Does the Nigerian parliament really think of voluntary organisations as a major source of all the problems besetting our country today? And do the problems stem mainly from the fact that these voluntary organisations receive financial and other material gifts from outside Nigeria. How else would one explain the reason behind the move by the House of Representatives to pass a law to restrict the activities of this group, albeit using covert means?
On Wednesday July 2, the House will hold a public hearing on the bill for an Act to: “regulate the acceptance and utilisation of financial/material contribution of donor agencies for voluntary organisations”.
Key provisions of the proposed law would lead to the conclusion that the whole proposal is unnecessary. The bill defines ‘voluntary organisation’ as ‘an association of individuals whether incorporated or not’ while ‘foreign financial contribution’ means ‘any financial donations or transfer made by a foreign source’. The immediate observation here is that this proposed law would regulate the financial transactions of virtually every group, including the ubiquitous ‘committee of friends’ set up to support friends at their wedding planning. It certainly covers organisations set up for defined interests such as cultural, economic, educational, religious and social programmes.
By the provision of the proposed section 2 of the bill, such organisations would be restricted from accepting any foreign financial and material contribution except with the permission of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC). Thus, if our hypothetical committee of friends above must receive financial or ‘material’ support from a friend based in a foreign country, e.g. Togo, the committee must first get permission from the ICPC before it can receive such money. It would also have negative impact on foreign remittances by families to groups like town unions.
If this proposal becomes law, it would restrict religious groups from receiving any form of donations from individuals or groups outside the country. This would harm religious groups in two major ways. For those groups with headquarters in Nigeria it means that donations and contributions coming from their members or branches outside the country cannot be received unless the ICPC approves, just like religious groups cannot accept funds from their parent bodies or richer international partners for the advancement of their faith or even for the establishment or supporting of social causes like schools and homes for the less-privileged.
Similar restrictions would apply to international charities and philanthropic organisations such as the Lions Clubs and the Rotary Clubs, whose international foundations have been funding major intervention programmes in Nigeria. The Rotary for instance has been behind the polio eradication projects while the Lions have invested significant sums of money for the eradication of river blindness in Nigeria. All that major funding would be affected by the bottlenecks that would typically bedevil the ICPC process of people applying and waiting for months on end for the approval to come. And knowing that many of these interventions are usually emergencies, requiring prompt action to deploy finances this proposed law would bring more harm than good.
The proposed law attempts to create new duties and responsibilities on the ICPC, even where such duties have already been vested in other statutory bodies. For instance, the requirements about disclosure of sources of funds coming to an organisation from foreign sources are already covered under the Terrorism Prevention Act, the memorandum of understanding signed by the National Planning Commission with some of the voluntary organisations, the Companies and Allied Matters Act and the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act. There already exist regulations making it mandatory for banks to report to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) certain payments made into individual or organisational accounts. It is clear that this additional and unnecessary legislation would only lead to more confusion.
But really, what is the reason for the proposal to enact a law as this? If it is about curbing crime, especially terrorism, the Terrorism Prevention Act already covers that. If it is to prevent money laundering, the Money Laundering Act is there. In fact if the above were the case then this bill would have been handled by parliamentary committees related to those issues. Curiously, this bill is being considered by the Committee on Civil Society and Donor Agencies. So we can safely say that this is targeted at curbing the activities of civil society groups. This is because the powers granted the ICPC to permit the receipt of foreign contribution is one that could be abused and used as instruments of control.
Furthermore, by proposing that the regulatory authority can prohibit a voluntary organisation from accepting foreign contribution if it is satisfied that such receipt is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of Nigeria, adverse diplomatic relation of any foreign country, cause religious disharmony, or lead to money laundering, the law would inadvertently create room for abuse. It might be similar to the recent overreaching attempt of the commissioner of police in the Federal Capital Territory who purported to ‘outlaw’ the civil actions of some citizens drawing attention to the abducted Chibok Girls.
This bill may be targeted at civil society groups but it would affect all voluntary organisations including churches and mosques. Go figure. So, really, who is afraid of the voluntary organisations, and why?
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