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NGO regulation bill and tragedy of the National Assembly


Nigeria’s House of Representative is currently pushing a bill to regulate Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The bill was introduced on June 2, 2016 by Umar Buba Jubril, a lawmaker from Kogi State, elected on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The preamble of the bill describes it as one “to provide for the establishment of the Non-Governmental Organizations Regulatory Commission for the supervision, co-ordination and monitoring of non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations etc., in Nigeria and for related matters.”

I have done a critical perusal of the bill comprising 58 sections. Ordinarily, reading through the provisions, it requires little or no imagination to grasp its danger. The bill establishes the NGO Regulatory Commission, which will have an Executive Secretary and a 17-member Governing Board to be appointed by the President for a five-year tenure. The commission will thereafter be empowered to issue licence, requiring renewal every two years. The bill will ensure that organizations submit progress and completion reports of implemented programmes.

Section 15(C) provides that the board may refuse registration of any applicant if it is satisfied, on the recommendation of the Council, that the applicant should not be registered. In other words, the commission may fail to register an organization if in its opinion should not be registered. The board will also be empowered to poke-nose into how funds are received and spent by NGOs. I can continue to pick out many toxic provisions of the bill.

But, the most dangerous provision of the bill is Section 13(4) which renders any organization not registered under the Act (when passed into law) inoperative. A bill that tends to “governmentise” Non-Governmental Organizations, control and cease the right to freedom of association guaranteed under our law is inappropriate. For Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution provides that “every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interest”.

A critical look at the bill shows that it has grievously violated the provisions of the above section. The bill has openly breached the constitutional right to peaceful assembly and association. It is also not in compliance with the supreme nature of the constitution. Section 1(3) of the 1999 Constitution provides that where any other law (an example of this bill when turns law), is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution, the constitution shall prevail and such law will be so void for its inconsistency. See ABACHA v. FAWEHINMI (2000) 6 NWLR (Pt. 660) 228. In light of this, it would be safe for the bill to be declared illegal as it does not conform with the sacred provisions of the constitution. Its whole purports stand against the right to freedom of assembly and right to freedom of expression and the press.

Many provisions of the bill have appeared to be an attempt to gag and frustrate civil society organizations in the country. The bill should be wholly condemned and rejected for its unpopularity. In a situation where the bill is allowed to turn law and the voices of critics and civil society organizations are silenced, the country immediately return to the Hobbesian State of Nature.

It will relegate the country to pure anarchy. The bill, in short, is the direct opposite of democracy. The reason being that a democratic government remains highly incomplete without constructive criticisms and the instrumentality of civil society organizations. The place of CSOs cannot be belittled in the task to hold government accountable. And so, any attempt to abolish or relegate them to the background will amount to nothing other than disaster.

Disgustingly, the bill is coming up for consideration at such time when the federal government is toying with the idea of creating a commission to regulate social media content; a time when the federal government is attempting to mistake “hate speech” for terrorism and a time when critics of government are usually being harassed by security agencies. All these indicate attempts by the government to regulate and even control citizen’s role as watchdog and their collective liberty.

Suffice it to say, however, that the entire provisions of the bill are not totally useless as many critics of the bill think. And this is the only point where my position defers from many other well-meaning critics. There are few provisions therein that appears good. Disturbingly, the precarious ones have beclouded the Roscoe Pound’s social engineering essence of law. If the bad ones are expunged, worthless little or nothing will be left of the bill. This point must be made clear in view of many “attacks” leashed on the sponsor of the bill. We should not be too quick to dispose the dirty water in the bath with the baby. We should acknowledge the beneficial provisions of the bill.

Nonetheless, there are a plethora of enactments that have adequately catered for the “good” sides of the bill. Making another law with close resemblance of existing ones will amount to nothing other than unnecessary duplication. I will save myself the stress of mentioning the Acts enacted before now. Elected representatives are those meant to be more knowledgeable about the existence of a law or the other, so the excuse of ignorance of the existence of identical laws on the side of the lawmakers will be untenable.

It should be stated that the problem, if any, with civil society organizations will not be solved by enacting more laws; this is an error on the side of the hallowed chamber. Implementation of existing law is what the country desperately needs. Enacting laws of close resemblance with earlier ones without adequate provisions for implementation, maybe to score cheap political points, should be wholly condemned.

The attitude of our lawmakers in regard to this bill is of grievous significance. It is very sad that our lawmakers could allow such toxic bill get to Committee Stage. Allowing such bill get to that sensitive stage signifies our lawmakers as anything but serious. If they were something other than unflippant, the bill should have been thrown out at first sight.

In constitutional law, there are stages that should be passed before a bill turns law. In the First Reading, the bill is being read out to the member of the House. At this stage, no discussion or debate as regards the bill will be entertained. The bill thereafter moves to the Second Reading. At this stage, the bill is discussed and debated upon after being read for the second time. After the bill is debated, as provided under Section 56 of the 1999 Constitution, it is put to a vote on whether it move to the Committee Stage.

For a dangerous bill like this, it ought to have met its needful death at the Second Reading. If the bill had been well debated and the legislators are well eagle-eyed to spot the evil in the bill, it will take them little or no time to trash the bill in the dustbin. But, no, that is not their fashion. Did I just say they were not curious enough to spot the defects or it was intentionally allowed to move on? In either case, the spirits of “aye and nay” have thrown out the old legislative culture of critical debate and decisions. Loyalty to members sponsoring a bill has made it difficult for our lawmakers to call a spade its real name.

In the final analysis, if the law will truly serve the veritable tool for social engineering and political renaissance, the lawmakers have to take their business more seriously. National interests should be equally allowed to superimpose other personal and political sentiments. If national interest is placed above other priorities, the Nigeria of our dream will turn reality.

Ogun is a 400 level Law student of Olabisi Onabanjo University.

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