Nigeria’s biggest challenge is how to reduce poverty, and close some of the income gap. This challenge ranks with the need to reduce corruption. Now, there are many ways to reduce poverty, and one of those is the present stance of the government to give handouts of N5,000 to 25million or 10million poor Nigerians on a monthly basis, depending on who you are listening to. Many have criticized this approach of giving handouts, some suggesting there are ways to put poor Nigerians to do value-adding work, especially in view of the deleterious effect of increasing a sense of entitlement in our land. How government hopes to fund this social security program is another puzzle entirely.
I propose here an idea that can help us reduce food poverty and at the same time, reduce insecurity, while increasing a general sense of responsibility in the land. It is by creating a Charity Commission in Nigeria. This body, if created, will be an idea whose time has come and will not be one of those bodies that will merely add to a bloated civil service. It is an idea borne out of a proper study of our peculiarities. What is a Charity Commission? It is that body that takes over the mantle from the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, as far as not-for-profit organisations are concerned, just as the Federal Inland Revenue Service, FIRS, takes over the ‘supervision’ if you like, of other corporate entities, set up for profit, from the CAC, after they have been duly registered. This is NOT a call for the taxation of Churches, Mosques and other NGOs, but for ‘some’ regulation. Just as the FIRS is not able to tax every company registered at the CAC, this Commission may not be able to oversight all ‘Not-For-Profits’ registered by the CAC as well, but a lot of progress will be made. Churches, Mosques and NGOs are registered at the CAC presently, under the ‘Charities’ category. This means they are there for the public good and would, from time to time, if not all the time, undertake activities for the sheer benefit of the public. Even though many ‘charities’ operate in Nigeria without bothering to register with the CAC, they are eventually compelled to so do, when they wish to approach banks for account opening. Now, any entity that collects monies from the public should be under some level of regulation. That is why the Central Bank of Nigeria, SEC, NDIC and other agencies, are always on the case of every bank, Microfinance Institution, Stockbroker, Fund Manager and so on. If an NGO would also collect funds from members of the public, there needs to be at least some level of regulation. I think that is why the Financial Reporting Council wanted this category of organisations to register with it recently – so as to reduce the occurrences of money laundering through religious organisations and NGOs.
We all must realise that we now live in an age of transparency. It may even be considered unfair to over-regulate and overtax honest businesses while leaving a certain category to run free without a care in the world. This ultimately discourages entrepreneurship as our youth now know that only suckers open businesses rather than operate churches, mosques or shady NGOs and fly permanently beneath the radar. Again, this is not a call for taxes. The way it works, according to the model used in the United Kingdom, is that all charities should file periodic returns of their activities to the Commission, stating how much revenue they made and how it was used. Also, if any truly commercial activities were embarked upon, accounts should be rendered separately and profits on such should then be taxable. All officers of charity organization should ordinarily be on salaries, which could be very generous, and government can decide to leave that tax free. The real concern here is not with our established Charities. They should even be supporting this idea which will lead to a proper organization of our society. With particular focus on the church, some established church leaders know that a scenario where every village clown or small-time criminal with a sweet mouth becomes a ‘pastor’ and cons gullible Nigerians out of their hard-earned monies, by playing on their greed and fear, does not augur well for the message of Christ in general. Nigeria has thus become the butt of jokes globally for this reason. With particular focus on Islam, there is an even more compelling reason for the establishment of a Charity Commission. Since such a Commission is saddled with ensuring that religious organizations and NGOs are properly registered and that their activities are updated yearly (e.g. changes in Trustees etc), this will be a good way of reducing the proliferation of Muslim sects whose activities go unchecked, unregulated and unapproachable, until they become major international problems, sometime costing thousands of lives and billions in government resources – like Boko Haram, Maitatsine and co. We heard that Boko Haram carried on their illiteracy doctrine for so long and went unchecked in parts of Northern Nigeria, until they became a global phenomenon. I just hope we don’t intend to deliberately encourage these disasters rather than just doing the right thing once and for all?
I was aware of the activities and efforts of Nnenna Ukeje and Abike Dabiri, while they were House of Representatives Committee Chairmen on NGOs, to ensure they were properly registered and actually do the duties for which they collect money from many places in the world. At some point, owning an NGO in Nigeria was just for the purpose of obtaining dollars from abroad; something akin to the good old 419 business. There is therefore a need to keep an eye on that sector. The simple litmus test is if an NGO collects money from innocent donors and its leader decides to purchase the most expensive house in town for him/herself, something has gone wrong. Ditto if a pastor decides to purchase the most expensive car in the world for himself, with contributions, he is acting ultra vires the purpose of ‘charity’. I know this is a tough call in a country like Nigeria, but this is the current practice in every progressive country, even in Africa. Our leaders are however overly beholden to our powerful heads of religion and may not buy this idea. The Nigerian church alone, is probably 10 times bigger than government, and makes collections monthly that will put all our state governments to shame. Total church revenue in Nigeria, yearly could be thrice our national budget. I recall that Steve Jobs wrote how he used to walk 5 kilometres on bare feet to eat at the nearest Hare Krishna temple while at Boston College. That is what charities should do; provide succour for the needy and assist government to reduce poverty. Luckily some churches recently donated foodstuff to starving Osun State workers. Let us consider this idea, for the sake of our children yet unborn, and for humanity.
Tope Fasua is an economist, author and social commentator. He can be reached at email@example.com