Nigeria is a fast-moving adventure. Too many things happen so quickly that keeping pace can be difficult sometimes. Therefore it takes more than a passing interest for any issue to engage people’s attention for more than two days. Over the last two weeks, two issues have consistently engaged the attention of Nigerians and people interested in Nigeria – the agitation for greater inclusion by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the NGO Regulation bill (the bill).
In its third incarnation, the bill sets out to control rather than regulate NGOs. It creates a 17-member board Regulatory Commission (the Commission) with a mandate to license NGOs for a two year period subject to renewal. Remarkably, the bill makes the licensing procedure a condition-precedent to assuming legal personality in a context where registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), another institution of government, confers that status. It is not clear from reading the bill how to reconcile the legal personality assumed at registration with CAC and that which is conferred upon licensing by the Commission or indeed whether legal personality can be subject to periodic renewal.
In addition to the enormous responsibilities he currently has, the Federal Attorney General has been designated as the appeals forum for NGOs dissatisfied with the decision of the Regulatory Commission denying them a license. In other words, the bill envisages that the decision of this new commission could be upturned by a government-appointee. As much as one would hope that might be possible, current evidence suggests otherwise.
The proponents of the bill have argued that the Commission is necessary to address certain problems within the NGO sector including diversion of donor funds and the possibility of using NGOs as fronts for terrorist activities. To the extent that there are proven cases of fraud or misrepresentation, the state ought to take appropriate and decisive steps to deal with them. However, we already have institutions and laws to do this. If they are not as effective as they should be, perhaps government should consider strengthening them. Creating a new institution where existing institutions are struggling to meet financial obligations is certainly not the way to go.
There are of course other issues. The day NGOs operate at the behest of a government institution, they cease to be NGOs. They become Government Owned NGOs (GONGO) thereby imperiling our democracy. Democracy is largely about plurality of ideas. Government has a responsibility to ensure NGOs ply their trade in accordance with existing laws. At the same time, NGOs owe a responsibility to society to hold government accountable to the people. This balance will be fundamentally and probably irretrievably distorted if the NGO bill becomes law.
Besides eroding our fledgling democracy, this NGO bill is likely to infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens. Right to freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution. Although the Constitution includes limitations where enjoyment of those rights impacts on public policy, morality, etc, it seems to me that the current effort does not fall under any one of the stipulated exceptions. In a context in which dissent is increasingly discouraged, it is difficult not to perceive this as an agenda to silence a few organizations committed to holding the government accountable to the people.
Let’s be clear – there are problems within the NGO sector, like every other sector. These problems deserve attention, not just by government but also by well-meaning Nigerians. Fortunately, there are mechanisms for addressing these problems. We need to take these mechanisms to task. Our institutions will not improve unless we place demands on them. Law makers who are truly concerned about enhancing the value that NGOs bring to the table ought to use their oversight capabilities to insist that violations of the law be punished to the latter.
Whilst this debate is on, the federal parliament might wish to take the opportunity to investigate how funds earmarked for projects aimed at improving the lives of Nigerians devastated by the insurgency in the North East was utilized. This has become necessary in view of the insinuation that some NGOs and individuals/institutions of government diverted resources meant for this purpose. A good place to start is perhaps to ask what has become of the investigations into allegations of phony grass-cutting contracts in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Surely, we do not need a new law or institution to do this.
The NGO bill debate presents an opportunity for the federal parliament and others interested in the work of NGOs to challenge existing institutions with regulatory responsibilities over NGOs to take their responsibilities more seriously. It is possible to identify and punish erring organizations. It does not serve any useful purpose to create new legislation or establish new institutions where there is no gap.
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