NGOs: To regulate or not to regulate?
It is not unusual for a bill before the legislature, federal or state, to kick up a thick dust of controversy. One such bill before the House of Representation doing just that is the bill “to provide for the Establishment of NonGovernmental Organisations (NGO) Regularly Commission,” sponsored by the deputy majority leader, Hon. Umar Buba Jibril. He submitted the bill to the lower house in 2016.
The bill is actually a resurrection of a similar bill sponsored by Hon. Eddie Ifeanyichukwu Mbadiwe in 2013. It was entitled a “Bill to regulate the Acceptance and Utilisation of Financial/Material Contributions of Donor Agencies to Voluntary Organisations.” It had similar objectives to the current bill. It too kicked up a fine dust of opposition to it. It went through the first reading in the house but luck was against it. It was suddenly stopped in its tracks when the 7th House of Representatives was dissolved.
As the current bill trudges through the legislative process, it garners robust condemnations from the NGOs and the Nigerian public generally. My attention was first drawn to the bill when I watched Chidi Odinkalu’s video clip on WhatsApp in which he spoke passionately against the bill, calling it “the most dangerous piece of legislation” that ever came before the national assembly. The former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission pointed out that the bill affects churches and mosques.
I have also read his post on the bill in which he pointed out that the bill was “the latest among .. measures to constrain the civil space and destroy dissent.” I thought that was pretty strong. It sent shivers down my spine. And sent me in search of this legislative ‘monstrosity.’
I have not read the bill but it seems to me that most of its critics have not read it either. It always happens that when someone disagrees with anything the rest of us simply parrot their dissent and encrust it with emotion and passion that pass for reasoned arguments.
I have read the reaction of Jibril, the sponsor of the bill, to the opposition to his bill. It seems to me that the man is not out “to constrain the public space.” He offers some valid explanations on the purpose of the bill and maintains that it is not the monster or the toxic legislation portrayed by its opponents. He makes the important point that “religious bodies and organisations are not NGOs” and are, therefore, not affected by the bill. So, there is no truth in the claim that the bill, when passed into law, would register religious bodies and compel them to account for what they earn from individuals and the public.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Religion is an emotional territory and nations steer clear of attempts to regulate religious bodies, trusting, I believe, that the denizens of heaven are capable of sifting the grains from the chaffs and would, at the appropriate time, put lying and fraudulent religious leaders in their place.
Jibril also points out that laws similar to what he has proposed here exist in the “ECOWAS subregion and all over Africa and other continents. Israel passed theirs last year. Kenya has a similar law since 1990.” Someone should contradict him.
In this war between the proponents and the opponents of the bill, I think truth, as always happens in a war, physical or verbal, has become the first casualty. It is bleeding badly, a victim of obfuscation and misleading arguments. But I cannot see why a law to regulate the activities of NGOs would be so bad as to affect almost all our freedoms as a nation. No piece of legislation can be that comprehensively bad.
Jibril makes three arguments that are both true and persuasive. One is that “the NGOs and CSOs solicit for funds from all over the world and collect billions of naira on behalf of Nigerians.” Two, “Some people registered NGOs, solicited for funds and disappeared.” Three, the bill “is to ensure transparency and accountability in the ways and manners the NGOs collect moneys and use them for Nigerians.”
Thanks to the crowded field, our NGOs have managed, quit remarkably, to acquire a reputation the serious-minded among them would be proud of. Some of these NGOs are one-man bands, set up primarily to exploit the helping hands of foreign donor agencies and thus the quickest route to free money for which they are accountable to no one. There is no denying that while some NGOs are true to their mandates, many others have no altruistic motives. They are there for the free money.
I once received two American visitors, a young man and a young woman, in my office at Newswatch. They told me that some donor agencies in their country were worried stiff about the proliferation of NGOs in our country and had commissioned them to authenticate them. I was not of much help to them, having never been particularly interested in the NGOs but the woman told me they had established the fact that most of the NGOs were fraudulent one-man organisations milking the foreign donor agencies and, as she put it, becoming wealthy individuals.
That resonated with me because I knew a failed journalist who turned himself into an NGO. All he did was to issue press releases, find a friendly newspaper news editor he induced to publish it. Once the story was published, he sent press cuttings to his donor agencies. In no time, he built a house to which he relocated in one of the suburbs of the Lagos metropolis.
I am sure there must be some objectionable clauses in the bill that need to be looked into and thrashed out before it becomes law. The reputable NGOs can offer informed views on the law and help to make it better. I am also sure the passionate opposition it faces would force the legislators to take whatever steps are necessary in the view of the public to give us a good law that would make the activities of the NGOs transparent and make them accountable to the proposed commission, and through it, the Nigerian public for whose sake and on whose behalf they receive generous local and foreign funding for their activities.
Accountability is a strong pillar in a democracy. It just does not feel right to exempt nongovernmental organisations from being accountable to the people as well as the donor agencies. Our reputable NGOs should worry about the fact that fraudulent men and women are soiling their names. My take is that this law would help the country clean up the cluttered NGO space and put the fraudsters out of business for good. That would be no mean achievement.