The law to strangle civil society

The law to strangle civil society

Members of the Nigerian National Summit Group and other civil society organisations during a protest on the implementation of the 2014 National Conference report in Lagos… on Thursday. Photo: Goke Famadewa

The effort to take away the freedom of thousands of civil society organisations — now known and called the name it deserves, “obnoxious bill” seems to have failed in the public domain but is gaining attention within the membership of the National Assembly. The latest round of efforts, the Umar Buba Jubril bill (HB 585) looks doomed with growing number of citizens, citizen organisations in opposition.

Thanks to the many organisations and individuals raising awareness on the bill and pointing all stakeholders to the dangers of a bill — the video by human rights activist, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, lawmakers who publicly spoke against the bill, the activists who protested to the Office of the Lagos State Governor, the bloggers who flooded the Internet and made the #NoNGOBillNG trend on social media, the media who dispassionately featured the bill, the experts who did technical analyses of the bill, the activists who petitioned the United Nations, and many others.

This outpouring show of support against the bill has left all stakeholders thinking on how best to address both the threat and opportunity the NGO regulatory agency bill portends for national development. If the bill passes, the non-profit landscape will change significantly for the worse. Which is why many observers are worried. But it is not the end of the world yet. By now, everyone should have learnt that the sponsor of the bill will not give up going by the statements attributed to him on his justifications for why the bill must pass.

Certainly, the sector is upset! I have read calls by some groups asking for the recall of the House Committee Chair, Peter Akpatason, for what reason many non-state actors with deep understanding of the issues are asking. As long as we all are upset, our set of actions to stop the passage of the bill must not alienate those who are more with us than against us. Given his background and antecedents as the President of NUPENG, one cautiously assumes that our struggles are not new to Akpatason and that he will be an unbiased umpire in this instance.

Of particular importance are the positions some members of the National Assembly are taking in solidarity with the bill starting with House Leader Femi Gbajabiamila. Going by his social media post on issues surrounding the bill, it appears Gbajabiamila is worried that the sector can be used as conduits for terrorism financing.

On September 21, 2017, he wrote on his Facebook page: “NGOs must be regulated to track donations, protect donor agencies and prevent abuse. Nigeria must also know what’s coming in and from what source. This is a different age. We must be vigilant. Terrorists can be funded under the guise of NGO”.

He went ahead on September 22 to post a picture of a notice of deregistration of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission by the NGO Coordination Board of Kenya. The picture came with this post by him: “NGOs cannot be above the laws of the land. They must be regulated. We have to balance the equities, that is the two potential fears and abuse on both sides and determine which outweighs the other. More importantly, the whole idea of a public hearing is to address such fears”.

Gbajabiamila’s fear on the sector being used for terrorism financing are valid and the sector stands with him on this. However, this fear has already been addressed by the 2011 Anti-Money Laundering Law and the Money Laundering Amendment Act (HB410) presently on the floor of the National Assembly.  The 2011 AML sets up the Special Control Unit on Money Laundering which now monitors the funding received by non-profits. No non-profit can open a bank account without first registering with the SCUML. Interagency collaboration between the SCUML, Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit and the Corporate Affairs Commission also ensures that what comes into the sector is known and from what source.  Ask the NFIU or SCUML today what comes in, I am sure they will provide this information in a matter of seconds and not minutes.

African leaders are very quick to copy bad policies yet slow and reluctant to copy the good ones. The deregistration of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission by the NGO Coordination Board of Kenya, we all know, was politically motivated and that it came as a result of the organisation’s stand against fraud in the Kenyan elections. One agrees with Gbajabiamila that this is a “different age” and not the age where agencies of government can hide under obnoxious laws to muffle civic space.

What happened to the Kenyan Human Rights Commission is one of the reasons why we stand against the NGO regulatory agency bill as it has the potential for stifling critical voice(s) necessary for democratic growth and socio-economic development. Do we have provisions for deregistration of NGOs in the present regulatory frameworks that exist in the country? Yes, we do!

Part C of CAMA clearly states how this can and should be done. If Gbajabiamila is interested in deregistering NGOs, then the laws are already there why reinvent the wheel. One hopes and guesses he calls for the deregistration of the truly bad ones and not those holding him and the system accountable as can be seen from the Kenyan bad example of deregistration based on frivolous grounds already challenged and won in court since 2015 by KHRC (http://kenyalaw.org/caselaw/cases/view/121717/)

It seems our lawmakers are not conversant with the ways of working of the non-profit sector and existing regulatory frameworks as each supporter of the bill has sounded like there isn’t any regulation for the sector. This is making the sector think there are some ulterior motives if for crying out loud the seven regulatory frameworks in existence are ignored by the lawmakers who should know better. One agrees that the existing regulations need a critical review and institutional strengthening with the aim of enabling and not stifling the operations of non-profits who are already doing a lot using their own resources.

It is misleading to think all NGOs receive foreign funding; very few (4-5 per cent) do; others (96-95 per cent) use their personal resources, sourced primarily from their income, friends, family, public and corporations including from the National Assembly members. We must continue to prohibit proponents of regulation from the thoughts that no regulation existed or that they are not fit for purpose. There are and in line with international standards and norms though they need a review to be in line with 21st century NGO regulation and in sync with the operational environment of both small, medium and large non-profits.

There are several lawmakers who will not be as bold as Senator Shehu Sanni who came out boldly on his Twitter handle on September 23 to say, “The bill on NGOs will reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I’ll oppose it”. We need the likes of Sanni and Oghene Emmanuel Egor (representing Amuwo Odofin) who first opposed the bill in 2016 stating that, “the establishment of the Commission would defeat the aim and objectives of CSOs as it may attempt to manage and control funds received’’. He further noted that: “It is not within the jurisdictions of the Federal Government to monitor funds that it did not donate nor have ownership of’’.

My hope for the not too distant future is that nonprofits, National Assembly and regulators can find a pathway for working together to ensure our shared objectives of bringing the dividends of democracy and development to the doorsteps of the common man are enabled within the framework of attaining the SDGs and leaving no one behind!

Oluseyi, Executive Director, Nigeria Network of NGOs writes in from Lagos,seyi@nnngo.org

Copyright PUNCH.

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