The new bill is unnecessary

From the 8th National Assembly when the idea was first mooted, proposals to regulate civil society groups have come under different nomenclatures. Despite being shot down by condemnations, the idea would just not go away because many politicians feel uncomfortable that some of the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) demand accountability of them. Recently, another bill, sponsored by Sada Soli titled, “A Bill for an Act to Establish Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organisations Agency for the Promotion of Social Development Activities in Nigeria and for Related Matters,” surfaced in the House of Representatives.

We need to remind the current National Assembly that attempts to pass such an anti-people bill has thrice failed because Nigerians saw it as 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. Besides, these desperate attempts do more than merely seeking to stifle free speech and freedom of association, the real intention of proponents is to muscle the incredible network of voluntary organisations holding the nation together.

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 clear that such organisations cannot be subjected to the control of a board of government appointees. In so many countries, NGOs are 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 the society.

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. Indeed, we share the view that the NGO 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 bureaucratisation must not be allowed in the country. 

 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.

At a period when operatives of the current administration seem obsessed with the idea of regulating social media evidently to circumscribe the civic space, this is another dangerous proposition that should be resisted. Besides, 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 new bill suffers the fate of the previous ones.

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