The voluntary organisations bill (1)
The National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Laws are therefore not made in a vacuum but to satisfy agreed goals and needs of the state and its citizens. In this context, the social contract that demands that citizens surrender and submit their individual powers to the state in expectation of protection, enhancement of social welfare and general improvements in life depicts lawmaking as a means to an end. Laws are made to fill gaps – where there are no applicable legal norms; cure mischief in existing law and policy and to create new goals for social conduct. If the law guiding a certain set of transactions is adequate and meets the needs of society in that regard, it will be a waste of time and resources to duplicate existing laws and institutions.
There is before the House of Representatives a Bill for an Act to Regulate the Acceptance and Utilisation of Finance/material contributions of Donor Agencies to Voluntary Organisations and for matters connected therewith. The bill states that no voluntary organisation shall accept any foreign financial or material assistance except with the permission of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission. All voluntary organisations having defined, cultural, economic, educational, religious or social programmes cannot accept foreign support except they are registered with the ICPC in accordance with the rules to be made under the bill when it becomes law. All voluntary organisations will be under obligation to give the ICPC information as to the source, amount, purpose of the contribution and the manner in which the contribution will be utilised. Voluntary organisations are to apply to the ICPC for permission to use the said funds or contributions and the ICPC shall respond within 60 days from the date of the receipt of the application.
Under the bill, the ICPC may prohibit voluntary organisations from accepting any foreign financial contribution if it considers that such will subvert the sovereignty and integrity of Nigeria; have adverse impact on the foreign diplomatic relations of any country; may cause religious disharmony or be a source of money laundering. The voluntary organisations will be obligated to maintain accounts of the expenditure of the receipts in such manner as the ICPC may prescribe and a yearly balance sheet submitted to the ICPC. The bill further grants the anti-graft agency powers to seize accounts and all other powers emanating from the ICPC principal Act. It creates offences and penalties including criminal sanctions for whoever assists the primary offender; all shall be liable to imprisonment for two years. The bill is not applicable to transactions between the Nigerian government and any transfers of money from another government. A voluntary organisation is defined as an association of individuals whether incorporated or not. Thus, the dragnet has been spread out, not only for nongovernmental organisations, but the Church and the Mosque, community-based organisations like village, town and local government unions and meetings; clubs like Rotary and Lions Clubs, etc.
It must be stated that the provisions of the bill, on the face, are retrogressive and will only escalate existing problems in the society. The first reason informing this position is that there is no lacuna in the existing law. Voluntary organisations are required to register under the Companies and Allied Matters Act either as incorporated trustees or companies limited by guarantee. Upon registration and engagement in activities, they are required to file annual returns with the Corporate Affairs Commission. This helps the CAC to collect information on their activities. This is the first level of registration. The second reason is that if money laundering is the mischief that this bill seeks to cure, many voluntary organisations especially the NGOs have already been designated as bodies that will report to the Special Control Unit against Money Laundering. They have been registered with the SCUML and are working hard to ensure compliance with the rules. There is also the Presidential Committee on Financial Action Task Force which has been seeking the passage of a bill in the National Assembly for a legal framework to the Nigerian FATF and to give it autonomy. The Financial Action Task Force is the international body that sets standards for member countries to follow in the fight against money laundering, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
If the objective is to combat terrorism, the third reason for opposing this bill is that Nigeria has new laws on combating terrorism including tracking down the financiers of terror and this law gives enormous powers to the state to proceed against terrorism. Do we need to reinvent the wheel when the existing wheel is in good order? Nigerians are all living witnesses that both the ICPC and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of corruption cases they have to handle and the full implementation of other aspects of their mandate. As the fourth reason for opposing this bill, when another entirely strange and new mandate is given to the ICPC, the agency will surely grind to a halt because the capacity is not there for the increased assignments. The fifth reason Nigerians should oppose this bill is that it contains provisions that are clearly susceptible to abuse. It confers a lot of discretion on fallible institutions and human beings. What is the definition of integrity and sovereignty of Nigeria – an omnibus catch phrase that can justify outrageous decisions, reminiscent of the military decrees of old? If a group has funding to review government policies and write a report, which considering our daily experience with governmental performance, will be unfavourable, will that not be against the sovereignty and integrity of Nigeria?
The sixth reason for opposing the bill is that if it is passed into law, it will increase the cost of governance which goes against the popular demand for the reduction of the cost of governance to free resources towards providing citizens welfare needs. Assuming without conceding that the afore-listed agencies are not doing their job relating to voluntary organisations well, the answer should not be to set up another bureaucracy. The response should be to improve and reform extant processes. The ICPC complains of poor funding, so where would the new funding to execute this mandate come from? Seventh is the timing of this bill, coming at a time the government is facing criticism for its poor handling of a number of issues raises the red flag. Reasonable persons are bound to question this obvious attempt at caging civil society organisations through holding on to their funding.
As part of a continuum is the eight reason, which is the fact that voluntary organisations can no longer intervene in emergencies since the funds for such will be held up for six months by the ICPC before they can use the same. And by the time the approval eventually comes, the need would no longer be there and many lives would probably have been lost to unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy. Is this sensible?
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