By Sam Eyoboka
Again, the Christian community in Nigeria is up in arms. This time, it is alleging a subtle attempt to subvert the provisions of Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which guarantee the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The attempt, according to it, is being made through the NGO C 2431 Bill currently in the works in the House of Representatives. The umbrella organisation for Christians in the country, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), has written to the House of Representatives, asking it to stop work immediately on the bill, which has passed second reading and sponsored by the deputy majority leader, Hon. Umar Jubril, on the grounds that it is “draconian in nature, retrogressive in intent, and not in sync with democratic ethos and the change mantra of the current administration”.
THE Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, also rejected the Bill, saying several NGOs affiliated to the different Pentecostal ministries were studying the contents with a view to challenging it.
Only recently, CAN had clashed with the authorities over the Sukuk bond which, it argued, is Shari’a based.
Before then, it challenged the new curriculum introduced by government, saying there was an attempt to take Christian Religious Knowledge out of the classroom.
In a position paper to the House of Representatives, in which it expressed its opposition to the NGO Bill, CAN said the legislation will bring all civil groups under the control and supervision of a commission to be set up by government, saying “this is dangerous as it is a ready tool to clamp down on any unwanted organization, without the opportunity of a resort to the court of law for adjudication of possible grievances.”
It listed the organisations that fit the description of those to be supervised by the proposed commission to include the Nigerian Baptist Convention, the Catholic Church, the Methodist, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the Celestial Church of Christ, etc.
Noting that the Bill, in Section 57, clarifies that a Non-Governmental Organization means a private grouping of individuals or association, not operated for profit or for other commercial purposes but which have organized themselves nationally or internationally for the promotion of social welfare, development, charity, or research through mobilization of resources, CAN explained that it would seem like the Bill seeks to exempt political parties, religious organizations and ethnic societies.
“However, the wording of the Bill is poor as to make it impossible to decipher the true intention of its drafters. The safe interpretation is to make it as elastic as possible”, the Christian group argued.
“The Red Cross, Red Crescent, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation, McArthur Foundation, Jimmy Carter, Frederic Eibert Foundation, Pathfinder Foundation, are a few of such charities in the international space.
“In Nigeria, the Nigerian Baptist Convention, the Catholic Church, the Methodist, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the Celestial Church of Christ etc. are a few examples of such Christian faith based non-profit and charitable organisations.
“The Ansarudeen Society, NASFAT, Anwarudeen, Jamat Nasir Islam, Nawalrudeen, etc. are Muslim charities.
“The above named charitable organizations have all been known to contribute massively to the development of Nigeria in the areas of:
- Peace waging, peace keeping and maintenance.
- Education – through building of schools, universities, institutional strengthening and man power development.
- Manifestation and propagation of religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Healthcare – by building hospitals, health education, maternal and childcare medicine and care.
- Economic development – employment of Nigerians in their organizations and institutions
- Intervention in disaster relief and control.
- Social interventions – prison ministry, human trafficking, child rights issues, and other social vices.
- Election processes and human rights & citizens advocacy.
* Campaign for democracy
* Election monitoring groups
It pointed out that the nation already has legal frameworks that regulate the activities of NGOs to include the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the Corporate Affairs Commission, the National Planning Commission, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council and the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act.
“In view of the aforementioned extant statutory frameworks for the operation of NGOs in Nigeria, it appears to us that having another organ apart from those already existing is a duplication of efforts, unnecessary, and will lead to conflicting interest. Hence, the passing of the NGO Bill into law should stop immediately to avoid national embarrassment and chaos in the overall interest of peace, harmony and advancement of our dear nation”, CAN added.
The Christian body examined some of the provisions of the proposed NGO Bill “for the purpose of emphasis and to reveal the evil which passing into law the Bill portends”, saying,
“Section 2 makes provision for a Governing Board which is dominated by government functionaries and other political appointees.
“Section 7, which makes provisions for the objectives of the commission, is overreaching as it is impossible to control missions for which commission is not privy to, and at best have little or no knowledge of.
“Section 8, which makes provisions for the functions of the Governing Board for the management of the commission, is a duplication of the functions of other bodies already in operation such as the Corporate Affairs Commission and the National Planning Commission.
