It appears the only thing some members of the National Assembly like as much as hearing civil society is regulation. Accelerating a string of hits for the civil society sector in an unusual record are three bills at the National Assembly (one at the Senate and two at the House of Representatives) aiming to regulate the activities of civil society organisations in Nigeria.
One of the bills passed first and second readings at the House of Representatives in July 2016 alone, signalling the level of interest our lawmakers have in the civil society sector, compared to what obtains at the Senate where the NGO regulatory agency bill has been at the first reading stage since November 2015.
The “Bill for an Act to provide for the establishment of the Non-Governmental Organisations Regulatory Commission for the supervision, coordination and monitoring of Non-Governmental Organisations, Civil Society Organisations etc in Nigeria and for related matters (HB585)”, sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader, House of Representatives, Umar Buba Jubril, was hinged on issues of national security, lack of legal framework and monitoring of funding coming to the sector.
Narratives around the social sector being the conduit for terrorism financing and money laundering have performed particularly well both locally and globally but without evidence. Because of the consistent success in the use of these narratives, it has continued to trend on the lips of many who thought they knew civil society. Several resolutions and recommendations by the United Nations affirmed our rights: of association, to receive funds and also assemble.
For a sector that is regulated by five Federal Government agencies under applicable laws of the land to be labelled as having “no single legal framework” is a very wrong start for the partnership that must happen across sectors in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals in Nigeria.
Remarks such as those in the legislative brief by Jubril are helping to give the civil society sector a bad brand identity. Like the experience of our sector with the Seventh Assembly, the three bills repeat most of the same narrative as their predecessor but have been escalated by bringing in more complexity and amplifying the drama.
But these three bills appear to have a unique advantage because they are coming early in the life of the Eighth Assembly. However, the National Assembly and sponsors of the bills can be sure that each bill will receive an overwhelming review by the civil society community. With Bill HB585 now sent to the Committee on Civil Society and Development Partners for legislative input, all institutions within the civil society family appear well-positioned to engage the National Assembly on these bills.
As civil society continues to race ahead as a succour for the common man, seeking to over-regulate our work by the National Assembly misses the point. Non-profit organisations in the country are trying to support government where it needs help and continue to hold the system accountable where government can but refuses to take action.
Regulation sentiments about civil society are recovering from a 2015 “recession” caused by the national elections and civil society’s advocacy but this is also a sector driven by very few professionals and weak regulatory enforcement, reflecting worries amongst many experts in the sector.
These worries are probably mature. Perceptions of the general public about the civil society sector are also not helping as many see it as an avenue for getting rich by receiving money from foreign donors. Whereas, every dollar given is expected by the donor to produce 20 dollars impact- that is the reality that exits in our sector – with this, very few Nigerian organisations have the capacity to access foreign grants hence many have had to fund their organisations from individual donations and personal finances.
The irony is that the long held perception about the social sector being antagonistic and foreign-funded may have forced most legislators to focus on regulation rather take advantage of the importance of civil society to democracy and development.
However, our sector shouldn’t get too hung up by the bills but rather we should also use this as an opportunity to improve on the overall smooth relationship enjoyed with the National Assembly and the lawmakers sympathetic to our causes.
Besides, the sector must rethink its transparency and accountability.