A member of the House of Representatives, Eddie Mbadiwe, has disturbed the civil society sector and increased anxiety amongst citizens and citizen organisations by sponsoring a private bill seeking to make the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, the regulatory authority of all voluntary organisations to monitor the utilisation of all monies received from donor agencies for the purpose of engendering transparency, integrity and accountability in our national life. While the Third Sector as popularly called understands the need to hold itself accountable within existing regulatory laws, Mbadiwe’s proposal to regulate how voluntary organisations in Nigeria receive and use funds infringes on our rights to freedom of association.
It is not difficult to understand the concerns of Mbadiwe given the security challenges our country face and how in some quarters, voluntary organisations have been seen as avenues for money laundering and terrorism funding. These arguments are not in any way new to us as a sector, in recent years, waves of repression including restrictive legal framework, administrative burdens in relation to registration and more subtly, funding restrictions under the guise of checking money laundering and probable terrorism funding is a more recent development in which government authorities seek to stifle the activities of NGOs and other civil organisations.
Whereas the Special Control Unit on Money Laundering of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is already leading the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing through the Money Laundering prohibition Act, 2004 with many NGOs already complying with the registration requirements. Under this Act, Designated Non Financial Institutions such as NGOs need to report funding support received in the excess of $1000. This, along with the annual reporting and filing of returns with the Corporate Affairs Commission, Federal Inland Revenue Service and a reporting obligation to the National Planning Commission by the NGOs ensures a high level of monitoring and oversight on the acceptance and use of funds by voluntary organisations.
Clearly, what stands in the way of the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Bill is Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Nigeria acceded to on July 29, 1993. It says “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others… No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The right to seek use and receive resources – human material and financial – from domestic, foreign and international sources is an essential element of the freedom of association guaranteed by international law. This has been affirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association in his report presented on April 23, 2013 to the UN Human Rights Council- Section III (para 8-42) A/HRC/23/39.
Analysing Article 22 of the ICCPR, as well as other international conventions, the UN Special Rapporteur stated that given that “the ability to seek, secure and use resources is essential to the existence and effective operations of any association,” any “funding restrictions that impede the ability of organisations to pursue their statutory activities constitute an interference with Article 22. He concluded that, “the right to freedom of association not only includes the ability of individuals or legal entities to form and join an association but also to seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial – from domestic, foreign, and international sources.
Further, the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms adopted by the UN General Assembly on March 8, 1999 affirms that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilise resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means- Article 13 A/RES/53/144.
The bill as proposed is controversial as well as consequential, with many civil society leaders voicing concerns about the damage it will have on our sector as an employer of labour and the threat to our civic space, it also goes to show us as a nation not honouring its commitments to the rights of citizens to freedom of association. It further violates the obligation to create an “enabling environment” for the civil society undertaken by Nigeria at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid and Development Effectiveness held in Busan, Korea, from November 29 to December 1, 2011.
As the world develops a new global development agenda having partnerships with the private and civil society sector as an important pillar for building the world we want in the next few decades, this bill further increases the tension already existing between government and civil society including fuelling fear and mistrust. The National Assembly and indeed the House Committee on Voluntary Organisation and Donor Agencies must work hard to understand the work voluntary organisations do and how complementary this is to government’s efforts at developing our nation. It must consider globally accepted standards and steps aimed at strengthening our accountability and increase our corporation with government as a sector.
Despite upsetting the Third Sector and threatening civic space with this bill, voluntary organisations, donor agencies, the National Assembly and relevant government agencies such as the Corporate Affairs Commission, National Planning Commission and the Federal Inland Revenue Service need to come together to discuss how best to harmonise present regulations, expand their understanding of the Third Sector and funding patterns and curb the rush to regulate or over-regulate the voluntary sector. Until we do, we will remain exposed to shrinking and restrictive spaces to operate and contribute to public life as citizens and citizen’s organisations.
Oluseyi, Executive Director at the Nigeria Network of NGOs, wrote in from Lagos via firstname.lastname@example.org
First published by Punch Newspapers on JULY 4, 2014