Creeping intolerance of NGOs undemocratic By Punch Editorial Board

Bello Matawalle
Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle

THE Zamfara State Government’s recent order that all non-governmental organisations should leave the state is heavy handed and alarming. It smacks of dictatorship and suggests a descent into tyranny in a country claiming to be a democracy. Hiding under a veneer of legalism, the Governor Bello Matawalle-led state government through its Commissioner for Security and Home Affairs, Mamman Tsafe, announced with imperial haughtiness that it was now illegal to operate an NGO in the state. This should be seen as an assault on fundamental freedoms and should be resisted by all lawful means.

Tsafe laboured to justify the blanket ban on NGO activities in Zamfara. According to him, the majority of these ‘illegal’ NGOs have not registered with the state in line with the laid down rules and regulations of the government. This is rather lame. For one, his accusation spoke of “majority,” not all NGOs failing to register. Why punish the minority who had complied with registration rules along with defaulters?

It is the duty of every individual, group, or corporate body to comply with the laws of the land. Violation of laws and lawful regulations should not be condoned; to that extent, NGOs operating anywhere in Nigeria, Zamfara State inclusive, must comply with the law. However, a blanket ban on both offenders and the innocent is a blatant abuse of state power. Asking unregistered NGOs to stop operating until they register would have sufficed.  

The commissioner’s next accusation was weightier; he alleged that “some of them (NGOs) have also been found to be engaging in activities fuelling insecurity in the state and its neighbourhood.” For these reasons, he said, the government had ordered all NGOs in the state to “pack their belongings and leave the state immediately.”

Zamfara is in the vortex of banditry and the kidnapping industry in the North-West region.  Banditry, arson, wanton killings, and rape and mass kidnapping have laid the state low for over a decade, spreading to other states of the region. A former governor of the state, Abdulaziz Yari, estimated that between 2011 and 2018, 2,835 persons were slaughtered in the state, while almost 500 villages and 13,000 hectares of land were devastated by rampaging bandits.

His successor, Matawalle, said 1,190 persons were kidnapped between 2011 and 2019, with about N970 million paid as ransom, while 14,378 animals were rustled, and 100,000 persons displaced. Estimates of the number of bandits embedded in Zamfara range between 10,000 and 30,000.

The security nightmare there is therefore real. Consequently, the allegation that some NGOs were fuelling insecurity should be based on concrete evidence; it requires scrupulous investigation by the security agencies. It would be a disservice to the anti-crime efforts if it was levelled merely to discredit the NGOs.

Every polity, especially a democracy, needs vibrant civil society organisations and NGOs across the broad spectrum of social, political, economic and humanitarian specialities. A study published by the Brookings Institution described CSOs as an “essential building block of development and national cohesion.” The Funds for NGOs adds that they “perform a wide range of services aimed towards human wellbeing and social welfare.”

They are regarded as particularly important in a democracy by making governments accountable to the people and providing information to the public on government activities. For these reasons, declared Civil Liberties Union for Europe, “anti-democratic governments don’t like NGOs” and seek to constrain them, or outlaw them altogether. Discrediting and banning them are favourite tactics.Related News

This anti-democratic instinct has been displayed by the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and several state governors. Hostile rhetoric has sometimes been followed by physical and legal harassment against journalists, activists and NGOs by the federal and some state governments. One minister has repeatedly proposed legislation to restrict NGOs and social media.

Recently, the Bayelsa State Government asked a CSO operating under the aegis of the Civil Society Organisation Central Coordinating Council to apologise to Governor Duoye Diri, over what it termed as ‘false allegation.’

Preposterously, a few days earlier, the Senate had ‘ordered’ two CSOs to tender an apology to Buhari for writing what it termed ‘frivolous petitions’ against two persons nominated by the President as members of the Code of Conduct Bureau and to publish it in a national newspaper!

Zamfara has followed this odious route. In its eviction notice, the government warned all its ministries, departments, and agencies to sever any relationship they had with these NGOs and urged security agencies in the state to ‘investigate and prosecute NGOs.’ The investigation is welcome and should be done speedily to identify and prosecute any agency or person fuelling insecurity in any way. Also, it will establish if the allegations are justified or frivolous.

More importantly, it will unshackle exonerated NGOs from the blanket ban and allow them to carry on their critical, much-needed interventions in the state. Those who have not registered should quickly do so and operate strictly within the law.

The umbrella body of the NGOs in the state, the Zamfara Coalition of Non-Governmental Organisation, has condemned the ban. ZASCONS and other CSOs operating in Nigeria should jointly push back against the harassment.

Nigeria’s democracy is rated poorly because many of those occupying high public offices lack respect for basic democratic values. The 1999 Constitution grants every citizen the right to freedom of association and personal liberty, but this is often threatened.

NGOs help in the fight against poverty and corruption, supporting women and primary healthcare, education, and functional literacy. They are development partners. Nigerians should demand good governance and accountability. Even under military dictatorships, NGOs and CSOs thrived. Other CSOs and pressure groups should join in the fight against repression anywhere it rears its head.

NGOs should keep a healthy distance from government and its funds. Integrity and transparency must be the trademarks of every CSO operating in a multi-dimensional society like Nigeria. The assaults on NGOs should be resisted by peaceful protests and litigation.

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