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Civil society in Nigeria: A treat or threat?

January 29, 2018
topic:Transparency and Corruption
tags:#civil society, #Africa, #human rights, #NGO, #Oluseyi Oyebisi
by:Kolawole Talabi
Nigeria’s NGOs are a crucial segment of society in Africa’s largest democracy, but their status is coming under intense scrutiny as the country’s lawmakers propose a piece of legislation that may curb their independence.

Public trust in civil society as a lever of stability in a political climate marked by corruption and inefficiency has been waning in recent times. Yet the leadership of the Network of Nigerian NGOs (NNNGO), a professional association for non-profits says regardless of whatever challenges civil society faces in the country, their relevance to national cohesion cannot be overemphasised.

In this interview with FairPlanet, Oluseyi Oyebisi says given the huge developmental gaps in Nigeria no one sector can provide all the solutions. Hence non-profits, government at all levels and the private sector must find a way of working together to ensure that development gets to the common man. The rationale that civil societies are able to support the government in ensuring that no community is left behind is a compelling argument for their survival. But are Nigeria’s NGOs able to maintain their purpose as engines of progressive ideas?

FairPlanet: What is NNNGO all about? Can you describe a brief history of the organisation?

Oluseyi Oyebisi: The Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) is the first generic membership body for civil society organisations in Nigeria that facilitates effective advocacy on issues of poverty and other developmental issues. Established in 1992, NNNGO represents over 2,400 organisations ranging from small groups working at the grassroots to larger networks at the national level.

In 1992, representatives from 60 Nigerian non-profits met with Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) and several international organisations and foreign entities like USAID, UNICEF, the World Bank, the British Council, UNESCO, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Goethe Institute to discuss the opportunities that hundreds of disparate civil society organisations have to better organise themselves, with a view to collaborating with the Nigerian government and multilateral agencies on issues of development. As a result of that meeting, the Nigeria Network of NGOs was established. The idea of a formalised collaboration between the Government of Nigeria and civil society groups was first muted at a meeting organised by the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) for NGOs active in the Health Sector in 1987. Between 1990 and 1991, the FMOH held consultative meetings to mobilise NGOs to support the Federal Government in the Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI), drug abuse, and subsequently in the HIV/AIDS campaign, thus widening the spectrum of non-profits collaborating with the government. NNNGO initially commenced its operations from an office in the Federal Ministry of Health with the aim of identifying, registering, collaborating, building capacity and mobilising NGOs. It also wanted to find a way of bringing the worlds of development and human rights to work together. By 1997, our Network was strong enough to continue its work as an independent organisation working from its Onikan offices in central Lagos.

Funding for our work comes largely from membership dues, consultancies, and donations from individuals. The remainder comes from multilateral agencies, international organisations and foundations for project-specific activities. In addition to cash contributions, NNNGO accepts gifts-in-kind, typically in the form of office equipment, and the use of facilities.

Nigerians, especially working-class professionals, have been quite sceptical about civil society in recent times. Word on the street is that NGO workers are fat cats! Is this a misrepresentation of Nigerian non-profits? How would you correct this distortion of your public image?

There are a lot of misconceptions about the non-profit sector including the concept of civil society. Let me start by saying that all professionals or better still every one of us belong to one civil society institution or another with each group having its own unique stereotype. Usually, these stereotypes are founded on myths and not facts. That NGO workers are fat cats is a myth when you compare, for instance, the average salary of senior management staff in a traditional non-profit. Local non-profits are funded majorly by their founders using their own resources hence receiving big salaries and perks does not obtain. However, international non-profits with greater financial resources and organisational branding expect some basic minimum level of benefits for their staff. Recall that NGOs work in very difficult terrains and they deserve some level of compensation for their efforts. Having said this, the compensations are not as outrageous as they are within what other sectors will pay their staff. Non-profits are very particular about the use of resources hence many keep very few hires in order to have very lean overheads. Another myth that should be busted is that NGO staffers do very little work and earn a lot of money. The highest-paid staff within non-profit earns on the average $680 per month and those with such earnings are in the top 1-2% range. It is wrong to see domestic NGO workers through the lens of the staff of multilateral organisations, donor agencies and big development projects.

One is bold to say that whatever compensation is paid by both local and international non-profits are justifiable and in most cases, are not even commensurate with the level of sacrifices made by the staff. They travel long hours at very short notices, to meet critical deadlines that ensure the common Nigerians get the dividends of democracy through access to efficient social services.

What are the top challenges NGOs in Nigeria are facing? There was a move by the National Assembly to introduce legislation sometime this year to regulate civil society. Do you feel the government is a threat to your existence?

As for all sectors funding is a big challenge. Besides this, technical capacity on effective public policy engagement is also lacking within the non-profit sector particularly in key areas such as organisational management, strategic planning and horizon scanning. The Bill at the National Assembly negates our rights to freedom of association and assembly. The Nigeria Network of NGOs has been leading the advocacy on this since 2014 and has met with and written to the leadership of the National Assembly including sponsors of the Bill on what our sector feels about the proposed legislation.

Corruption is a big issue in Nigeria and it finds expression in every segment of society. How is your body working to minimise this problem in your network? Do you have regulations on financial disclosure for your members?

We are fighting corruption by showing leadership. If you check our website you will find our audited accounts which are prepared by licensed auditors in line with the laws of the land. Our accounts for the financial years 2015 and 2016 are being prepared based on the new financial reporting system and it should be up on our website in another few weeks. We encourage members of the Network to take transparency issues seriously and have had a series of capacity building workshops for them on financial management including sharing tools to aid this. Members were all encouraged to register with appropriate regulatory authorities and ensure compliance with existing laws guiding the sector’s operations. Our code of conduct for members serves as a strong tool for ensuring that our members operate within standard norms and international best practices.

Earlier in the year, there was also a move to bring religious organisations under close fiscal probity. Do you support this move? In other words, should Nigerian churches and mosque be taxed?

Certainly, there is a lot of misunderstanding around the corporate governance code. It should be noted that the spirit and letter of the code are fine in principle but it requires sector-wide consultation and acceptance.

Article written by:
Kolawole Talabi
Kolawole Talabi
Embed from Getty Images
The Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) is the first generic membership body for civil society organisations in Nigeria that facilitates effective advocacy on issues of poverty and other developmental issues.
Embed from Getty Images
We are fighting corruption by showing leadership.
Embed from Getty Images
The idea of a formalised collaboration between the Government of Nigeria and civil society groups was first muted at a meeting organised by the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) for NGOs active in the Health Sector in 1987.
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