NGO Regulation Bill: An open letter to Speaker Yakubu Dogara – Kayode Ajulo

NGO Regulation Bill: An open letter to Speaker Yakubu Dogara –  Kayode Ajulo

I take the liberty we enjoy under this democratic milieu to write in respect of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Bill which amongst other issues is intended to establish an NGO Regulatory Commission vested with the responsibility of issuing licenses to all NGOs with all such licenses being subject to renewal after two years of issuance. The proposed Commission will also be saddled with the responsibility of conducting financial audits on the accounts of registered NGOs as they would be required to submit financial reports to the Commission. All affected NGOs would be required to comply with all national and foreign policies and any violation of the provisions of the Bill would amount to a term of imprisonment.

Without any doubt, this development is worthy of commendation from all patriotic and law-abiding citizens. The emergence of this piece of legislation is in fact a testament to the Change philosophy of the present epoch in the life of our nation. Permit me therefore to congratulate you as you continue to spearhead this courageous initiative of the National Assembly to raise the bar in the governance and regulation of NGOs in the polity.

It was therefore with much consternation that I have observed the controversies which has so far trailed the well-intentioned Bill since its inception. I particularly witnessed with dismay the bedlam at the entrance of the National Assembly on the date scheduled for the Public Hearing on the Bill. The uproar which greeted visitors and participants at the gates was obviously orchestrated by certain elements who perceive a threat in the Bill, as it certainly poses an unwanted check to the less than charitable activities being conducted under the guise of charity.

Indeed, a lot of opprobrium from various quarters has been cast on the Parliament for daring to propose such a Bill, criticizing the action as a covert attempt to gag and muscle the civil society. These persons, who are the likely sponsors of the miscreants who constituted a menace at the National Assembly gates to the extent of violence, perceive the NGO Bill as an albatross around their necks thus effectively clipping their wings. In their reasoning, their virulent opposition to such a law is therefore justified. It should be stated that the miscreants in their employ were mandated to prevent from entering into the National Assembly persons suspected to be in support of the proposed legislation. For this reason, persons such as my humble self had to be creative in our bid to be present during the public hearing hence we had to make use of the back exit to enter the National Assembly premises.

 

THE NGO BILL: THE CASE ‘FOR’ AND ‘AGAINST’

The argument from the opposition to the Bill include an acerbic insistence that government agencies such as the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), the National Planning Commission (NPC), the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have already been empowered to regulate the activities of NGOs and that the proposed establishment of yet another Commission for that purpose is tantamount to duplication of duties and an inherent over-regulation of the non-profit sector.

 

Another strong argument being proffered by the antagonists of the Bill is that it is, in effect, a backdoor regulation intended to gag and repress specific organizations such as religious bodies, human rights organisations/movements and governance/transparency advocates among others. This sentiment is indicative of the prevailing mistrust of the legislative intent underlying the Bill, as well as public aversion for abuse inherent in such legislations.However, for avoidance of doubt, it must be stated that if passed into Law, the Bill which is in the public domain is indeed poised to promote transparency, accountability and prevent subversion of national security of our nation, providing the much-needed oversight and regulation as pertains to the motivation, funding and administration of the various NGOs in our polity. Of a truth, the light of critical reasoning and analysis would reveal that the arguments being proffered by those in opposition to the passage of the Bill into Law hold no water and should be dispelled without further ado.

Pursuant to wide spreading speculations that the proposed Commission will be duplicating the functions of other extant Commissions such, it is necessary to state that the Corporate Affairs Commission is responsible for registering corporate entities; making necessary interventions with respect to management decisions; ensuring that the annual returns as well as other statutory documents are filed with the Commission. The stated aims and objectives of the CAC show clearly that the Commission does not take a probe into the everyday affairs of corporate entities and ethical practices of company. The sense of logic explains why financial institutions such as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), health institutions, such as National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and other professional bodies are regulated by some other bodies despite their registration by the Corporate Affairs Commission as a corporate entity.  Furthermore, the National Planning Commission’s interest in the influx of money into Nigeria is motivated by its need to make adequate planning for the nation’s economy while the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s vigilance is geared towards surveillance of criminally-obtained finances.The aforementioned bodies do not perform the role that the proposed Commission is intended to perform under the Bill; hence the argument of duplicity of institutions and multiplicity of laws hold no water.

