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Controversies over NGO, constituency projects bills

Over the past weeks, the proposed Non-Governmental Organisations’ Regulatory Bill as well as the bill to legalise Constituency Projects by the 8th National Assembly have been generating controversies. In this report, TOPE SUNDAY and KEHINDE OSASONA examine the debates

Since its inauguration in 2015, the eighth National Assembly has more often than not been embroiled in one controversy or the other. In most cases, its leadership very often attributes the attack on it to ‘some outside forces’’ and usually return ‘fire for fire’, making the institution to remain in the eye of the storm.

Expectedly, the Non-Governmental Regulatory Bill and the proposed bill to legalize Constituency Projects by the two chambers of the National Assembly have also sparked off another round of controversies as to whether the bills should be initiated in the first place or not? Some Nigerians opine that the two bills are anti-Nigerian masses, while others see it as timely and the best way to get rid of corruption in the country.


The controversial bills

The bill to regulate the NGOs and Civil Society Organisations being sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Umar Jibril, had scaled through the second reading. And according to its sponsor, it’s primarily to set up a commission to regulate their activities and provide a platform for robust relationships between them and the government in the interest of Nigerians.  Hon. Jibril in a statement credited to him recently, said: “The NGOs bill “Recent developments have shown that some people registered NGOs to solicit funds for selfish motives. Also, recently, in the north eastern part of the country, some NGOs were reported to have funded the activities of insurgents,’’.

According to him, the bill is to ensure transparency and accountability in the ways NGOs collect money and use it, explaining further that religious organisations and quasi financial institutions were not affected by the bill because they were not NGOs.

Also, the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, recently announced that a bill to legalize the constituency projects’ is being considered to address controversies trailing it. With Saraki’s pronouncement, it implies that the bill is still at infancy. However, it is not clear whether Saraki was making allusion to a bill for an Act to provide for the inclusion of constituency projects in the annual budget of the Federation sponsored by a former Minister of Aviation, Senator Stella Oduah, who represents Anambra North in the National Assembly.

While leading the debate on the proposed bill, which had passed through the second reading, Senator Oduah had said that the bill seeks to grant legal backing to the provision of constituency projects in the annual budget by a minimum of 20 percent of the total budget.

“The bill is also intended to correct the top-bottom approach of governance and replace it with the bottom-top approach. If not for these projects, majority of the federal constituencies would not have a single federal project due to lopsided nature of project allocation in the budget,” Oduah had added.

The ranging debates

The NGOs regulation

As lofty as the bill on NGO regulation seemly appears, a serving senator of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Shehu Sani, is the first parliamentarian to kick against it and vowed to fight against it when it comes to the Senate.

Sani, an activist, in a tweet from his official twitter handle, said: “The bill on NGOs will reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I’ll oppose it”.

Opposing the bill, a former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, argued that the proposed law would affect religious bodies and humanitarian agencies and organizations, adding that it was unnecessary as there are already enough laws and institutions to regulate NGOs.

Some legal practitioners, who also spoke with Blueprint Features in Abuja, however, expressed divergent views over the bills.

For an Abuja-based Lawyer, Ajayi Olowo, the National Assembly has the prerogative to legislate and institute any bill but said Nigerians should be concerned about its legality as to whether it will infringe on their rights or not.

“Once it is passed into law, we will look at it as Legal Practitioners and see if it infringes upon any section of the constitution, then we could challenge it appropriately in court.  But right now, they (the lawmakers) have a duty to go ahead and legislate what they have to because courts cannot even interfere in an on-going legislative process’’.

Also, Barrister Umukoro  M.D. Egobuokolobia agreed with Olowo on the regulation of the NGOs’ regulation, saying, ‘’For me, it is the right of government to regulate the activities of any organization. So, right now, what the people need to do is to call for the content of the bill, take a very close look at it. So, in essence, we all have to play according to the rules and come up with superior arguments.

But Barrister Uchenna Oparaugo differed with the duo of Olowo and Egobuokolobia, alleging that the bill is targeted at gagging activities of NGOs and CSOs and warned that if the bill is not stalled, it would have adverse effects on the Nigerian masses.

