By Rotimi Fasan
FACTS first: Whatever else he could be blamed for, President Muhammadu Buhari can’t be held responsible for the enactment of the Company and Allied Matters Act, CAMA, 2020.
To do otherwise would amount to stretching the facts in perverse directions, evident as they are. But first to the controversy that has arisen around the Act.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, issued over the course of last week a 14-day ultimatum to the Federal Government to either repeal or send back to the National Assembly for necessary amendment the CAMA 2020. This Act was accorded presidential assent about three weeks ago.
It is an updated version of the same Act that was promulgated into law in 2004.
SERAP’s grievance is that sections of the updated Act, specifically sections 839 through to sections 844, 845 and 850, are defective by the very reason that they are repressive, duplicative of extant laws and run contrary in several instances to sections of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
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Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and human rights activist, has the authorisation of SERAP to sue Abuja in the event it fails to accede to SERAP’s demands within the stipulated deadline.
Many Nigerians, especially Christian religious leaders, have made very loud murmurs against sections of CAMA that allow the government to change and, where necessary, appoint interim managers to replace the board of trustees of businesses and NGOs, which by definition include churches and mosques that violate the regulations establishing them.
Other more contentious aspects of the Act which compares to the Charities Act in the United Kingdom, relate to those which authorise officials of the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, through which Abuja seeks to regulate registered organisations, to merge and treat as one, organisations with the same board of trustees.
These are not merely transformative stipulations, they are revolutionary for by implication (which is why it is imperative that the CAC explains how sections like these would be operationalised) an organisation like, say, the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, ON: two socio-cultural/political organisations that were recently deregistered by the CAC for their perceived inflammatory tendencies, could be merged with and treated as one.
And the same with, say, Afenifere, which strangely escaped the CAC’s deregistration sledgehammer, should they suffer the unwanted fate of having their boards of trustees changed or replaced.
But I hypothesise for both the ACF and the Ohanaeze are now in practical terms nonentities before relevant laws of the country even though both appear not to have missed a step, ignored the pronouncements of the CAC deregistering them and continued with their self-appointed remit.
If registered bodies, called by whatever name, could be merged in this manner, where does it leave the constitutional right to free association? And why should a government appointee like the Registrar-General be allowed to wield the power to deregister or change/appoint the board of trustees of organisations?
Some of these questions go to the heart of SERAP’s grievance that the Companies Act is repressive and runs contrary to the Constitution.
We await that moment when they come will come to become, in the parlance of K.O. Mbadiwe, and three elephants, maybe four or even more (remember the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, the Northern Elders Forum, and the Middlebelt Forum, etc, are still in the wings) will collide.
Afenifere and the many other cantankerous socio-cultural and political (ethnic) organisations that populate the length and breadth of this country, by their stated, unstated and, perhaps, unstageable goals, all travel in the same canoe as the ACF and the Ohanaeze, and it is just a matter of time before they have a run-in with the new provisions of CAMA requiring they obtain security clearance before they can be registered.
There is no doubt that many of the so-called socio-cultural organisations are in fact overtly political entities out to influence the political space in a manner that undermine their stated objectives.
Many of them are congeries of journeymen and women whose proto-national outlook only serves the interest of their promoters.
While such organisations may be needed to canvas and lobby political leaders on certain goals, they would do well to operate in such a way that does not interrupt the objective of national governance and integration by becoming partisan vehicles of opposition politicians.
Which is why they might by self or general perception be seen as targets of government policies.
To the extent that this or past governments have patronised these organisations when the going was good makes the attempt to regulate or control their less salutary activities that could be injurious to national security now look both undemocratic and like an afterthought.
But the need to regulate many of the different organisations, political, socio-cultural, and religious, has become imperative in an age of social media mania to which many have surrendered sound reasoning.
That being said, whatever regulations that would or should be put in place must be seen to be motivated by our collective interest and security not what can be mischievously interpreted as the narrow interest of the government of the day.
For this reason, no such regulation should have a retroactive effect. Any law or regulation that works in such a manner has every tendency to be abused and could be read as ill-motivated.
The deregistration of the ACF and Ohanaeze Ndigbo is shot through with retrospective impulse. What the CAC or perhaps, more importantly, Abuja ought to do is to seek more creative ways to bring organisations considered to pose security risk under societal, not necessarily governmental, discipline.
While it would not halt all criticisms, such an approach would be far more evident and transparent than one that could easily occlude the many benefits of the less-discussed aspects of CAMA 2020.
For whatever it is worth, the growing controversy around provisions of the Act, especially as they pertain to the appointment and/or replacement of the board of trustees of companies is but only a little, if the very significant aspect of the law.
Extant laws could be applied to make these organisations more responsible in their conduct not propose or enact laws that will appear tailor-made to hobble their activities.
The Nigerian polity is divided by identitarian politics and it is commonplace for issues to be read through the lens of an individual’s subjective standpoint.
To be concluded next week.
NB: As I wrote this, news broke that Prof. Akin Abayomi, Commissioner of Health for Lagos State, had tested positive for COVID-19. Prof. Abayomi is a rare Nigerian professional, an original, who has been at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic and the struggle to develop our health sector. He has our good wishes and prayers to recover soon.