New CAMA is No Threat to Religious Freedom in Nigeria – Frank Tietie

August 24 10:43 2020

By Frank Tietie

It is not compulsory to register a church or mosque in Nigeria. Section 40 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to freely associate as a group of persons provided, not as a secret cult or for any other criminal purposes.

Any group of persons either Moslems, Christians or Traditionalists like the Igbe cult prevalent in Urhobo land, that I am familiar with, can actually operate legally without having to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). That is a fundamental right of every Nigerian which has the force of law that is fundamental to the existence of Nigeria itself.

However, the law provides for the optional, twin benefits of corporate personality and perpetual succession to any group who so wish, only on the condition of registration with CAC.

When therefore, any group of persons decides to be registered, it means such a group has submitted itself to be regulated by the law applicable body corporates. It remains optional anyway.

Groups cannot continue to claim the twin benefits of registration and reject the corresponding responsibilities to such benefits.

Thus, for example, many persons including institutional donors won’t give money to an organisation, whether a mosque or church if they knew such an organisation is owned by one man who lays personal claim to all the property of the group.

Again, other persons won’t support a religious organisation that doesn’t have a clearcut succession plan. Many members of some organisations have often grumbled when its leadership is passed onto either the wife, son or daughter of the founder, upon his passage to the other dimension.

Any group of persons that holds out itself to be registered either as a church or mosque must operate according to the minimum standards of transparency, accountability and predictability in the management of its property, particularly financial resources.

There have been recent cries against some of the provisions of the new CAMA which many claim are meant to detract from religious freedom. That cannot be correct.

Firstly, the controversial provision of Section 839 of CAMA which enables CAC to suspend trustees on certain conditions and in conjunction with the court, appoint interim managers for the association, deals mainly with the property of such an organisation.

Property is at the heart of the matter, not religious freedom. A good example in the application of the said provision is the recent suspension of the trustees of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles in the United Kingdom for failing to file its financial reports on time and for other financial discrepancies by some of its past leaders. In the place of the suspended trustees was appointed interim managers whose primary duties include reviewing the financial and governance processes of the church. This does not in any way affect the objects and activities of the church in terms of worship, including preaching and teaching of the reverred Word of God. The UK authorities, reasonably did not have to appoint a sheikh or mulah to superintendent over the church. Only persons with knowledge in such areas as accounting, management, administration etc were likely appointed.

Recently, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) was accused of receiving money from a terrorist organisation to prepare Southern Nigeria for an invasion under a radical islamic agenda. MURIC would require not much defence if it has always run all of its finances so transparently as the new law now demands.

CAC has always enjoyed such wide discretionary powers in the repealed law that it could transfer the property of one defunct organisation to another that it considers to have similar objects.

There has been clearly, a regime of abuse in the management of the property of religious organizations in Nigeria. Apparently, requirement for full financial disclosure will be seen as a threat by religious leaders who live insidiously lavish and opulent lifestyles where they didn’t have to account to anyone. In some of these groups, the finances are so opaque and no member would dare to ask questions or else he or she could be considered to be possesed of the devil.

Also, many Moslem clerics will be very uncomfortable to be required to constantly document and declare their sources of income together with expenditures when they weren’t used to doing so, all in the name of preventing the possible funding of terrorist activities in Nigeria.

Some churches and Islamic groups have been reported to be engaged in money laundering and terrorist related financing respectively.

Recently, a bank paid 575 million Naira to a church pastor in Abuja which was believed to be laundered money for onward passage to the embattled suspended acting Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu. The allegations against MURIC are also quite instructive on how these organisations can be conduit for laundered funds.

The requirements for transparency in the Not- for- Profit sector as contained in the new CAMA are not strange to our legal environment. Similar provisions are contained in the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria (FRCN) Act of 2015. Thus, when Jim Obazee, as executive secretary of FRCN tried to apply those provisions on Pastor Enoch Adeboye, he was seriously attacked by Nigerian Christians (including me) and he was severely punished with an outright suspension and an ultimate sack.

Even though Nigeria has been so badly governed by successive administrations, there is nothing wrong in seeking to apply international best practices in the management of the Not-for-Profit sector.

As an ardent fan of conspiracy theories from George Orwell, HG Wells to David Icke who purvey dystopic worldviews, I quite understand the fears that are associated with this new CAMA but I think it should not be much cause for alarm as another contemplated law that seeks to empower the Federal Government to acquire and control natural creeks, rivers and streams across Nigeria, including the Niger-Delta.

Frank Tietie
Human Rights Lawyer & Executive Director, Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights (CASER) writes from Abuja

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