The President of Lawyers Alert, Rommy Mom, represents the civil society at the ongoing national conference. He once stood on a chair with a placard before he was recognised to speak at the conference. He explains why and tells OLUSOLA FABIYI the role of civil society in nation building
Some delegates have wondered who members of civil society really are. Can you educate Nigerians on this and the report asking for regulation of their activities?
Civil society generally refers to you and me and those that are not state actors. So, when we talk about regulating civil society, we are making a mistake in understanding what the concept is. Non-governmental organisations, or organised civil society, are the ones we are talking about here. We can regulate those ones. Even at that, the issue of regulating the NGOs is already taken care of. You are supposed to register under the Company and Allied Act of1999, which stipulates that you must have a board of trustees, which also must be screened by the Department of the State Security Service; you must have objectives, which must be screened by the Corporate Affairs Commission. These are forms of regulations. Coming to the conference to ask for additional regulations means tightening the spirit of regulations, voluntary associations and so on.
Do you support the recommendation that government should also fund the civil society?
Yes, I support that, because the money used by the civil society groups in this country comes from tax-paying citizens of other countries. Nigeria is wealthy enough to fund civil societies. Normally, when you are given such funds, you are handed procedures on how such money should be spent and how the financial report should be made to satisfy that the money was used for the purpose it was given. The money should be accessed on agreed procedures and also be retired in accordance with agreement.
Will this not affect the operations of civil society groups, especially criticising policies of government?
Government is funding projects of these organisations and not funding the organisations. They are not going to pay salaries, accommodation and rents of these organisations. I don’t see any problem in that. For example, if you say you want to go to Abia State to sensitise the people on electoral laws as elections are coming, the Independent National Electoral Commission is not doing enough on the sensitisation of Nigerians in this regard. A group can come together and say they want to assist INEC in doing this. The fact that you have collected money from the government to do this does not mean that you are tied to the aprons of the government.
People believe you are asking for this because foreign funding is dwindling .
That is true. Foreign funding is not coming as before, for two reasons: One, there are people who have come to say some NGOs are not individuals; and two, government has bastardized NGOs by setting up some. We call those set up by government as Government Non-Government Organisations. Government does this because it is not comfortable with the activities of NGOs.
How would Nigerians be able to differentiate between GONGOS and NGOs?
I see NGOs coming to ask for the sacking of corrupt ministers, while the GONGOS would come out to demonstrate in support of such ministers. Genuine NGOs would ask for police permit to do a peaceful protest and would be denied, while GONGOS would ask for such permits and they would be granted and be guided by the police. By their fruits, you shall know them. It is an easy way to differentiate between the two.
Some NGOs disrupted the Bring Back Our Girls protest. Would you say this is a typical GONGOS affair?
These are the GONGOS I’m talking about. Government has polluted the environment by setting up its own NGOs. It is a shame, but that is what is happening now.
If government will fund NGOs, don’t you think NGOs critical of government activities would be starved of funds?
Yes, they may be starved of funds and this happens internationally. Funding is not a matter of ‘you must give me the money’. It is a matter of ‘if you are convinced of what I’m doing, let me have the money.’ The modalities of giving out funds would be worked out if government agrees to give out money to any NGO. It must be done in such a way that their independence will be guaranteed. Civil society groups will be represented on the board of those disbursing the funds as well. I think if the regulatory body or the funding mechanism will be put in place, issues like this will be put in check.
One of the delegates alleged that members of civil society groups work against and betray one another and even collect bribes.
I won’t say it doesn’t happen; it certainly does. This is Nigeria and like every other place in the world, one or two things do go wrong. This is not enough reason to brand everyone a traitor. The democracy we are enjoying today is as a result of the efforts of the civil society. They have gone to the trenches and to prison. The freedom we are enjoying is also because we came together and fought for it, including the media.
Some people say some civil society groups were once in government but came back into activism after losing out.
It does happen but we must look at the end product. If the end product means equity; if it means betterment of the society; if it means development and at the end of the day, there would be accountability, then we should not look down at where such people originate from. We must look at the fruits and not where such people are coming from.
Many delegates are often absent at the plenaries and this has made the management to say absentees won’t be paid their allowances. Do you subscribe to this?
I think it is unfortunate that people are no longer coming, unlike the way they used to. I think there are lots of factors responsible for this. People are not happy that most times, even when they are here, they don’t have a voice. It may not be deliberate but the management of the conference has a way of calling particular persons who keep on talking every time. Others don’t have a way of contributing to issues on the floor and to the issues brought before them.
Was that why you carried a placard to be recognised to speak?
Yes. At a particular time, I had to carry a placard and stand on a chair before I could be recognised. The chairman’s table is at one end of the conference and all of us at his left hand side are not always recognised. There is a real problem on this issue.
Why haven’t delegates called his attention to this?
We have done that several times. He said he would do something about this. We have even moved a motion that he should move his chair to the centre in other to enable him to see all of us, he just laughed over it.
How would you describe the quality of debates so far?
It has been very enriching. People have been very frank; they have raised many issues which show the frankness of discussions. But more importantly, the voices keep telling us that we are Nigerians and when such a voice comes, you see the calmness of delegates and their sobriety.
Your time is almost up but most of the important issues like devolution of power, forms of government and resource control have not been discussed. Do you think this is deliberate in order to rush through discussions on them later?
When the conference started, the committees were listed from one to 20. But when discussions started, we started taking the reports from the bottom. The first four are the most important ones, which have yet to be discussed. Maybe in their own wisdom, this is to make us to agree before we get to the thorny issues. We have been bonding and we hope that when we get to the very thorny issues, it won’t be very rancorous. I think there is wisdom in taking such issues last. Yes, I agree that the issue of timing is very important. We are handling that by treating at least a committee’s report every day.