Regarding the suspicion that the Bill is an attempt to use the power of the National Assembly to legislate against well-intentioned advocacy for good governance, it is either the antagonists of the Bill have an imperfect understanding of the proposed bill or they are intentionally trying to confuse the public, and stir unnecessary sentiments. Specifically, Section 24 of the intended proposed bill clearly excluded religious bodies, human rights organisations as well as other related NGOs.

The Bill is essentially designed to regulate NGOs that obtain funding from local and international donors in form of agricultural reliefs, research, health/ medical reliefs etc. The Bill does not intend to put religious bodies and human rights bodies under the chains as posited by the critics of the Bill.

Additionally, it has been the arguments of the critics of the proposed legislation that the Bill is a mere ploy by the government to curtail and stifle the activities of the NGOs that have held government accountable over the years. This is nothing but a misconstrued and misconceived argument from the critics of the Bill.

 

INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS FOR NGO REGULATION

The regulation of NGOs is a big step in the right direction for the nation. In other civilized climes and more developed societies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom, NGOs are regulated as a matter of due process and not muzzled as speculated by the antagonists of this bill. In fact, it is highly impossible to float an NGO without proper and detailed accountability in the United States. It is also correct that while anyone can register an NGO in the United States, the founder or founders must publish an audited annual account to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to retain the status of the NGO. The IRS can also conduct a spot audit of the NGO like it does to every individuals or corporate entities in the US.

 

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, NGOs are regulated by the Charity  Commission for England and Wales. The Charity Commission is an independent, non-ministerial government department accountable to the UK Parliament. This body registers eligible organizations, take enforcement actions, ensure that charitable organizations meet their legal requirements and makes appropriate information about charitable organizations generally available to the public.

It is thus an appropriate step in the right direction for the country to emulate these advanced countries by establishing a regulatory body for NGOs. The responsibilities of the proposed NGO Regulatory Commission do not differ from that of the UK’S Charity Commission. The composition of the members of the Commission can however be spread across the major stakeholders in the NGO sector; this will effectively mean that the Commission will be comprised of knowledgeable individuals who are well experienced with respect to the workings of the NGO. It is hard to see how these set of people will work against the interest of a sector that they have labored hard to build over the years.

As I have advanced for the umpteenth time, one of the reasons NGOs have received so much attention of late is that they are perceived to be able to do something that National Governments cannot or will not do. However, there is the need for Government to maintain control over these NGOs precisely because of their access to funds which needed to be accounted for. It is important for government to know the financial strength of every NGOs, how funds are sourced, the sources of the funds, what purpose it is used for and must also be audited to avoid corrupt tendencies and block funding of terrorism and civil unrest, ethnic rivalry among others.

Presently, we have shylock businessmen, traffickers, and dubious individuals whose sole aim is to exploit the public masquerading as owners of NGOs and labeling themselves as activists thereby using this medium to confuse, mislead and defraud unsuspecting members of the public. This ugly trend must be checked without further ado to enable us separate the chaff from the wheat.

I, therefore, posit, without equivocation, that rather than the proposed bill being labeled as ‘the worst piece of legislation since return to democracy in 1999’, it could be modified to become the best. Even whilst agreeing that some modifications to the stated provisions of the Bill are needed and welcome, I have a firm conviction that there should be a regulatory framework for NGOs and CSOs. To allay any fears of hijack, I will further suggest that NGOs should be made accountable to the National Assembly in the same mould that Public Complaint Commission is presently constituted.

I urge Nigerians to please get in touch with ourselves and ask what exactly do we want from this country. I further urge us to reach the conclusion that the greatness of Nigeria and indeed the black race, rests on how much we are ready to concede from our hardened positions.

In conclusion, I hereby reiterate that the vehement attack on the bill is, to say the least, surprising and unwarranted and leaves a bad taste in the mouth and fear in the heart. This bill which is intended to regulate the NGOs will no doubt reposition it for optimal performance.

 

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