YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A proposed law to regulate non-governmental and civil society organizations in Nigeria will be used to promote Islam, according to a leading Catholic group.

The Nigerian House of Representatives is scrutinizing the bill introduced by Deputy House leader, Umar Jibrin, which would establish a commission to regulate the functioning of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society Organizations.

Jibrin has argued the bill is intended to bring sanity to a sector that enjoys wide-scale corruption, and can potentially endanger the security of the country.

“Recent developments have shown that some people registered NGOs, solicited for funds and disappeared,” he said defending the bill, adding that some NGOs “are used to fund the activities of terrorists and insurgents.”

Jibrin said he wants to ensure accountability and transparency in the way NGOs collect and manage funds, and that the proposed commission will be empowered to “facilitate and coordinate” the work of all national and international NGOs, as well as to provide policy guidelines to harmonize their activities in line with the National Development Plan determined by the government.

It will also exercise control over projects implemented by NGOs.

And this has raised concerns among some Catholic organizations, who note that under Nigerian law, religious groups are incorporated as NGOs.

“Caritas Nigeria and JDPC observe that most Catholic Dioceses and Archdioceses and Christian Churches that are registered in Nigeria under the CAC are registered as Incorporated Trustees and therefore fall under the NGO categorization; therefore, unless a separate categorization is established for religious organizations, by law they are seen as incorporated Trustees and therefore as NGOs,” said Father Evaristus Bassey, the executive director of Caritas Nigeria.

The priest also wondered if the law would be used to promote Islam over Christianity in the country.

“Knowing fully well that his religion demands him to use his position to promote and protect religion, is this Honorable Umar’s subtle way of promoting and protecting his religion by setting up a framework in which others might be persecuted?” he asked.

Jibrin is a Muslim, as is the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari.

The debate is happening during heightening religious tension in the country, which is almost evenly divided between Muslims – who predominate in the north – and Christians, who are mainly concentrated in the south.

Christians in the north of the country have suffered from terrorist attacks from groups such as Boko Haram, as well as living under northern state governments that have implemented sharia law.

Recently, the nation’s Catholic bishops have complained that the national government has labeled the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) a terrorist organization for advocating for a referendum on independence for the Ibo area in southeast Nigeria.

(In 1967, Biafra had declared its independence – which was recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia – but was crushed by Nigeria in 1970. The war  killed between 500,000 and 2 million people.)

Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of Abuja, said that although he finds the position of IPOB unacceptable, they are not terrorists.

“My understanding of a terrorist is a deadly armed activist,” he told Premium Times. “I don’t think, merely speaking or talking or threatening will add up to being a terrorist.”

At the same time, the cardinal notes Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacking Christian villagers have not been designated as terrorists.

“The Fulani herdsmen who are armed, lethal, murderous, vicious and have been killing people in our communities; they are the ones that we are waiting for, to see what the government will do. If you recall, the bishops’ conference called on the government to treat them as terrorists,” Onaiyekan said.

The government’s different attitude toward the Christian and Muslim groups is the background to the controversy over Jibrin’s bill.

Christians are concerned that the proposed commission’s 17 members would all be appointed exclusively by the president, and would issue licenses for NGOs to function. This would give the government a huge amount of control of Nigeria’s NGOs, including religious organizations.

Bassey said “Jubril’s disruptive effort is highly suspicious, especially against the backdrop of such security threats as the herdsmen attacks which are being seen as part of a sinister agenda of domination.”

But Catholic groups are not the only bodies standing up against the bill.

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) have both raised concerns the legislation in its present form could scuttle the activities of NGOs and limit the civic space in Nigeria.

“We must instead strengthen civic space in Nigeria, as our sector’s role in finding solutions to the enormous challenges facing our nation cannot be overemphasized” says Oyebisi Oluseyi, Executive Director of NNNGO.

He noted the NGO sector is already regulated by seven legal frameworks and overseen by five government agencies.

Mandeep Tiwana, Head of Policy and Research from CIVICUS described the bill as “patently undemocratic” because it weakens the ability of civil society to “expose corruption and rights violation.”

He said that NGOs are voluntary organizations which act as partners of the government in the development process and therefore “the need for a commission to serve this purpose arises.”

The ongoing controversy of the proposed law comes in the wake of a strong statement from the  Nigerian bishops’ conference questioning the government’s commitment to the rule of law.

On September 15, the bishops declared, “Our country is currently passing through a phase that is marked by tension, agitation and a general sense of hopelessness and dissatisfaction. This we believe is as a result of years of injustice, inequity, corruption, and impunity.”

The statement also said, “People of different religions need to co-exist, communicate, and be allowed to freely practice their respective religions everywhere in this country.”