“He Who Comes Into Equity Must Come With Clean Hands.”
This old maxim is the basis of the clean hands doctrine and constitutes the meat of this treatise that seeks to thrust a beamlight on the activities of NGO’s and CSO’s in the democratic realm of Nigeria. The core thrust of mainstream civil society organizations (CSO’s) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) is to promote human rights, democracy, good governance, and the protection of civil liberties in ecosystems where they operate.
Indeed, many of Nigeria’s civil society startups exist precisely because the barrier for entry is so low. Unlike under military rule, today’s newly formed NGOs are relatively free to operate, build relationships, and seek support with international donors. They are also now able to leverage transformative outreach and fundraising tools on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp amongst others.
Since 2015, legislators have twice introduced bills to strictly regulate NGOs, even though they are already subject to corporate laws such as the Companies and Allied Matters (CAMA) Act. It claims that some NGOs “solicit funds for selfish motives” and “fund the activities of insurgents,” based on submission(s) of Nigeria’s military agencies much earlier. The House deputy majority leader introduced the first such bill in 2016, but it failed to pass before the legislative session ended in 2019.
The Speaker, Federal House of Representatives, Right Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila championed a similar bill in 2019, declaring that NGOs needed stricter regulation because some were aiding the Boko Haram insurgency. This second bill aimed to create a civil society regulatory agency with just four civil society representatives on its nineteen-seat board. Two of those four would be nominated by the National Youth Council of Nigeria.
In early 2020, the bill stalled amid sharp criticism from civil society and some legislators, one of who reminded his colleagues how, under military rule, pro-democracy NGOs gave their “blood, sweat and resources to win democracy for the country.” Nevertheless, legislators amended the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) in 2020 to increase state influence over civil society groups, empowering the government to remove trustees from the board of an NGO when, for instance, it deems that doing so is in the “public interests.”
Mainstream NGOs of all sizes and construct need funds to operate, organize events, conduct training and research, pay staff, and rent office space. Most legitimate NGOs are supported either directly by grants or task-specific contracts from international development agencies and charitable foundations, or indirectly via partnerships with larger NGOs. Many disclose their funding pipeline on their web portal, at their events, or in their annual reports. Most international donors likewise publish details of the projects and organizations they fund.
It has been expressed in some quarters that some NGO’s represent a meaningful threat to Nigeria’s democratic development, social cohesion, and long-term stability. Professor of International Studies and professor of Anthropology at Brown University, Daniel Jordan Smith noted much earlier, that a large proportion of Nigeria’s NGOs of were created in response to the growing availability of donor monies, contributing to the average citizen’s belief that NGOs were somehow linked to a world of “fraud, deceit, and corruption.”
Nigeria’s mainstream Civil Societies sector are the primary conduit for international assistance focused on democracy, good governance, and human rights promotion in Africa’s most populous nation. It’s strongly advised that the Nigerian government via the levers of legislation of the National Assembly to enforce existing corporate laws, ensuring that all NGOs register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), identify a board of trustees populated by individuals with unblemished records, and submit annual financial reports to the commission – These lacunae are drawbacks that are not strictly adhered to by a large number of NGO’s and CSO’s in the civil society ecosystem. Some of the grants and the description of the grants does not match the beneficiary NGO/CSO’s scope, from 2008-2021 Socio-Economic Right and Accountability Project (SERAP) have been awarded $3,142,167 from one donor, Connected Development Initiative (CODE) was awarded $350,000 by the same donor to Monitor the funds in Kaduna State’s Universal Basic Education Commission, and also International Centre for Investigative Reporting got $1,537,255 from 2016-2021 from the same donor. Enough Is Enough (EIE) was given $100,000 to disburse as Covid19 Palliative Support with no evidence of disbursement.
Nigeria’s tax enforcement and anti-corruption agencies should also investigate mainstream NGOs particularly with respect to their sources of funding, tax compliance, and relationships with politically exposed persons. It’s highly imperative for diplomats, donors and development partners, as well as legitimate domestic and international NGOs, also could do more to call out pro-government groups toxic tendencies and exert requisite pressure on their high-level sponsors. Time would tell, if these recommendations are implemented by the parties that operate in these ecosystem.