NGOs: To reg­u­late or not to reg­u­late?

Sunday Trust - - VIEWPOINT -

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.

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