He said: “NGOs do more of humanitarian work and if government now starts to regulate it, I do not know how that would help our society because in other climes, I have never seen or read about such development. It will come to a situation when government bureaucracy would be fully introduced into the activities of the NGOs and a lot of Nigerians will suffer it.  Sometimes, ordinary Nigerians get opportunities and scholarships through these NGOs, but by the time government regulates it, you will find out that those that would be at the helms might not have good intention.


The propose bill on constituency projects

The proposed bill, according to some Nigerians is timely because it will put an end to the alleged corruption in the execution of the constituency projects by some Nigerian Lawmakers and some argued that it is not a go-area for them.

On this, Olowo argues that the proposed bill on the legalization of the constituency projects if passed and legalized will make diversion of projects’ funds more difficult.

‘’If the Senate or the National Assembly legislates coming by the virtue of sections 57 and 58 of the constitution, if they pass bills like that ( a bill to legalize constituency projects), and the president assents to it, it becomes an order of the day.

‘’Having said that, if the proposed constituency projects’ bill scales through and is legalized, then, it will definitely be difficult to siphon funds meat for the constituency projects. Don’t also forget that there would also be formal procedure in law to be followed, which I think, is good’’.

Also speaking on this,  Egobuokolobia, vehemently disagrees with Olowo’s submission,  saying that lawmakers shouldn’t be involved in the constituency projects.

‘’Legislators should not be involved in the constituency projects. It is a no-go area because they do not have any business doing that. If legislators feel that they want to attract projects, they can do that by lobbying but it is not for them to execute. It is an aberration, and abnormal’, he argues.


NASS’ stance

Despite the controversies trailing the two bills, the leadership of the two chambers of the National Assembly appears non- perturbed by the development as they justify it actions.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, while reacting to criticisms trailing the NGOs’ regulatory bill, declared that the National Assembly will not be intimidated, into abandoning its duty of providing a platform for Nigerians to agree or disagree on any proposed legislative measure.

Dogara, who spoke at the resumption of plenary after the legislators’ seven-week recess recently, declared:  “No one can nor indeed, should gag the operations of NGOs in Nigeria. But, just as they aspire for this freedom, it must be stated that freedom does not come without responsibility as there is no such thing as freedom to be irresponsible. The legislative process cannot be short circuited.

Also, the Special Assistant to the Senate President on Print Media, Chuks Okocha, justifies the bill to legalize the Constituency project in his recently article titled: “Legalizing constituency project”, saying the bill will end unnecessary acrimony and bickering over the projects.

He said: “The constituency development system is operational in Ghana, India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Southern Sudan, Honduras, Malawi, Liberia, Nepal, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the United States of America. It is a funding arrangement whereby funds are made available from the central government directly to various constituencies for local infrastructural development and addressing the peculiar needs of the electorate.

“But many Nigerians fear that the constituency projects could turn out to be white elephant projects for the legislators to use in lining their pockets. This was why Senate President Bukola Sraki took time to try to dispel the fears about constituency projects. He assured that the new law on community development would not only ensure transparency and accountability but would also outlive the originators”.


Analysts’ submission

As controversies continue to trail the two bills on NGOs and the legalization of the Constituency Projects bills, analysts are of the view that the NGOs’ draft bill, which has already passed its Second Reading, are targeted at gagging the NGOs and CSOs who are antagonizing and checkmating the activities of the National Assembly members. Also, they query the interest of the National Assembly members in the regulation and coordination of NGOs and CSOs’ activities amidst of other pressing national issues like gargantuan corruption, insurgency and youth unemployment.

On the Constituency projects’ bill, they argue and query the genuineness of the bill, alleging that that is another avenue for the lawmakers to enrich their pockets at the detriment of the country’s lean resources.

They, however, urge Nigerians to resist any attempt by the lawmakers to bring back a draconian era where the wish of the people will not prevail and counsel the lawmakers shun any act that may spell doom for the country.

About By Tope Sunday and Kehinde Osasona

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