By Paul Carsten
ABUJA (Reuters) - A bill proposed by Nigerian lawmakers to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) threatens freedoms by handing the government sweeping powers over civil society, an array of groups said on Wednesday.
In a public hearing in Nigeria's capital of Abuja, representatives from several NGOs called for the bill to be killed, describing it as "extremely dangerous", "crippling" for civil society and potentially endangering to life.
"For organizations that engage in human rights advocacy, government accountability, and the promotion of democracy, interference in their operations portends grave risks to both their work and on the lives of their personnel," said Nigerian NGO Spaces for Change in a statement.
Nigeria's Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) warned that "there is no doubt that the first victims of the bill would be NGOs that are traditionally active in the area of ensuring accountability and transparency of government to its citizens."
The sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, Nigeria's lower parliamentary chamber, has alleged that some NGOs were using donated funds to support the activities of armed militants and insurgents such as Boko Haram in the country's northeast, according to Nigerian media reports.
The sponsor, Umar Jibril, has not made public any evidence supporting his allegations.
The draft law, which passed a second reading in the lower house of parliament and is being publicly debated ahead of a final reading and vote, would regulate NGOs' funding, activities and foreign affiliation in the name of national security, and have control over NGOs' assets.
The bill would also create an NGO Regulatory Commission, with which civil society bodies would need to register or be in breach of the law.
The commission would have discretion over which groups can register, and all must re-register every two years.
At present setting up an NGO is a simpler process, with many groups registering with the corporate affairs commission as a not-for-profit organization.
While the constitution guarantees Nigerians' assembly and association rights, the Freedom House rights watchdog says Nigeria, Africa's most populous democracy, is only partly free.
In a 2017 report, Freedom House said the country had a broad and vibrant civil society but government forces continued "to commit gross human rights violations with impunity, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary mass arrests, illegal detentions, and torture of civilians".
NGO representatives at the public hearing described how, by giving the regulatory commission discretion to approve projects, lives could be at stake in emergencies, such as when funds are urgently needed for vaccines during an outbreak of disease.
Others criticized as vague the bill's repeated justification of maintaining national security, saying it was open to broad interpretations that could give the government ample opportunity for misuse of state power without accountability.
An Amnesty International statement said the bill "will keep Nigerians from freely sharing their opinions, holding open discussion forums or organizing people to protest."
(Reporting by Paul Carsten, Editing by William Maclean)