We the People recently learnt that the Rivers state House of Assembly was considering a Bill mandating Civil Society Organizations in the state to pass through an additional level of registration with the state government. The Bill amongst others, requires CSOs operating in, or that have any dealings in Rivers State, to register with a ‘Registry’ of the state government, embedded in the Rivers State Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning. The head of this Registry will be appointed by the state Governor, with powers to deny registration or deregister any organization. Failing to register will attract non-recognition in the state and may result in non-cooperation by the state government and its agencies.
In response to this, We the People published a review of this Bill and mobilized CSOs in Rivers State to deliberate on this brazen attempt to restrict the civic space. The meeting which held on the 2nd of February, 2023 brought together frontline CSOs in the state, as well as media organizations. The meeting concluded that the Bill is a sub-national attempt to restrict basic freedoms and will only achieve the purpose of stifling dissent, intimidating civil society organizations, and curtailing the civic space.
23 organizations endorsed a statement demanding an immediate withdrawal of the Bill.
Civil Society Statement
Stop the Attempt to Constrain Civil Society Organizations in Rivers State
Civil society organizations in Rivers state and Nigeria condemn in strong terms the attempt by the government of River state to stifle the civic space and restrict basic freedoms. We note in particular the recent attempt by some members of the Rivers state House of Assembly to introduce an NGO Registration Bill titled ‘A BILL TO HARMONISE RIVERS STATE CSOS REGISTRATIONS, IN RELATION TO MODERNIZING SUCH LAWS TO ALIGN WITH CURRENT PRACTICES, STREAMLINING PROCEDURES, AND ELIMINATING UNNECESSARY REGISTRATION BURDENS’. Among others, the Bill contains the following critical provisions;
- The Bill creates a registration requirement for ‘organizations which engage or seek to engage in charitable activities or for any purpose requiring the consent or approval of any state official, department or board as required by law. While it says the requirement to register is voluntary, it nonetheless makes it a necessary requirement because it is only when an organization registers that “functionality for the purpose of recognition in the state shall begin.” This inadvertently means that the failure to register will deny ‘unregistered’ organizations of government recognition, which could in turn result in the refusal of government agencies and even private sector organizations doing business with the government to share information or extend any level of cooperation. In simple terms, only CSOs permitted and approved by the state government will be recognized, and function effectively and efficiently in the state. This provision runs contrary to the constitutional provisions for the rights to free speech, public assembly, and association.
- Section 8(c) establishes a ‘CSO Registry’ as an extension of the powers of the state government. It places the Registry under the Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning, and stipulates that the Registry “is subject to the direction or control of the Ministry”. Section 33 of the Bill goes further to empower the state Governor to appoint the Registrar in charge of the CSO Registry. At the local government level, the Bill provides for the establishment of a local government-level CSO Registry to be headed by a Registrar appointed by the local government Chairman. The powers which the Bill provides to the state and local government effectively allow them to tamper with the operations of CSOs in any manner they please, while effectively shrinking the civic space.
- In Section 10 and captioned, “Fees and other amounts payable to the Registry”, the Commissioner of the Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning is empowered to impose fees payable to the Registry by CSOs to fund the work of the Registry. The Bill provides no frameworks for determining these payments and leaves it to the discretion of the Commissioner. In simple terms, CSOs will be mandated to fund the functionality of the Registry by paying an amount to be determined by an appointee of the State Governor. The Bill also empowers the Registry to ‘impose charges of such amounts as it considers reasonable in respect of registration renewal…’. This provision seeks to create additional fees and empowers the government to impose exploitative fees with fiat.
- Section 11 of the Bill gives the Registry and the State government overriding powers to monitor (and possibly censor) every activity of CSOs at the risk of deregistration. The Bill stipulates that the register to be created upon registration must contain ‘information concerning the nature, activities and purposes of the organisation’ as well as “must contain…such other particulars of, and such other information relating to, every such organisation as the Registry deems fit.” Through this provision, the rights of human rights defenders and NGO doing critical work could be compromised. CSOs are obligated to provide EVERY information required by the Registry, including their source of information for advocacy work, as well as plans and strategies.
- Section 31 of the Bill gives the Registry powers to arbitrarily deregister organizations. The first paragraph states that ‘the registrar shall remove any organization which it no longer deems to be a civil society organization’ as indicated through its annual reports.” This paragraph, construed literally, empowers the Registry to leverage any information contained in an organization’s annual report as a basis to remove it from the CSO register because it deems it unfit to continue being a CSO. The Bill does not provide any process of engagement with the affected organizations before removal. It places sole and arbitrary powers on the Registry. Organizations who believe they have been wrongly treated are advised in Section 57 to seek redress in court. The CSO is first removed and then directed to the court to seek redress.
The above and several other aspects of the proposed law pose a serious threat to the existence and free operation of CSOs in Rivers State. If passed into Law, the Bill will only serve the purpose of stifling dissent, intimidating civil society organizations and curtailing the civic space. We are equally concerned that if this Bill passes in Rivers state, it could become a new trend in other states.
As civil society organizations in Nigeria, we totally condemn this Bill and call upon the Rivers State House of Assembly to immediately jettison it.
This statement is endorsed by the following organizations;
- We the People
- Health of Mother Earth Foundation
- Global Rights
- Kebekatche Women Development and Resource Centre
- African Indigenous Foundation for Energy and Sustainable Devt.(AIFES)
- Environmental Rights Action
- Initiatives for Sustainable Peace & Entrepreneurship Development
- The People’s Advocate
- Civil Rights Council
- Community Conciliation and Development Initiative
- Rivers State Civil Society Organisations
- Selemati Foundation
- Social Action
- Stakeholder Democracy Network
- Centre for Human Rights, Health, Ethnic Harmony and Livelihood Development
- Society for Women And Youths Affairs
- Lekeh Development Foundation
- Pius Dukor Foundation
- Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation
- Support Initiative for Sustainable Development
- Relief International Africa
- Gender and Development Action
- Policy Alert