THE divergent dispositions to the bill for an Act to provide for the establishment of Non-Governmental Organisations,NGOs, Regulatory Commission, surprisingly took a different dimension yesterday in the human rights community as leading activists took opposing positions.
The development which happened on a day the public hearing on the matter commenced, was such that was capable of reducing the momentum of public opposition to the bill.
Considering that most arguments against the bill had been marshaled by the Civil Society, having two key leaders on different sides was the least expected.
Notwithstanding, their stances resonated key issues regarding what the bill stands for.
The two leaders, who differed over the matter yesterday, were a human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, and Mr. Kayode Ajulo.
While Falana considered the bill a threat to a free and independent civil society, Ajulo said a regulated civil society would help deepen democracy.
In demanding that the bill be dropped, Falana threatened to challenge it in court on the grounds that it was incompatibile with Nigeria's international and regional human rights obligations.
He explained his argument thus:" The bill is for an act to provide for the establishment of non-governmental organisations regulatory commission for the supervision, coordination, and monitoring of non-governmental organisations, and civil society organisations among others in Nigeria and for related matters.
"This is perhaps the worst piece of legislation in Nigeria's history. Under the bill, any civil society group advocating for human rights, basic freedoms and good governance can be shut down and criminalized. The bill if passed will ultimately have a disastrous impact on Nigerian citizens' democratic participation in furthering the development of their own country.
"The bill allows government authorities to de-register local and international associations and NGOs if they consider them as not working in line with "national interest." Government can similarly deny registration on the vague grounds that the purpose and goal of the associations or NGOs are inconsistent with the programmes of government. Associations and NGOs operating without registration in Nigeria will face criminal liability."
Consequently, he urged the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubi Dogara to, "reject entirely the bill as it falls significantly short of international human rights norms governing the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, in particular Section 40 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and Articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Articles 10 and 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.
"Should the bill be passed into law, I will vigorously challenge it in court on the grounds of its unconstitutionality and incompatibility with Nigeria's international and regional human rights obligations and commitments."
Expounding his reasons for supporting the bill unlike other members of his constituency, Ajulo said the establishment of a regulatory body will ensure that NGOs are driven by passion and not by financial inducement.
He said: "The establishment of a regulatory body will ensure that NGOs are driven by passion and not by financial inducement which has been the major reasons many Nigerians have now become emergency NGO founders.
"Today in Nigeria, we have shylock businessmen, traffickers, and dubious individuals whose sole aim is to exploit the public masquerading as owners of NGOs and labeling themselves as activists thereby using this medium to confuse, mislead and defraud unsuspecting members of the public. This ugly trend must be checked and that is why I agree with this bill which seeks to separate the wheat from the chaffs."
"It is imperative to state that the Non-Governmental Organizations play an increasingly important role in the development cooperation. They can bridge the gap between government and the community. Community-based organisations are essential in organising poor people, taking collective action, fighting for their rights, and representing the interests of their members in dialogue with NGOs and government.
"NGOs, on the other hand, are better at facilitating the supply of inputs into the management process, mediating between people and the wider political party, networking, information dissemination and policy reform.
"By creating an enabling framework of laws, economic and political conditions, the State can play a fundamental role in helping NGOs and CBOs to play their roles more effectively and as a result increase the access to infrastructure services for the urban poor. Partnerships between all groups should be achieved without ignoring each other's strengths but make use of each other's comparative advantage.
"The strength of NGOs, particularly those operating at the field level, is their ability to form close linkages to local communities and to engender community ownership and participation in development efforts. NGOs often can respond quickly to new circumstances and can experiment with innovative approaches. NGOs can identify emerging issues, and through their consultative and participatory approaches can identify and express beneficiary views that otherwise might not be heard."
"NGOs often are successful intermediaries between actors in the development arena, building bridges between people and communities on one side, and governments, development institutions, and donors and development agencies on the other. In an advocacy role, NGOs frequently represent issues and views important in the dynamics of a development process.
"At the same time, limited technical capacities and relatively small resource bases may characterize some NGOs. NGOs sometimes may have limited strategic perspectives and weak linkages with other actors in development. NGOs may have limited managerial and organizational capacities. In some countries, the relationship between NGOs and government may involve political, legal, ideological, and administrative constraints. Because of their voluntary nature, there may be questions regarding the legitimacy, accountability, credibility and their claims as to mandate and constituencies.
"Questions sometimes arise concerning the motivations and objectives of NGOs, and the degree of accountability NGOs accept for the ultimate impact of policies and positions they advocate."