Since the return of democracy in 1999, whenever civil society has come out with expose about corruption, bad governance or repression, the response by a few people in the legislature is to propose a Bill to shut up civil society. It’s a futile exercise because the Nigerian human rights spirit is irrepressible and the Nigerian people deeply believe in democracy even if some of their leaders do not. Nigerian legislators travel a lot and in their trips to Ethiopia, Egypt and Russia, they found out that these countries have established laws that make it almost impossible for human rights organisations to survive and do their work effectively.
They are forced to re-register under difficult and expensive conditions, they are required to seek government permission to do their routine work, those who receive foreign funding are registered as foreign agents and the new laws make it possible for government to close down any organisation it does not like without even having to give any reason.
Currently, there is another attempt to impose a draconian law designed to castrate civil society, restrict civil space and block the work of human rights organisations in the country. The new Bill does not only infringe on the right to association, conscience and religion but even more importantly, is a toxic attempt to legitimize discrimination, and entrench corruption.
The Bill is based on a lie, that civil society organizations are afraid of being regulated. In preparing the political grounds for the Bill, a lot of spin has been organised about “massive corruption by civil society organisations in the North East.” The spin does not point out that the said organisations in the North East are not Nigerian civil society organisations.
The stories are being created simply to create a toxic atmosphere about civil society. The idea is to give a dog a bad name as a prelude to killing it. It is extremely irritating that every few years, civil society activists have to come out to defend their right to exist. Nigerians should not forget that the return to democracy was the result of the concerted struggle of civil society against military dictatorship and many of the actors seeking to subvert civil society today were on the side of authoritarianism and against the people two decades ago.
The position of Nigerian civil society is simple – do not subvert the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Nigerians and their organisations in the guise of regulation. Civil society has been at the heart of the struggle of enhancing mechanisms for enhancing transparency and accountability in our country and cannot be afraid of it. There is a law – the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) that regulates civil society organisations. The National Planning Commission (NPC) directly governs the activities of international development partners and foreign civil society organisations. They cannot operate without a signed MOU with the NPC.
If there are issues about regulation, why are these laws not being reviewed and why do we have Nigerian legislators copying laws from Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia. When did these countries become our “democracy” teachers?
Idayat Hassan, Director and Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, Senior Fellow write for the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja