The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending against all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks ~ Samuel Adams
This evergreen statement by the erudite philosopher and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States will continue to resonate among the greater proportion of conscionable men who want and strive for a better society.
Ever since a bill to control and regulate the activities of NGOs was introduced to the House of Representatives in July 2016 there has been widespread criticism and condemnation of the move.
The Bill which is sponsored by Hon. Umar Buba Jibril (Deputy Leader, PDP: Kogi), proposes among other things to establish a Regulatory Commission for NGOs. This body will be headed by an Executive Secretary for a five-year tenure, a Governing Board comprising of 18 members and a Chairman, all of whom shall also be appointed by the President. The Board will have powers to reject and approve the application for a license from NGOs.
Having read the bill I can say without any fear of contradiction that it is aimed at cajoling and intimidating a sector that has contributed greatly to our incipient democracy. Ostensibly what this bill proposes in simple language is for our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and association to be curbed.
Surely nothing can be more draconian, what do these lawmakers take us for? The fact that an opposition lawmaker spent time and resources to come up with this preposterous bill in this modern age clearly portrays the manner of rustic sycophancy peculiar to most of our public officials. There is no civilized nation where the government seeks to suppress the activities of civil society organizations. They are rather seen as partners in progress for the good of the larger society, sadly it remains to be seen if our so-called honorable members in Abuja appreciate the positives of such malleability.
We can agree that in a country like ours the proliferation of numerous organizations claiming to be non-profits has many cons. There have been cases of fraudulent operations, corrupt enrichment, and even security threat, the truth, however, is that the pros far outweigh these cons. More often than not, especially during conflicts, while the Intergovernmental organizations like the AU and UN are rambling about the strategy or consequence of moving into trouble spots, these NGOs are often the first to deploy. The innumerable benefits of NGOs simply cannot be sacrificed on the pretext of safeguarding national security by lawmakers who have a legendary reputation for servile flattery.
Expectedly the Nigeria Network of NGOs led by its Executive Director Seyi Oyebisi fired the first salvo. In a letter to Hon Jibril and the relevant House Committee the network shredded the vacuous and inscrutable summations of the proposed bill in 3 areas, namely; security, lack of legal framework and regulating the funding of the sector. The letter queried the evidence to back up the growing narrative of NGOs being funding channels for terrorism even when available statistics show that less than 5% of them receive foreign funds. It also reminded the lawmakers that the CAC, NPC, and FIRS already have several existing legal frameworks guiding the activities of NGOs especially in the area of funding.
Subsequently, several leaders of thought from across the civil society, media and the academia have spoken out to warn our lawmakers and sensitize Nigerians on the perils of any attempt to emasculate our already endangered freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly.
In a press statement signed by 54 persons, including Agbakoba, Falana and Adeniyi they argued that the lawmakers “desire to bring back to life all the intolerance and high-handedness of military rule, by clamping down on voluntary organisations” at a time Nigerians were suffering from the worst economic crisis in decades and thereby urged well-meaning Nigerians to “lend their voices in condemning this bill and encourage the National Assembly to withdraw it from consideration”
In one of its editorials, Thisday newspapers pummeled the bill and concluded that it will not only stifle our freedom but will also lynch “the incredible network of voluntary organizations holding the nation together” and called on the “stakeholders in the national democratic project to work collectively to ensure that this bill does not see the light of day”.
So even though the House of Reps just released a statement to explain and defend its intent on passing the bill there is little doubt that the successes of our NGOs far out-mark their deficiencies. They are more accountable than our government agencies. They have in the past exposed corruption and promoted transparency in government. So while we concede that the extant laws should be amended to accommodate some of the present-day realities we should definitely not support a bill that will hand over much of our freedom to a few selected government officials.
One of the frontrunners of this campaign to enlighten the average Nigerian on the dangers of the toxic bill Prof Chidi Odinkalu Chairman, Governing Council, Section on Public Interest & Development Law (SPIDEL), Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has summarised the flaws of the bill in a 5-minute video.
Prof. Chidi Odinkalu
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