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Why Should the Provisions of the New Company Law Usurp the Constitutional Rights of Nigerians?
The Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2019 (“the new CAMA”) recently signed into law by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is a welcome development to Nigerian businesses.
It has addressed the bottlenecks in formation of business entities and improved Nigerian corporate governance. It has also given leverage to small companies to thrive and incorporated technological innovations to the processes of the Corporate Affairs Commission (“Companies’ Registry”) to facilitate the ease of doing business in Nigeria.
However, the legislature in extending the powers of the Companies’ Registry to effectively regulate the activities of Churches, Islamic Religious Organizations, Charity and Non-Government Organization which are registered as Incorporated Trustees (“associations”) has introduced some new provisions in the new CAMA which are capable of usurping the fundamental rights of citizens to their freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and constitutional rights of access to Courts.
It is upon this premise that the Plaintiff, a Nigerian Citizen and Legal Practitioner, commenced Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/1076/ 2020; Emmanuel Ekpenyong Esq. v. National Assembly, Corporate Affairs Commission and Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, challenging the constitutionality of some provisions of the new CAMA.
The Plaintiff contends that Section 839 of the new CAMA which gives power to the Companies’ Registry to remove trustees and appoint an interim manager to take over an association where it reasonably believes that there is misconduct, mismanagement, fraudulent practices, for protection of the property of the association and public interest; Section 842, Section 843, Section 844 of the new CAMA which gives the Companies’ Registry the powers to control the proceeds of a dormant account of an association and dissolve an association on account of its dormant account; Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 of the new CAMA which directs associations to keep and submit their statement of affairs and accounting records to the Companies’ Registry, infringes the Plaintiff’s freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion enshrined in Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (“the Constitution”).
The Plaintiff opines that Churches, Islamic religious organizations, Charity and Non-Governmental Organizations give hope to the Plaintiff and the Nigerian people. The activities of associations augment the efforts of government. They act as watchdogs for the people and put the government in check. It is unfortunate for the provisions of the new CAMA to put the activities of associations under the complete whims and caprices of the Companies’ Registry which is an agency of the Federal Government.
The law provides for every association to have a Constitution which regulates the affairs of the association and protect them against misconduct, mismanagement, fraudulent or other activities which are contrary to the objects of the association. Hence, the Companies’ Registry has no business whatsoever in suspending trustees and appointing interim managers for them. This is a sure recipe for disaster. The activities of associations are not against public interest to warrant such draconian provisions.
The funds of associations are not public funds. They are contributions, offerings and freewill donations of members to carrying out their objectives. There is no legal justification for the Companies’ Registry to be interested in the dormant account of associations. Associations are non-profit making organizations. They are not business ventures as such the Companies’ Registry cannot be ingrained in the affairs of associations by expecting them to submit statement of affairs or accounting records to the Registry.
The Plaintiff has a freedom to his thought, conscience and religion alone or in community with others. The Plaintiff has a right to propagate his religion, worship, teaching, practice and observance in public or private and does not even need to register same with the Companies’ Registry to propagate same. Therefore, giving powers to the Companies’ Registry who is an outsider and complete stranger to determine the affairs of a place where the Plaintiff professes his thoughts, conscience and religion is an aberration which is in contravention of Section 38 of the Constitution.
Furthermore, the Plaintiff contends that Section 839, Section 843, Section 844, Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 of the new CAMA infringe his freedom to peaceful assembly and association. This is because the Companies’ Registry has a wide discretion to appoint interim managers to replace suspended trustees. The interim managers to be appointed by the Companies’ Registry may have nothing in common with the members of the association and the members will not have a right to challenge such appointment.
This will impair the rights of members of associations to actively participate in activities of their associations and determine its direction. The enormous and dictatorial powers given to the Companies’ Registry to intrude and interfere with the operations and management of associations is not legally justifiable. The use of phrases such as “is satisfied”, “reasonably believes”, “deem it necessary”, “public interests” in relation to the powers of the Companies’ Registry over associations are ambiguous phrases that can easily lead to an abuse of power by the Companies’ Registry and contravene the Plaintiff’s freedom to associate peacefully with other persons enshrined in Section 40 of the Constitution.
Again, the Plaintiff contends that the provisions of Section 851 of the new CAMA which gives powers to the Administrative Proceedings Committee to hear cases arising from the provisions of the new CAMA limits the Plaintiff’s constitutional rights of access to Courts. Section 6 (1) and 6 (b) of the Constitution confers judicial powers to the Courts. Section 36 (1) of the Constitution gives citizens the right to access an independent and impartial Court to determine their civil rights and obligations. Section 251 (1) (e) of the Constitution provides for the Federal High Court to hear any matter arising from the provisions of the new CAMA.
Hence, the provision of Section 851 of the new CAMA comes as a very huge surprise. The composition of the Administrative Proceedings Committee is made up mostly of employees of the Companies’ Registry who are involved or aware of the issue which caused the dispute in the first place. It is against the principle of natural justice for a person to be a judge in his own case. In most disputes arising from the provisions of the company law or regulations, the Companies’ Registry is usually a party to the dispute.
The Companies’ Registry cannot independently and impartially determine a dispute which it is also a party. If this is allowed the Companies’ Registry will be a party and judge in its own case. It is without doubt that Section 851 of the new CAMA is contrary to the Plaintiff’s rights of access to Courts enshrined in Section 6 (1) 6 (b), Section 36 and Section 251 (1) (e) of the Constitution.
In conclusion, the Plaintiff contends that his freedom of conscience, thoughts and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and right to access to Court are so serious and the only way to ensure that the rights are protected in the circumstance, is for the provisions of Section 839, Section 843, Section 844, Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 and Section 851of the new CAMA to be expunge from the new CAMA. The Plaintiff prays for an order of mandatory injunction of the Court directing the Defendants to expunge the offending provisions of the new CAMA.