After 30 days of Christmas and New Year holidays, Nigerian lawmakers are back in Abuja amid rising insecurity and inflation, but the main issue for many of them is the controversial NGO bill that lawmakers appear to be giving priority.
The House began debate on the bill on Thursday following the presentation of the main debate by Sada Soli (APC, Katsina), who is the sponsor of the bill.
Unlike legislators, the problems plaguing the country did not go on vacation. When lawmakers adjourned plenary session on December 30, 2023, the naira closed at N1,193 to the dollar at the unofficial window, according to data obtained from the black market. But the currency is currently heading towards 1,500 naira to the dollar.
On the security front, while lawmakers were on vacation, Abuja became a kidnapping theater and killers are rampaging in Plateau. More than 100 people were massacred in their villages on Christmas Eve in the Plateau.
Many of those who traveled during the holidays became guests of the kidnappers and many of them were unable to collect the ransom demanded by their kidnappers.
Folorunsho Ariyo and Nabeeha Al-Kadriyah were murdered by their kidnappers to motivate the payment of a ransom. The situation was so dire that a former minister, Ali Pantami, spearheaded an initiative to raise funds for the rescue.
Despite all this, lawmakers have chosen this moment to begin debate on a bill to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations in Nigeria.
The bill seeks to establish the legislative framework to regulate the activities of NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).
Because of the bill’s history, it is expected to dominate news reporting in the coming weeks at the expense of other issues. Activists have described the bill as an attempt to muzzle civic space.
History of the bill
Soli, leader of the North West group, has been making frantic efforts to ensure the passage of the bill despite protests by Nigerians.
In the last Assembly, Soli sponsored the same bill in the House, but resistance from Nigerians stopped the lawmakers.
In 2017, Buba Jubrin sponsored a similar bill seeking to regulate NGOs and CSOs. The bill was approved on second reading in the House and was subsequently referred to the Committee on Civil Society Organizations and Development Partners. On the day of the public hearing on the bill, dozens of protesters marched to the National Assembly calling for the bill to be withdrawn. CSO members interpreted the bill as an attempt by the government to muzzle civil movements.
After the public hearing, the committee did not present its report to lawmakers for consideration, indicating that it died at the committee level.
Speaking on the reintroduction of the bill, Chido Onumah, coordinator of the African Center for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), described the bill as “dangerous and terrifying”, adding that it is “as bad as you can imagine.” .
Onumah said the timing of this latest legislative intervention raises questions about priority.
“If you are contemplating this right now, it is really unfortunate. In the midst of the existential crisis we face as a country, this is what our legislators feel is necessary to do right now. Could it be that they believe that civil society is causing insecurity or that the value of the naira is falling like rotten oranges?
“Or are civil society organizations responsible for the bad economy or the poverty and impoverishment of the people? It is unfortunate that the so-called elected representatives do not focus on some of the important national issues we face as a people. Issues that threaten the very existence of this country. The level of insecurity is that people barely leave their homes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with our legislators. Or they don’t want anyone to supervise them or hold them accountable. They are always obsessed with the media, civil society organizations and NGOs,” he stated.
The activist said that legislators are going to listen to the country’s CSOs and NGOs.
“You will soon hear from us, very loud and clear,” Onumah said.
The Program Director of the Center for Innovation and Development of Journalism, Akintunde Babatunde, also criticized the legislators for the reintroduction of the bill.
Babatunde said the country needs more NGOs to put the government on its toes.
“We already have laws and regulations that govern the functioning of NGOs in Nigeria. What Nigerians need right now is a vibrant National Assembly that is vigilant in its oversight functions to ensure a decent country, governed on the basis of the rule of law.
“NASS’s work is made for this; If there are concerns about the current nonprofit management system, it is always necessary to follow the right path to ensure that all stakeholders are involved.
“We are in a state of high inflation, high insecurity and inconvenience everywhere, the NGO sector has been of great help in helping hold the government to account, we need to see more of this. If there is a plan to reintroduce a new bill to regulate NGOs, all stakeholders must stand up to obtain a copy and examine it to ensure that it will in no way take away our civic responsibilities and powers, because that has been the only that has helped us. to maintain sanity in the country at this time,” he said.
Leading the debate on the bill on Thursday, Soli said NGOs have become powerful but there is a lack of regulation to maintain balance. She stated that the move aims to strike a balance.
“The flexibility of NGOs and their connections with grassroots communities help mobilize resources to affected areas. Their often determined commitment and strong motivation give them civic power that other institutions do not have. However, there are many NGOs that are unethical. A balance needs to be achieved. Many NGOs do not even understand the standards they should apply to their activities.
“How many of them make their budget, their funding sources and the use of funds available to the government?
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“The bill seeks to create an agency that will oversee the affairs of NGOs. Facilitate coordination of NGOs, maintain a register of all NGOs, including international and local ones operating in Nigeria, including their precise sector, and advise the government on NGO activities,” he said.
Additionally, Soli said the agency will have the power to provide policy guidelines for NGOs operating in Nigeria.
He listed some countries that he said had recently enacted laws regulating NGO activities, including Serra Lone, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
In the course of the debate, Mr Soli rated some books and stated that they documented the role of NGOs in deadly crises across Africa.
Speaking in support of the bill, House Leader Bello Kumo (APC, Gombe) called for the exclusion of religious bodies, noting that religious organizations must be protected.
“Of course, NGOs are non-governmental organisations, including our religious organisations, although I support and urge my colleagues to support, we should make small changes to protect our religious organisations,” Mr Kumo said.
Muktar Shagaya (APC, Kwara) also spoke in favor of the bill, describing it as timely.
Forced to resign until Thursday
The bill was later withdrawn after the Minority Leader, Kingsley Chinda (PDP, Rivers) raised a point of order that members have not yet received copies of the bill therefore cannot participate. in the debate with adequate information.
Chinda described the bill as sensitive, so members should not debate it blindly.
“How many deputies have taken their time to read the content of this bill? It is not enough for bills to be published; each member should be required to receive a copy. Even as House Minority Leader, I have not seen a copy of the bill.
“This is a very delicate bill, sensitive in the sense that there are questions to be asked. Who belongs or does not belong to a non-governmental organization? What are the powers of this regulatory agency? To what extent could these organisms be regulated?” he said.
On a point of order, the spokesperson stated that the bill should be suspended until next week.
The speaker asked members to collect copies of the bill before debate on it resumed.