The Proposed Ngo Bill: an Encroachment on the Right of Expression and Association?

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James Obiadazie Jr

For the purpose of understanding some salient controversies of the proposed Non-Governmental Organizations Bill (hereinafter referred as the Bill), it is significant to give a lucid run-down on what seems to be somewhat the inception of the bill.

The bill is entitled “AN ACT TO REGULATE THE ACCEPTANCE AND UTILISATION OF FINANCE/MATERIAL CONTRIBUTIONS OF DONOR AGENCIES TO VOLUNTARY ORGANISATIONS AND FOR MATTERS RELATED CONNECTED THEREWITH”.

This bill is reportedly to have been sponsored by Hon. Umar B. Jibril (Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives).

That notwithstanding, some columnists and or/Human Rights Activists have clearly expressed their disapproval and condemnation of the said bill. In the words of Prof. C. Odinkalu, “its 58 sections were “of extraordinarily bad drafting, jumbled thinking, and un-concealed ill-will.”. (Culled NigerianTribune 25th September, 2017 accessed 5:00pm).

Others saying the bill is a devious instrument which is skilled to give the government a sort of invulnerability against public criticisms and authority to shortchange the dissenting voices of the masses, hence, an infringement of freedom of expression, association amongst others.

Contrariwise, the House of Representatives have assured that the bill is intended to regulate the activities of non-governmental agencies. It further affirmed that religious organizations have nothing to fear if the bill came into force.

Having said all that, l shall now briefly consider the propriety or otherwise of the claims that such bill may hindered the exercise of freedom of expression and association amongst others, if enforced.

It is evident that the 1999 Constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of association under sections 39 & 40 respectively. It is also provided under Article 9 & 10 African Charter of Humans and People’s Rights. These fundamental rights have received judicial blessings in Mallam Nasir Ahmed El-Rufia v. Senate of The National Assembly & Ors (2014) AELR 4144 (CA) and Admiral Murtala Nyako (RTD) v. Dr. Umar Ardo & Ors (2013) AELR 1959 (CA).

It is also instructive to say that these rights are not to be exercised in isolation and therefore are not also absolute. There are exceptions and restriction within sections 39 & 40, which I shall restate below:

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Section 45(1) 1999 Constitution provides as follows:

Nothing in sections 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society – (a) in the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality and public health

Now what was the rationale for the proposed bill? In addition to Dr. Odilim Ewagabara comments in support of the bill, it is submitted that there is a dire need to regulate the activities of non-government organizations, hence, making it a law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

This bill, if properly implemented, would guarantee that such organizations operating in Nigerian were not used as tools to undermine the country’s efforts in eroding corruption, by helping looters launder public funds outside the country, considering numerous corruption cases in our courts.

It is also submitted that for the interest of public order, there must be a law to regulate activities of non-government agencies, so as to avoid it being used as an apparatus of blackmail against constituted authorities or any organization whatsoever.

Conclusively, it is not impossible that the bill maybe used to unconstitutional restricts rights to freedom of expression and association but where such happens, the courts are there to exercise their judicial power to address such constitutional breach.

In the light of the foregoing, and without prejudice to the submissions made thereunder, it is my submission that the bill, will not in any way constitute an infringement to freedom of association and expression. Also, it is my view that if appropriately implemented, it would keep these organizations under the radar of the law and curb some of their illegal acts and excesses. It is suggested that, if by any chance it is used to unlawfully hamper constitutional rights, the court should be bold to declare such acts illegal, without fear or favour.

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James Obiadazie, Jr. is a student in the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Contact: +2348179725475, or nonso.obiadazie.191126@unn.edu.ng

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