National Assembly, anti-NGO bill and authoritarianism

The National Assembly has turned its sights on the non-governmental organisations, which are bracing for a crackdown in 2018. The Yakubu Dogara-led House of Representatives is desperately pushing to pass the ‘NGO Regulatory Bill’ that many analysts have warned would stigmatise NGOs, and set Nigeria on course toward authoritarianism and oppression.

The NGO bill is the latest in a series of measures tightening the democratic space, and deteriorating condition of the rule of law in the country. It has been extraordinary in the past two years or so to see how the National Assembly has taken a dim view of human rights. Our lawmakers, well paid with taxpayers’ money to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the federation, are using their legislative powers to limit critical voices and shrink the democratic space.

The latest threat is coming on the heels of the proposal by members of the House of Representatives to amend the constitution so that they could give themselves immunity. The bill, which in September 2017 was discussed at a public hearing, is being sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader, Umar Buba Jubril.

There is a litany of serious flaws in the 58 sections of the bill, and here are some of them – The bill would compel registration of NGOs (including those already registered under the Companies and Allied Matters Act); heavily criminalise non-compliance with its provisions (up to 18 months in prison); ensure full executive control over the licensing, funding and supervision of operations of NGOs through a board appointed by the President and dominated by political representatives.

The passing of the bill would have immense and enduring repercussions for the country. It would legitimise and normalise wrongful behaviour of public officials, threatening the rule of law and making the anti-corruption efforts of the President Muhammadu Buhari government all the more difficult. The bill would also undermine confidence in the National Assembly. That mistrust and suspicion can, in turn, have far-reaching consequences.

As reprehensible as the armed Islamist group Boko Haram is, their actions cannot totally obliterate Nigeria. But if allowed to pass, the NGO bill would peel away at human rights protections, and foster a rule by men rather the rule of law. It would take back, through the backdoor, citizens’ inalienable and fundamental human rights guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended) and Nigeria’s regional and international human rights obligations and commitments.

The bill would seriously undermine the activities of people working to fight discrimination, improve health and education, and cut off the vital social and economic services provided by civil society groups, which can only exacerbate poverty, instability and insecurity in the country. It would create a climate conducive to self-censorship and political influence, and allow paid political activists to flourish.

Prominent NGOs are likely to go underground, or go very quiet, as no one would want to rock the boat. All these, of course, would have a “chilling effect” on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and introduce a cloud of fear in the civil society circles.

But what the lawmakers are failing to understand is that every time people have their rights taken away, all of us pay the price for it. If the human rights architecture is shut down and those who speak truth to power and selflessly stand up for the rights of others are checkmated, no one will be there for the lawmakers when they themselves are stripped of some of their own rights and freedoms.

Yet, as Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, put it, “Violations of human rights should not have to become so personal, for all of us to truly grasp their importance.”

The House of Representatives’ focus on the NGO bill would seem to be a case of misplaced priority. If one may ask: What are the lawmakers doing to end violence against women, which remains widespread across the country? What are they doing to make laws to provide shelter to the thousands of children fleeing the conflict in the North-East, or to get rid of homelessness, or improve our schools, hospitals, and roads?

One ‘justification’ put forward by the proponents of the bill and a few supporters working hard to tickle the lawmakers’ ego is the blanket accusation — though without any iota of evidence — that NGOs and their operators engage in ‘shady and unethical practices’ and therefore must be ‘regulated’.

One lawmaker said, “NGOs cannot be above the laws of the land. They must be regulated.”  A “human rights activist” even said, rather worryingly, that, “there is a need for government to maintain control over these NGOs precisely because of their access to funds which needed to be accounted for.”  The activist would seem to be arguing that it is perfectly acceptable to stomp on citizens’ human rights.

But the stark truth is that the bill is not about regulation: it’s crackdown on civil society, and it’s driven partly by the National Assembly’s obsession with control but also by self-protection. It is also partly inspired by similar moves in kleptocracies and repressive countries.

In fact, NGOs are already heavily regulated in Nigeria – be it under the Companies and Allied Matters Act or the Criminal Code (or Penal Code in the North) in cases of fraud, etc. Many NGOs also already submit financial reports, etc to their supporters, and many of these reports are accessible to the public. There are also plenty of institutions such as the Corporate Affairs Commission and the National Planning Commission charged with overseeing the operations of NGOs in the country.

To attempt to add another layer of bureaucracy to the list of these institutions at a time when more than half of the 36 states of the federation can’t even pay their workers’ salaries is, to say the least, reckless and unpatriotic. Those pushing the bill haven’t even told us how it would operate alongside the current laws guiding the operations of NGOs, or if, for example, the workers at the Corporate Affairs Commission would be retrenched.

Proponents also point to how the bill excludes CSOs like religious bodies. Assuming their position is correct, they still have to tell us why the bill has to apply only to NGOs (part of CSOs), and why religious bodies (also part of CSOs) have to be excluded from the scope and operation of the bill.

While attempt to differentiate NGOs from CSOs might make for good politics and public relations campaign, it shows a blatant lack of understanding of the notion of civil society by the lawmakers. Make no mistake about it, the passing of the bill would lead to the revocation of licences of not only NGOs, but also religious bodies and other similar CSOs. It would also have disastrous consequences for the daily lives of ordinary Nigerians and to society more broadly.

Until the leadership of the House of Representatives drops the bill and strives to improve public trust in the National Assembly, their often repeated commitment to stand up for the country and the citizens will continue to echo a broken promise.

(PUNCHNG)