The NGO regulation bill is in bad taste

Notwithstanding the arrogant and patently misleading reaction of the Deputy Majority Leader of the House, Hon. Buba Jibril over his proposed controversial “NGO Regulation Bill”, there is already a consensus by majority of Nigerians that the brazen attempt to limit freedom of thought and expression in the country will be resisted. The bill which seeks to militarise the civic space and make it impossible for anyone who harbours views different from that of the government, is a move towards dictatorship to which Nigerians have said an unequivocal No!

That many NGOs, both local and international, are playing critical roles in the on-going reconstruction work in the areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency is not in doubt. But nothing can be more dishonest than Jibril’s claim that the bill intends to ensure transparency and accountability in the management of resources by the NGOs involved in such humanitarian efforts; especially when the federal government has failed to act on the National Assembly report indicting the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Babachir Lawal, who fiddled with the funds meant for the internal displaced persons (IDPs) in the same location.

We want to put it on record that we subscribe to the view that NGOs cannot be above the law of the country. But we feel comforted by the fact that there is already a strong body of laws regulating them in Nigeria. Therefore, as most commentators have said, what the proposed legislation seeks to do is to destroy the rights already guaranteed in our constitution and it will impact on all NGOs in the areas of welfare, research, relief, agriculture, education, industry, supply of amenities, etc.

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.

Against the background that a combination of independence from government and collaboration with the media and civil society helps in making NGOs to be effective in their role, this dangerous bill is targeted against the people. Besides, it could not have been a coincidence that the proposed legislation came at the same period the federal government was also toying with the sinister 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. Yet, 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 suffocate NGOs with exponential and needless bureaucratisation 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.

Even in the best of societies, democracy withers when the alternative channels of civic action and expression provided by non-governmental groups is threatened. To consciously enact laws designed to officially muzzle these organisations is to court dictatorship and nourish absolutism.