The bill looks set to limit freedom of thought and expression

There is a controversial bill now making its way through the National Assembly. Titled “NGO Regulation Bill”, it has already passed first and second readings in the House of Representatives and is now at committee stage. It is sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader of the House, Hon. Buba Jibril. Going by the letter and spirit of the bill, it constitutes a deliberate violation of the guarantees of freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and freedom of association, as contained both in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution (as amended) and in international law to which Nigeria is a signatory.

While we subscribe to the view that NGOs cannot be above the law, it is also a fact that there is already a strong body of laws regulating them in Nigeria. But what the proposed legislation seeks to do is to destroy the rights already guaranteed in our constitution. Indeed, there are fears that it could be an instrument for dictatorship, especially when the bill intends to militarise the civic space and make it impossible for anyone who harbours views different from that of the government to organise with legal protection around those views.

Recognised by the United Nations (UN) to which Nigeria is a member, a non-governmental organisation is a non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group that is task-oriented and motivated by people with a mutual interest. They carry out a multiplicity of service and humanitarian functions, like bringing citizen concerns to governments, advocating and monitoring policies and encouraging political participation through provision of information. It is therefore very clear that such organisations cannot be subjected to the control of a board of government appointees.

In so many countries, NGOs have been seen as important contributors to the process of implementing policy and delivering services as major providers of public information, education, motivation and engagement on national and international issues. In Nigeria, many of them, both local and international, are playing critical roles in on-going reconstruction work in the areas affected by Boko Haram.

The combination of independence from government and collaboration with the media and civil society and decision makers ensures NGOs to be very much effective to achieve developmental goals. NGOs also help to broaden knowledge by translating scientific and technical information into terms understandable to decision makers, the media and the public, and into specific recommendations for new or amended laws. They also do advocacy.

Sadly, this dangerous bill came at a time when the federal government was toying with the idea of creating a commission to regulate social media content. A similar measure earlier sponsored by Hon. Jibril’s counterpart in the Senate, Deputy Majority Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, had failed to pass through the upper chamber. But increasingly, many social media activists are routinely persecuted across the country with the public space being increasingly circumscribed by a government that came to power on the agenda of “Change”.

Therefore, we share the view that the NGO Regulation Bill is the latest among measures that seem designed to coerce the civic space and destroy dissenting voices. It is against the dictates of democracy. We hold strongly that any bill that will governmentalise NGOs and suffocate them with exponential bureaucratization – at a time when official government policy is to ease transaction costs for small entities must not be allowed in the country.

This bill does more than merely seek to stifle free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. It will kill the incredible network of voluntary organisations holding the nation together. At a time of lean resources, the bill also seeks to create another meaningless agency that will add to the already bloated government overheads. We therefore urge all stakeholders in the national democratic project to work collectively to ensure that this bill does not see the light of day.