs become regulated by an impartial and independent agency or commission.”