The speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, during an interactive session/technical roundtable on the NGO regulatory bill has accused civil society organisations of abusing the mandate of their establishments. He said that they are using their organisations as revenue generating organs and can act as conduits for the inflow of funds from terrorist sponsors to sabotage government policies. He also said that ‘there is loss of confidence in aid support through CSOs and NGOs in the country at large.’
This move by the legislators contradicts Nigeria’s position as a member of the OGP and other international Human rights treaties which completely adhere to the exclusive rights of every group and citizens, irrespective of their gender, religious and ethnic affiliation. The bill which is sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives, is for the establishment of Non-Governmental Organization Commission for the Coordination, Supervision and Harmonization of the activities of NGOs, and CSOs in Nigeria. The bill accrues the overall rights of government in supervision, termination, approval and regulation of all funding and project activities of NGOs.
The UN Human Rights Committee controls the authoritative interpretation and enforcement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It opposes the stand by member states that restricts foreign funding of local NGOs to maintain public order, avoid external interference and breach of national security. This means, failure by state parties to provide evidence of alleged threat caused by the external funding of NGOs, or creation of laws to prosecute any NGO because of external funding, is considered an abuse over the rights of NGOs to associate, express and assemble while delivering humanitarian service.
Parts of articles 19 (2) & Article 22 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states respectively that: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontier …And the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.’
When the Nigerian government joined the Open Government Partnership, OGP, as its 70th member country, it was with the desire to introduce transparent policies, initiate institutional development, and renew commitment to strengthen internal democracy and rule of law. Part of its effort was to seek global support against corruption, improve the capacity of relevant anti-corruption agencies, remove opaqueness in government, and promotion of transparency and accountability as tool for good governance. To attain the OGP demands for good governance, a collaborative effort of both the government and civil society is highly required and instrumental.
Under so many circumstances, the National Assembly has continued to undermine citizen’s rights, mostly when civil society organizations are determined to advocate for justice and social wellbeing of the people. Human rights defenders, and social groups agitating for change and advocating for people friendly policies are declared as enemies of the state. Sometimes, trumped up charges are used to silence them. This act of inconsistency and constant harassment of public defenders, makes it is difficult to trust the NASS on this bill. Because it has sometimes deployed state resources/taxes to repress activists who have the capacity to mobilise and create public awareness on calls for social responsibility and accountability. An indication of its unwillingness to cooperate with NGOs in building a peaceful social environment with viable economy, for democracy to thrive.
In a space of 2 years, over twelve bloggers were arrested for ‘defamation’ of politicians’ characters, intent to cause civil disturbance, felony, publication of false report and intent to slander. Most of these charges were fabricated against activists, social media and reporting journalists. Many of them were labelled as opposition and a threat to democracy. The government often disregards court orders to release suspects who are arrested and thrown into prison without trial. Some of the activists are given outrageous bail conditions. A typical example was the arrest of a notable Human rights activist, Kola Edokpayi, in Benin City, who was given stringent bail conditions part of which is that he must desist from organising public rallies and not grant press interviews anywhere around Edo state. This is how government shrinks the civic space.
Issues around the regulation of the activities of CSOs should serve as a wake-up call for CSOs around the country to come together as one to advocate for a habitable society where all humans are treated as equal. Rather than the NASS setting up a regulatory commission for NGOs, NGOs should work together to build a nationally recognised body like ASUU, NLC, NMA, NBA, ICAN etc. It should be a body with the capacity to provide humanitarian services, human capacity development, poverty alleviation, strengthening advocacy and engagement for social accountability and transparency in the society.
However genuine the NASS intentions with the regulation of CSOs may be, it is important for the NASS to first align with key international financial regulatory bodies such as the EGMONT group, which suspended the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Centre, for failing to adhere to its financial regulation. The NFIC has operational independence and greater capacity to provide financial intelligence to all relevant authorities to strengthen anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism. While the NASS had failed to sign the NFIC Bill into law, other countries like Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Mali, Togo etc. who are serious in tackling illicit financial flow and funding of terrorism have adopted the EGMONT financial policy. The NASS should prove to the international community of its readiness to combat terrorism and illicit financial flow, by passing the NFIC bill, rather than attacking civil societies.