By Chris Akiri
An obnoxious Bill whose long title nearly reveals its antisocial intendment is on its way to becoming an Act of the National Assembly having passed its first and second readings in the House of Representatives. With a jaw-breaking long title of “AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS REGULATORY COMMISSION FOR THE SUPERVISION, COORDINATION AND MONITORING OF NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS, CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS, ETC. IN NIGERIA AND FOR RELATED MATTERS”, the proposed 58-sections Act is redolent of a rancid anti-Christian flavour; it reeks of autocracy, authoritarianism, over-government, and anti-democratic tendencies. It is difficult to fathom how a non-governmental organization which, at its registration at the Corporate Affairs Commission, acquired the status of perpetual succession and corporate (legal) personality, can be stripped of those prime constituents by being subjected to a fresh registration every two years by a 17-member Board comprising a coterie of Federal Ministries, including those of Interior, Youth Development, Health, Agriculture and Rural Development, Water Resources and Justice. After a cursory reading of the Bill, it would become clear that it does not require the expertise of a practised cryptanalyst to see its intended target.
In a phrenetic effort to governmentalize non-governmental organizations, the Bill establishes a Commission and a Board, with an Executive Secretary, and other members who must be chosen by the President, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Government shall not, according to the Bill, have any financial stake in any NGO, yet under the provisions of section 44 (1) (a)-(g) of the proposed NGO Regulatory Law, there shall be established in the Head Office of the Commission about seven Departments, including Finance, Planning, Research and Statistics, Information and Publicity, Community Relations, Legal, Personnel and Management and Procurement, thereby emasculating and constructively, if not literally, rendering NGOs hors de combat!
Sponsored by Hon. Umar Jibril, the Bill savours of militarism, puritanism, despotism and the blue laws of an unblushing autocrat. It can be likened to a scenario in which God created a man; the man is killed by a besotted psychopath at a point, so that the dead man can be re-created after the lapse of 24 months! How can an organization which, at its registration, acquired the status of “perpetual (permanent) succession”, implying the continuation of a corporation’s existence despite the death, bankruptcy or insanity of any its owners, on the one hand, and a legal personhood (corporate personality), which confers legal rights and duties on the organization, on the other hand, be registered every 24 months or be considered de-registered and its operators exposed to imprisonment for up to eighteen months? It bears repetition to ask, how can an organization with the status of legal personality and perpetual succession (irrefrangible attributes) be “killed” after two years and be re-animated by re-registration? Would that not be a contradiction in terms and a brazen violation and vitiation of the whole concepts of legal personality and perpetual succession?
Early in the year, the 8th National Assembly threatened to enact a Law requiring Pastors and General Overseers (GOs) who had occupied their clerical positions for longer than ten years to resign their appointments. This prompted the temporary resignation of the GO of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor E. A. Adeboye, before the shrill cries of the public killed the anti-Christian Bill. Last year, the Governor of Kaduna State attempted to introduce a similar Bill, which sought to license preaching and preachers for a period of time certain! Early this year, Hon. Bala ibn Na’Allah, also of the House of Representatives, unsuccessfully strove to get a Bill passed to muzzle social media.
This is why not a few Christians in Nigeria consider the NGO Regulatory Bill a cryptic way to achieve what the still-born Bill of Hon. Jubril early in the year failed to achieve, the stultification of Christian efforts to propagate their religion, contrary to the provisions of section 38 of the 1999 Constitution. A most nauseating part of the Bill, the NGO Regulatory Bill, is that it is copied, almost ipsissimis verbis, from a Bill that was popularly discredited and consequently guillotined in Sierra Leone!
Being non-governmental and non-profit-making, NGOs never seek government’s funds to finance their projects, targeted at the spiritual, mental and physical development of the hoi-polloi and the political (human rights) aspects of their lives, usually arears that the Governments hold aloof or are ill-equipped to step into. Schools and colleges for inner-city children, the waifs and strays of our society, services provided by such organizations as the CLO that monitor government’s compliance with, or disregard of, fundamental human rights, health, etc. are classic examples of what NGOs and Civil Society Organizations render gratis, for humanity and for God.
Yet, under section 23 of the proposed anti-progress Law, “Any organization registered under this Act shall not be entitled to diplomatic or consular privileges or immunities”, a provision designed to starve NGOs of funds. Then section 24 covers the field, as it were, by providing that, under the pain of a prohibitive fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for eighteen months, “it shall be an offence for any person to operate a Non-Governmental Organization in Nigeria for welfare, research, health relief, agriculture, education, industry, the supply of amenities or any other similar purposes without registration and certificate under this Act” (the dog-in-the- manger provision).
If and whenever an NGO obtains any funds from any quarters, national or international, according to this Bill, the NGO must not only disclose its source(s) of income but must render an account (a financial statement of its expenses, subject to periodic audit by the Federal Government). In default of this provision, the defaulter(s) will be liable to imprisonment for up to 18 months. Imagine the les Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) (Doctors without Borders), a Non-Governmental Organization, advancing the cause of humanity and best known in war-torn regions and in developing countries afflicted by endemic diseases, being required by the French Government to show the sources of their income and the use thereof or creating a Commission and a Board to supervise their activities! The NGOs in Nigeria are to this country what the MSF is to the international community.
Since Churches are categorized as NGOs or Civil Society Organizations, the NGO Regulatory Bill is patently a political subterfuge to bring Christianity under Government control with a grand design to arrest its growth and expansion by supervising and monitoring its operations as well as superintending the activities of its clerics; yet steering clear of religion and religious matters by a government, any government, is the beginning of wisdom. That was the gravamen of the very First Amendment of the US Constitution in 1791, when the US Government distanced itself from all religious matters. In the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), though an amalgam of irreconcilable inconsistencies, enshrines secularity in its section 10 and the fundamental freedoms of worship, speech and association in its Chapter Four. Similar and identical provisions can be found in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (domesticated as Cap. 10, LFN. 1990) and in several Treaties and Conventions to which Nigeria is signatory
The NGO Regulatory Bill must NEVER become Law.