Non-Governmental Organisations, (NGOs) are integral part of every democracy. Like the media and even opposition political parties, they are worthy pressure groups that put governments under scrutiny and prevent them from becoming authoritarian. Indeed NGOs are important in every society. Be it democratic or not. After all, some of them are humanitarian in nature. It is therefore understandable when there is an uproar in the country following debate in the House of representatives over an NGO Regulatory Commission (Establishment) Bill 2016. Recall that Nigeria has benefitted so much from NGOs. While the supporters of the bill argue that it will help to sanitise the NGOs, those opposed to it say it will emasculate the institutions. Most NGOs have, however, kicked against the proposed legislation.
The bill sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Umar Buba Jubril, from Kogi State, proposes the establishment of an NGO Regulatory Commission, “to address or cure the defects occasioned by the absence of a regulatory framework for the operations and activities of civil society organisations in Nigeria.” It will have departments such as Finance, Planning, Research and Statistics, Information and Publicity, Community Relations, Personnel Management and Procurement. The bill further provides that the president shall appoint the Executive Secretary of the Commission and a 17-member Governing Board for a period of five years, subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Many Nigerians especially stakeholders within the NGO sector have expressed their reservations on this controversial bill. They say intendments are obnoxious and designed to circumscribe clearly non-governmental institutions by bringing them under government control. Well, that may not be true. That they are non-governmental does not mean they cannot be regulated by government. After all, they are not a state within a state. They are bound by Nigerian laws and that is why NGOs must be registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, (CAC). Their not being governmental is in their objective. They are not supposed to do the bidding of government. Saying government cannot regulate their activities is akin to saying they operate in a vacuum.
On the other hand, we also think that the operations of NGOs have been captured in the CAC companies and allied matters law. Also, the financial reporting council under the Ministry of Trade and Investment have rules guiding the operation of NGOs. We have not even followed through with those rules. However we understand that in times like this, there could be a reason to bring all NGOs under one roof to make monitoring effective. Right now it is as if these non profit organisations exist at their own fancy. Each and as numerous as the NGOs are, they exist without any form of monitoring, evaluation or record. This situation should not be acceptable. Unfortunately, even the government has not shown capacity especially at this time that the government is not effectively meeting its regulatory obligations to many of its own Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs.
The proposed commission is expected to issue licences to NGOs and renew them after every two years. It will equally have power to look into the institutions’ sources of income and how they expend their funds. The bill provides for a fine of N500,000 or 18 months imprisonment for NGOs and their personnel who fail to disclose or use donor funds appropriately.
In spite of the claimed benefits of this bill, we are strongly opposed to any legislation which seeks to turn NGOs into government institutions. The argument that some NGOs flout their operational guidelines does not warrant this contentious bill. We believe that there are sufficient extant laws to punish erring NGOs which are found to have flouted the terms of their registration with the relevant government agencies.
We agree that government should rely on existing laws to redress the perceived shortcomings of the NGOs. At the same time also agree that government cannot let its guard down on account of existing laws or incapacity to even do its work at present.
We also agree that what the NGO bill intends to do has already been done by the Corporate Affairs Commission which registers them. However, the governance process of NGOs are very poor. People collect money for humanitarian work which end up in private pockets. We need to stem that. We hope the representatives will consult more widely to ensure every stakeholder is carried along. Both sides have good arguments for and against. Let what is best for Nigeria prevail, which is accountability.