Let’s begin with a quote attributed to Emily Thorne: “If we choose to, we can live in a world of comforting illusions. We can allow ourselves to be deceived by false realities. Or we can use them to hide our true intentions.” For some reason, this quote reminds me of the Greek trojan horse, the famed peaceful gift that led to the downfall of a city. My mind also links the quote to a bill being considered by Nigeria’s legislative arm. Some may consider the NGO bill as well-intentioned, but what I see is disguised evil waving a white flag.
Over the past few months, I have encountered several online posts about the NGO bill. I have seen tweets by different NGOs I deem reputable and individuals I can say that I hold in regard. However, apart from retweeting certain tweets, I did not really take the protested bill to mind. That is until I saw a video by Prof Chidi Odinkalu, former chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission. In the almost six-minute long video, he covered different aspects of the proposed bill, highlighting legal implications in what sounded like a crying gong warning of impending doom.
I have looked at some reasons given by the sponsor of the bill and some Nigerians who support the bill. For starters, a claim by the bill’s sponsor, Umar Jibril, that some NGOs in Nigeria use donated funds to sponsor terror groups is crap. By making such a claim, it implies he is duly aware of such NGOs. If this is true, is the Nigerian security apparatus unaware of this? If they are unaware, has he presented this “intel” to them? If they are aware, why have such NGOs not been prosecuted? The problem here is that as Nigerians, we have become used to politicians and government officials telling barefaced lies that every claim now needs at least a cooking spoon of salt before digestion. I am certain that if an NGO or any individual is complicit in funding terrorism, there are sufficient laws to prosecute such an NGO or individual. If evidence cannot be uncovered, the government can at least resort to the media trials for which it has gained quite some expertise.
A plausible grievance cited by the bill’s supporters is the need to regulate the funds that accrue to NGOs and how such funds are spent in order to ensure transparency. Now, this is a really good point. However, I think there are already existing provisions to enshrine transparency. At best, such provisions should be strengthened. I have seen NGOs like JA Nigeria publish their annual accounts. I have also seen a few churches that annually publish their finances for church members. Since these organisations are registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, I think getting a rule for registered NGOs to make their financial statements public is not a bad idea. However, if NGOs would be required to have expenditures approved by the government, that is a ridiculous proposition.
The government could for example, tell NGOs that salaries and overhead costs should not exceed a certain percentage of revenue (with sensible exemptions for some groups). This would ensure people do not form NGOs just to fleece donors without doing anything on the ground. However, the government has no business telling NGOs what projects to do with the money they raise. It is expected that no NGO would raise funds without donors being aware of the planned use of such funds. If donors are comfortable with their funds being used to build classrooms or distribute wrappers, the government should back off. By the way, it is sanctimonious that the legislature touting the goodness of financial transparency is the same institution that has refused to open its own books to the public. If this is not hypocrisy, then Jesus needs to apologise to the maligned Pharisees.
Amongst all the stipulations in the proposed bill, my key grievance is the requirement for registered NGOs to reapply for registration every two years. Believe me when I say this does not make any sense. Nigeria is a country where it is forbidden to make long-term plans. The lawmakers are now seeking to force all organisations to be as disorganised as the government. If an NGO’s registration is not guaranteed beyond two years, how can it plan long-term projects? Why would any donor sign up for a project that is projected beyond two years if the concerned NGO’s licence can be withdrawn at the whim of some bureaucrats? It appears we always seek a means to create more red tape in Nigeria while saner countries seek to get more streamlined processes.
— Nigeria Health Watch (@nighealthwatch) September 22, 2017
Let’s even assume that churches and other religious organisations are exempted since Jibril has assured us that “Religious bodies and organisations are not NGOs”. In this case getting all the NGOs in Nigeria to troop to Abuja or other state capitals every two years for re-registration is plain folly. Even if we acknowledge that the NGOs would not all come at the same time, but the two-year period would elapse at different months for various NGOs, the effort involved is unwarranted. In Nigeria’s four-year election cycle, the first year is for warming up; the second, for doing some work; the third, for warming down, and the fourth for full-scale electioneering. Bring this context into the two-year registration cycle for NGOs and imagine how much time would be available for useful developmental work.
Jibril’s bill seems like a “sanitiser” for the civil society sphere. However, going back to the trojan horse tale, Nigerians are right to be wary of a bill that gives the government overwhelming control over groups that have over the years had cause to run campaigns against government excesses and its neglected responsibilities. In a country with awfully weak government institutions, it is scary to create a legal tool that could be brutally deployed against NGOs. In this regard, I am aligned with the views of Chidi Odinkalu, Gbenga Sesan and others who are leading the campaign against the proposed bill. If the legislators have altruistic intentions, they should sit with relevant stakeholders, address highlighted concerns about the bill, and enshrine international best practices. They could even do better, dump the bill, and focus on strengthening existing laws and institutions. In the meantime, the National Assembly should make its finances public.
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