Tuesday, September 26, 2023


CSO regulatory environment: A review of the Buhari administration and sub-national leaders

CSO regulatory environment: A review of the Buhari administration and sub-national leaders
May 28
10:30 2023


The Buhari Years: What We Ordered vs What We Got – civil society leaders reflect on the Buhari administration and its achievements, shortcomings, and regressive actions. This article focuses on the regulatory environment for civil society organisations.

The Buhari administration may have been unpopular for its poor management of fundamental freedoms around expression (#TwitterBan) and assembly (#EndSARS protests), but the progress made on freedoms relating to association (operating a nonprofit) must be brought into context when reviewing the regulatory environment for civil society in the last 8 years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s reign, which includes the legislature and the 36 state governors.


The review in 2020 of the 30-year-old Part C (now Part F) of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) — the law guiding the formation, operation and dissolution of nonprofits — was done as part of the ease of doing business policy of the Buhari administration following civil society advocacy. Though the outcome met with pushback from civil society as some provisions of the law were restrictive, this review marked the beginning of what is now a subject of court litigation and pronouncements on the legality of those sections, but provides room for the deepening of national level conversations on supportive civil society regulatory frameworks. The mixed reactions that greeted CAMA reflect how the sector must take seriously its legitimacy, transparency, and accountability.

An offshoot of this review led to discussions on taking forward self-regulation initiatives as a way of inspiring public trust but also proactively pushing back on the growing interest by the national assembly to regulate a sector that has 52 laws, policies and regulations already guiding its operations. Discussions and engagement between civil society and the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) grew with several meetings, dialogues, webinars, conferences and high-level advocacy visits aimed at agreeing on how best to improve the current regulatory framework for the civil society sector.

A commitment by the Buhari administration to civic space in both the Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan (NAP) II (2019 to 2022), a plan co-created by the government and civil society, received an arousing accolade by the OGP community and was listed as one of the important civic space commitments to watch. In the commitment, the president signed off on improving the regulatory environment for civil society and the effective policing of protests through the development of a Protest Toolkit. Implementation of the plan stalled owing to the lack of government and civil society resources to move from plan to action. The commitments are back in NAP III (2023 to 2025).


The year 2022 ushered in the review of our anti-money laundering (AML) and countering of terrorism financing (CFT) laws following years of civil society advocacy. The much-celebrated win which has now become a reference point across the African continent and globally would see a targeted regulation based on outcomes of a national non-profit risk assessment as against the blanket regulation that existed. A new AML/CFT regulatory regime is anticipated in the not-too-distant future.

Upsetting the civil sector are obnoxious bills and proposals seeking to either regulate civil society or donor agencies from the 8th and 9th national assembly. The attempt to regulate civil society stemmed from the growing influence of organisations within civil society calling for accountability of public office holders. While arguments may have been made for lack of transparency and accountability in the use of resources by some actors within civil society, the intent of the Bills did not seek to encourage a diverse and independent civil society nor does it support an effective legal framework for building and sustaining public confidence in the operations of nonprofits – an important focus for any legislation targeting the third sector.

Part of the recommendations for creating an enabling environment for civil society to flourish by the United Nations General Assembly includes high-level statements by heads of states and political leaders affirming the role of civil society, including condemning attacks on civil society actors. The Buhari administration largely struggled in this regard. Civil society hardly came up in his speeches, except in instances where discussions are with the international community or multilateral organisations. The office of the civil society adviser to the president did not garner the right profile for the tasks required of it.

At the sub-national level, the operational environment lacked legal frameworks with ministries and agencies of government jostling to register non-profits, creating unnecessary regulatory bottlenecks and burdens for a sector that provides the platform for citizens’ participation in a democracy, including supporting the government’s efforts at bringing development to the marginalised using their own resources, and those of family and friends. Seen from the lens of a national budget, the sum of regulatory challenges at the local, state and federal level gives the national picture of what the enabling environment looks like nationally.


While non-profits are to be non-partisan and their freedom of association restricted from promoting or supporting a candidate in an election, the ban on non-profit activities in Zamfara and Adamawa states during the 2023 election for campaigning leaves a sore on the Matawalle and Fintiri administration’s records. Whereas such a ban shrinks civic space as it is not in any way proportionate nor permissible under international human rights laws, reporting organisations abusing their non-profit status to CAC for necessary investigation and sanctions would have sufficed rather than a blanket ban which no doubt took its toll on citizens of the state, especially internally displaced persons (IDPs). A local government in Adamawa also banned non-profit activities, taking the infringements on our freedom of association to new heights.

Worth mentioning though is a best practice coming from Lagos state where in line with the UN recommendations on creating an enabling environment for civil society, the state established transparent funding for non-profit ideas on implementing the SDGs and gave grants to organisations registered with the ministry of women affairs and poverty alleviation. It has also instituted an award for recognizing frontline defenders working on gender-based violence, another UN-recommended best practice. While this is appreciated, we need such awards and funding for organisations working in the field of accountability and other forms of rights, in ways that are independent, transparent and respects the views and opinions of such organisations.

Oluseyi B. Oyebisi is the executive director of Nigeria Network of NGOs, the first generic membership body for civil society organisations in Nigeria.


Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.


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