Punch: Reps’ Repressive NGO Regulatory Bill

THE ongoing bid by the House of Representatives to regulate activities of Non-Governmental Organisations and Civil Society represents the latest in a series of efforts by overbearing lawmakers to muffle critical voices of opposition and cow the public into submission. The draft bill, which has already passed its Second Reading, depicts a parliament bent on having its finger in every pie, while vigorously resisting attempts to subject its own repugnant activities to public scrutiny. Democracy works best when the civil society is robust and independent of state control or government involvement.

Regrettably, faced with weighty national challenges — gargantuan corruption, relentless restiveness, an economy in the doldrums and a youth unemployment time bomb — all what a serious parliament would concern itself with is how to pass a bill to regulate activities of NGOs and civil society organisations.

The motive of this bill is as detestable as its content. According to reports, the NGO Regulation Bill, sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader, Umar Jibril, proposes the creation of an NGO Regulatory Commission that would oversee the activities of not-for-profits. When passed into law, the commission will be run by a 17-member board, with a Chairman and an Executive Secretary to be appointed by the President. The board will then be responsible for the licensing of the NGOs and CSOs. This puts it in a position to decide which to license and which not to. It also wields the power to review licences, which could result in revocation. The only source of redress is an appeal to the Minister.

This preposterous idea in a country professing to be a democracy is unacceptable. It is an attempt to rob Nigerians of their hard-earned freedom of association and expression. Is it not a bitter irony that what Nigeria did not experience in her lengthy years under the jackboots of dictatorial regimes is now what the lawmakers want to plunge the country into in the era of democratic governance? This is one bill that Nigerians must resist.

Constricting our democratic space is increasingly becoming the pastime of the National Assembly. The parliament’s attempt to shrink the space for free speech and liberty had earlier manifested in the Social Media Bill of 2015, which public protests compelled it to abandon last year. This latest bid is, undoubtedly, a reincarnation of this anti-democratic obsession. Civil society groups have been critical of federal lawmakers since 1999 because of their serial financial scandals and performance failure. One of them, Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project, has many times challenged the secrecy that underpins their salaries, allowances and constituency projects. In 2016, SERAP petitioned Michael Forst, the UN Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, drawing his attention to the Senate’s failure to confirm Ibrahim Magu as the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. With the NGO law, the existence of SERAP and other credible government monitoring groups will be threatened.

Repressive regimes and rogue states seek to control civil society activities and undermine democracy, transparency, accountability and good governance. Countries such as Russia, China, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Kenya, among others, rank high in this regard. In Russia, its leaders label NGOs and CSOs as “foreign agents” or spies. Maina Kiai, a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, observed that at least 30 of such groups left the country between 2012 and 2016. Strictures on registration, funding and operations of such groups debilitate them; further worsened by the Yarovayo laws in 2016. That year, a Russian court blocked the professional social network, LinkedIn, with six million users, ruling that it was unlawful to store personal data of Russians outside the country.

In Egypt, NGOs must obtain government’s approval before receiving funding from donors. A five-year jail term awaits any civil society activist with foreign links without government’s imprimatur, according to the law regulating NGO operations. Besides, the relocation of originally registered headquarters of an organisation attracts one year jail term and a hefty fine.

Kenya, which also has a commission that regulates NGOs, on August 14, shut down Africa Centre for Open Governance and Kenya Human Rights Commission. They were critical of shoddy preparations for the recent presidential election, which the Supreme Court cancelled on the grounds of irregularities. What followed were charges of tax evasion and administrative lapses against them. However, the clampdown has been put in abeyance for 90 days.

It is paradoxical that a National Assembly that is not transparent and accountable in its own finances is now prying into activities of NGOs. Lawmakers should be guided by the failure of Social Media Bill. Senate’s joint committees that critically examined the bill reached the conclusion that some of the extant laws, such as the Penal Code, the Criminal Code and the Cybercrime Act, had sufficient provisions to address the fears the bill sought to deal with.

Nigerians should resist this and other repressive measures by the lawmakers who are not only out of touch with the people they purportedly represent, but appear increasingly out of control. NGOs and CSOs should mobilise mass support across the country to oppose oppression. They should reach out to the organised labour movement, civic-minded lawyers, students, professional associations, market and other grassroots groups and the international community. Voluntary bodies, including faith-based organisations like churches, evangelistic groups and clubs should not be complacent, but join in the push-back against the bill. The powers in the proposed commission could easily be used to cripple their rights too. Academics should not stay aloof when tyranny rears its head; we expect to hear loud, qualitative interventions from them.

The justification proffered by a legislator that some NGOs allegedly pilfered foreign funds meant for internally displaced persons in the North-East is obtuse. There are enough laws, rules and financial regulations to handle such crimes. With all its inadequacies, the 1999 Constitution protects fundamental human rights, including freedom of association and of expression. Nothing should be done to take these rights away from the people through the backdoor.

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