The NGO Bill and Resisting Threats to Democracy
Since the return of democracy in 1999, whenever civil society has come out with expose about corruption, bad governance or repression, the response by a few people in the legislature is to propose a Bill to shut up civil society. It’s a futile exercise because the Nigerian human rights spirit is irrepressible and the Nigerian people deeply believe in democracy even if some of their leaders do not. Nigerian legislators travel a lot and in their trips to Ethiopia, Egypt and Russia, they found out that these countries have established laws that make it almost impossible for human rights organisations to survive and do their work effectively. They are forced to re-register under difficult and expensive conditions, they are required to seek government permission to do their routine work, those who receive foreign funding are registered as foreign agents and the new laws make it possible for government to close down any organisation it does not like without even having to give any reason.
Currently, there is another attempt to impose a draconian law designed to castrate civil society, restrict civil space and block the work of human rights organisations in the country. The new Bill does not only infringe on the right to association, conscience and religion but even more importantly, is a toxic attempt to legitimize discrimination, and entrench corruption.
The Bill is based on a lie, that civil society organizations are afraid of being regulated. In preparing the political grounds for the Bill, a lot of spin has been organised about “massive corruption by civil society organisations in the North East.” The spin does not point out that the said organisations in the North East are not Nigerian civil society organisations.
The stories are being created simply to create a toxic atmosphere about civil society. The idea is to give a dog a bad name as a prelude to killing it. It is extremely irritating that every few years, civil society activists have to come out to defend their right to exist. Nigerians should not forget that the return to democracy was the result of the concerted struggle of civil society against military dictatorship and many of the actors seeking to subvert civil society today were on the side of authoritarianism and against the people two decades ago.
The position of Nigerian civil society is simple – do not subvert the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Nigerians and their organisations in the guise of regulation. Civil society has been at the heart of the struggle of enhancing mechanisms for enhancing transparency and accountability in our country and cannot be afraid of it. There is a law – the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) that regulates civil society organisations. The National Planning Commission (NPC) directly governs the activities of international development partners and foreign civil society organisations. They cannot operate without a signed MOU with the NPC. If there are issues about regulation, why are these laws not being reviewed and why do we have Nigerian legislators copying laws from Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia. When did these countries become our “democracy” teachers?
The Proposed Bill:
The evidence is clear that the proposed Bill is an attempt to utilize regulation to stifle and obstruct the working of civil society organization in Nigeria. It is also an insidious attempt to provide grounds to disrupt democratic accountability and prosecute organizations on trumped up charges and allegations. Some examples:
1. In addition to the onerous process of re-registration of organisations, this proposed Bill provides that every certificate issued for a project shall be valid for only 24 months from the date of issue. As is well known, the average life span of most development projects is five years. Why require for recertification after just two years?
2. Section 17 & 18 make provision for renewal of registration, cancellation or suspension of registration for organisations. For example, Section 17 (5), the power granted the Board to vary the terms and conditions of NGOs could be grossly abused. In addition, Section 18 (1) did not adequately make provision for the grounds for cancellation and suspension of certificate issued. These aforementioned provisions are not just weak, open-ended but are also subject to abuse. Clearly, granting the right to register or de-register non-government organizations without adducing reasons is inimical to development and gives room to silence opposing views. In the same vein, in trying to limit the administrative cost of not for profit organisations, the provisions of section 25(3) refers the organization to seek guidance from the Minister when in doubt on what constitute the barest minimum in determining its administrative charges, thus defining barest minimum becomes relative, barest minimum can amount to 1 percent for organization A and another 50 percent for organization B. This allows for the exercise of unnecessary discretion and abuse of power. It is also important to point out the minister in this instance is being over burdened with other responsibilities.
3. The Bill is actually designed to promote corruption. Section 21(4) of the Bill provides that in the event any organization ceasing to exist, the board shall suggest how the assets and liabilities of the organization shall be disposed of. This does not only give room for abuse of office but also is a duplication of efforts as the Companies and Allied Matters Act have explicitly stated that in the event of winding up, organizations shall donate assets to like mind organizations. Why should the responsibility of suggestion be given to the board?
4. The most serious element of the Bill is that it is designed to bring non-governmental organisations directly under government tutelage. NGOs must obtain project approval by relevant ministries to operate. This provision does not only seek to governmentalize non-government entities but does not take into consideration the rapid intervention action, not for profit organisations regularly provide in Nigeria.
5. It is important to point out that civil society organisations often monitor the accountability of governments to citizens. How do we expect government to approve watchdogs checking it? The Centre for Democracy and Development for example has been monitoring the promises the ruling party made to citizens during the campaign. Our Buharimeter has been reminding Nigerians what they have been promised. Should we require ministries and departments to give permission before we engage with citizens, the whole project could have been easily compromised. Democracy means ordinary citizens can review comment on and criticize governmental action. Requiring that government must grant permission before citizens can talk and criticize is the most direct route to dictatorship that can be taken.
6. Religious organisations should also be conscious of the implications of the Bill for their activities. It is important to point out that it is a mere ruse by the promoters of this bill to suggest the bill does not affect churches, mosques and other similar charitable groups. A joint reading of the definition of an organization, non-governmental organization and mobilization of resources makes them part of the group.
7. It is important for government to accept that organisations that engage it on the policy arena are partners and not enemies. Systems and institutions mature and grow when they are regularly challenges and critiqued. When voices of dissent are shut down, institutions suffer from atrophy and die. We call on Nigerians and our legislators to throw this legislation, which is so dangerous for our democracy.
Idayat Hassan, Director and Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, Senior Fellow
write for the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)