In a bid to expand civic space and enhance the fundamental human rights in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in relation to freedom of association, the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Rivers State have rejected in totality a Bill titled ‘A Bill to harmonise Rivers State CSOs registration, in relation to modernising such laws to align with current practices, streaming procedures, and eliminating unnecessary registration burden,’ in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
In his opening remarks, the Executive Director of We the People, a non-governmental organisation, Ken Henshaw said that they have been produced and pushed to the Rivers State House of Assembly without any consultation, consideration and input of Civil Society Organisation members, adding that the CSO members should be aware, notify and discuss such Bill.
The human rights activist explained that such a Bill has been deliberated upon with the understanding of its benefits to the people and the human right family. He maintained that there were lots of evidences in the Bill that show that it would shrink the already narrow space of Civil Society Organisations in the state. The Executive Director said it was imperative that CSOs in the state not only looked at the Bill critically but rejected it in totality.
In his presentation, Leonard Oragwa expressed dissatisfaction on both the content and why the Bill was proposed when such Bill was rejected by the National Assembly. “There is a check and balance in every governance but this Bill undermines our norms,” he said.
Oragwa also said that Section 12 of the proposed Bill was obnoxious and contradicts the 1999 constitution. He further expressed fear that while this Bill is pending in the House, CSOs and NGOs will lose both local and international recognition, especially local and funding support.
He said the Bill before the Rivers State House of Assembly is supported by some very relatively unknown network of organisations operating under the banner, Rivers State Network of NGOs, RINNGOS, through the Rivers State Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning, noting that the Bill takes after previous attempts to regulate and stifle the civic space in Nigeria, while lamenting that under the proposed Bill those to perform any charitable organisation will seek the consent or approval of state officials.
Explaining further, Oragwa pointed out that Section 14 and Section 28 contradict themselves on voluntary registration and registration according to the Bill. “The provisions of the Bills run directly counter to the fundamental protection for the rights to free speech, public assembly, and association provided by Section 39(1) of the Constitution.
Grace Appolos told participants that the existing Bill duplicate already existing functions and creating bottleneck as it requires CSOs who are already registered under the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), also demand fresh registration, The Company and Allied Matters Act 2020 prescribed the mode for reporting annual returns as well as other financial report associated with incorporated trustee under which CSOs fall.
Appolos said under Section 11, the Bill gives the Registry and the State government overriding power to monitor every activity of CSOs or risk deregistration.
Some participants condemned Section 58 in given reward to a network RINNGOS who will be major beneficiary incase the Bill scale through where they will be the lead consultant of the Open Government Partnership Projects, and other high level political gathering irrespective of their capacity. It could be recalled that CSOs in Rivers State have through this meeting jettisoned the Bill in its entirety.