The controversies generated by the proposed Bill to regulate the activities of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) by the 8th National Assembly remain unabated many months after it was first tabled at the House of Representatives.Though a consortium of CSOs has dragged the National Assembly to court over the bill, the controversies are still trending as TOPE SUNDAY highlights in this report.
Birth of the NGOs’ bill
On the 2nd of June, 2016, the Non-Governmental Organizations Regulatory Commission (Establishment) Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Hon. Umar Buba Jibril, a lawmaker from Kogi State, elected on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Consequent upon the ‘seriousness’ of its sponsor, the bill was first read on the same day. Twelve days later, the bill under went second reading on July 14, 2016. Thereafter, it was referred to the House Committee on CSOs and Development Partners.
From the outset, the proposed law which seeks to establish a federal agency responsible for the supervision, coordination and monitoring of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society Organizations, has divided Nigerians.
Specifically, some are of the opinion that the bill is anti-Nigerian masses. However, others see it as timely and the best way to check the unguarded utterances of some NGOs and CSOs in the country.
The bill, which has passed through the first and second readings, is currently at the committee stage. In fact, it had been smooth sailing before civil society activists started raising their voices against it.
The sponsor’s intent
However, Hon Jubril who sponsored the bill explained its noble objectives. According to him, the proposed law was primarily designed to checkmate NGOs with fraudulent tendencies and ensure that only genuine ones are licensed by a regulatory body.
He explained that NGOs and CSOs ‘’are voluntary organizations that are registered to partner with government at all levels to fill gaps wherever they exist. They are supposed to be partners in progress with the government; therefore, the need for a commission to serve this purpose arises.’’
Specifically, they solicit for funds from all over the world and collect billions of naira on behalf of Nigerians, in order to facilitate their work. Third, they recruit expatriates to help them run their activities in the country and sometimes, these come with lots of abuses.
“However, recent developments have shown that some people registered NGOs, solicited for funds and disappeared. This happened recently in the North East. The NGOs Bill, therefore, is primarily to set up a commission to regulate their activities and provide a platform for robust relationships between them and the government for the interests of Nigerians, ‘’ Hon Jibril had clarified.
According to him, the proposed law will ensure transparency and accountability in the ways and manners the NGOs collect moneys and use them for Nigerians.
Shehu Sani kicks
As lofty as the bill seemly appears, Senator Shehu Sani of the ruling All Progressives Congress, first fired the salvo against it, vowing to fight it when it comes to the upper legislative chamber. Sani, an activist-turned politician, tweeted that “the bill on NGOs will reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I’ll oppose it.’’
Similarly, a former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission(NHRC), Professor Chidi Odinkalu, argued that the proposed law would affect religious bodies and humanitarian agencies and organizations. He described the bill as unnecessary as there are already enough laws and institutions to regulate NGOs.
Lawyers support, oppose the bill
But some lawyers who also spoke with Blueprint Weekend expressed divergent views over the bill. For an Abuja-based Lawyer, Ajayi Olowo, the National Assembly has the prerogative to legislate and institute any bill but Nigerians should be concerned about its legality, especially whether it will infringe on their rights.
“Once it is passed into law, we will look at it as legal practitioners and see if it infringes upon any section of the constitution, then we could challenge it appropriately in court. But right now, they (the lawmakers) have a duty to go ahead and legislate what they have to because courts cannot even interfere in an on-going legislative process’’.
Also, Barrister Umukoro M.D. Egobuokolobia agreed with Olowo on the bill.
‘’For me, it is the right of government to regulate the activities of any organization. So, right now, what the people need to do is to call for the content of the bill, take a very close look at it. So, in essence, we all have to play according to the rules and come up with superior arguments.
However, Barrister Uchenna Oparaugo differed with the duo of Olowo and Egobuokolobia . He alleged that the bill is targeted at gagging activities of NGOs and CSOs and warned that if the bill is not stalled, it would have adverse effects on the Nigerian masses. According to him, ”NGOs do more of humanitarian work and if government now starts to regulate it, I do not know how that would help our society because in other climes, I have never seen or read about such development. It will come to a situation when government’s bureaucracy would be fully introduced into the activities of the NGOs and a lot of Nigerians will suffer it. Sometimes, ordinary Nigerians get opportunities and scholarships through these NGOs, but by the time government regulates them, you will find out that those that would be at the helm might not have good intention”.
Speaker Dogara’s stance
Despite the controversies trailing the bill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, appears non- perturbed by the development as he justifies the House’s action.
Dogara, while reacting to criticisms trailing the bill, declared that the National Assembly will not be intimidated into abandoning its duty of providing a platform for Nigerians to agree or disagree on any proposed legislative measure. “No one can nor indeed, should gag the operations of NGOs in Nigeria.
But, just as they aspire for this freedom, it must be stated that freedom does not come without responsibility as there is no such thing as freedom to be irresponsible. The legislative process cannot be short circuited”, he had said.
Amidst controversies trailing the bill, a new twist has been added to it as the Human Rights Agenda Network (HRAN) has sued the National Assembly to stop further deliberation on bill. In a suit filed on November 3, 2017 at the Federal High Court in Abuja, the plaintiffs, comprising 23 NGOs, are seeking an order of court to declare the NGO Regulation bill as unconstitutional and unlawful .
The groups also asked the court to determine whether a judicial order can be made to stop the legislature from deliberating on a bill pending before it and if that is possible, an order stopping further deliberations on the bill.
The proposed law, according to them, will violate their right to; freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and non-discrimination, as enshrined under sections 39, 40 and 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). The groups also asked the court to declare that the provisions of the Bill is contrary to section 40 of the constitution.
The Bill, they argued, by seeking to register and regulate NGOs as if they are political parties is unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs, through their counsel, Mr. Chino Obiagwu, also asked the court to declare that the provisions of the bill are contrary to the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), under which NGOs are registered, because it creates extra burden on the registered NGOs than the law has placed on other registered companies.
In a 19-paragraph affidavit in support of the summons, HRAN claimed that the coalition doesn’t need to wait for the bill to be passed into law before challenging it. According to it, once it can be shown that the bill is likely to infringe on their rights if passed into law, the court can stop the National Assembly from deliberating on it by virtue of section 46 (1) of the constitution.
More litigations ahead
Though the further deliberations on the bill have been stalled because of the suit filled against it, analysts are of the view that the NGOs Regulation draft bill is aimed at gagging the NGOs and CSOs who have been putting the National Assembly on its toes. According to them, there are more pending national issues that deserve the legislators’ attention, instead of dissipating energy on the bill.
The last may not have been heard about the bill because even after it is signed into law, the legislation will be challenged in court.