“Sections 11 – 17 deal with the registration of NGOs by the commission are silent on the status of the Certificate of Registration under CAMA, safe the reference in Section 37 which does not expressly repeal the provisions of Part C of Corporate Affairs Commission and National Planning Commission. There is likely to be duplication in the operations of the above agencies if the Bill is eventually passed into law.
“Section 11(4), which leaves room for exemption of some organizations from registration, gives the commission wide discretionary power and can easily be abused by the commission to favour one organization in preference to others”.
Questions begging for answers
CAN argued that in view of apparent wide discretionary power given to the commission to either register or refuse registration of NGOs, there are several questions begging for answers.
It said, “Can a Federal Statute render nugatory and invalidate a registration already obtained by an NGO under another Federal Act without a repeal of the extant provision?
“Whether a registered NGO, having fulfilled all requirements for registration, paid all fees due and obtained a certificate, be required to incur fresh costs on the same subject and processes?
“Is the certificate of incorporation obtained under the proposed Bill superior to the certificate issued by the CAC or similar bodies?
“What type of certificate is anticipated under Section 11(h) of the proposed Bill?
“Are Sections 13(2) & (4) 18(1)(a)(b)(c) not in conflict with the provision of Section 40 the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which guarantee right to peaceful assembly and association?
“Is Section 13(2) not calculated to muzzle “unpleasant” voices such as those of Campaign for Democracy etc., from getting legal recognition and expression?
“Section 13(5), which confers corporate personality on a registered NGO is silent on perpetual succession, when Section 14 stipulates twenty-four months (i.e 2 years) for renewal of license and certificate of incorporation of NGOs. This Section also gives to the commission absolute discretion to refuse to renew a certificate earlier issued to an NGO without opportunity to make recourse to the court of law, since the Minister of Interior has the final verdict on any appeal file before it against the decision of the commission (see section 21 of the Bill). Yet, Section 51 makes provision for redress in court.”
CAN emphasised that the Bill, “which has not indicated the mischief it seeks to redress, and at the same time makes far reaching provisions in the administration and control of non-governmental organizations, can easily become a tool for dictatorial governments and politicians under the cloak of transparency and accountability”.
According to the group, the wide definitive spectrum of organizations covered by the Bill effectively encapsulates so much space that the little groups, which are exempted, are minorities in the playing field of NGOs, which invariably brings all civil groups under the control and supervision of the commission to be set up.
“This is dangerous as it is a ready tool to clamp down on any unwanted organization without the opportunity of a resort to the court of law for adjudication of possible grievances”, CAN stated.
“The provisions of the Bill are against the hallowed principles and constitutional provisions on the secularity of Nigeria as a nation.
“The Bill, on the one hand, seeks to restrict the freedom of association guaranteed in Section 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), and, on the other hand, amount to a subtle attempt to subvert the provisions of Section 38, which guarantee the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It must be noted that the African Charter on Human Rights, which have been domesticated in Nigeria, will also be breached by the provisions of this Bill if passed into law.
“The bureaucracy, bottle-necks and controls embedded in the Bill will stifle and strangulate NGOs’ operations, and prevent them from achieving their mandates, thereby putting at risk the several millions of Nigerians that benefit from such charitable projects, which the government may, in fact, be unable to provide.
“The provisions of the Bill, which seek to place the funds of charitable organizations directly under the control of the government agency, will bring hardship on charities and discourage donors from donating to causes which they believe in.
“Furthermore, the provisions of the Bill will duplicate the duties of existing government agencies and/or completely take over the functions of other governmental agencies, thereby resulting in confusion.
“The bi-annual registration of organizations contradicts the established principle of perpetual succession enjoyed the world over by corporate entities and discourage foreign donors from patronizing NGOs in Nigeria.
“Official corruption, which has been the bane of Nigeria, will get additional teeth and strength with the passing of this Bill into law, as it, in one hand, criminalizes certain conducts on the part of the NGOs, and, on the other hand, protects officers of the commission against litigation in the regular court of law.
“The Bill is draconian in nature, retrogressive in intent, and not in sync with democratic ethos, and the change mantra of the current administration.