Lanlehin: Senate Leadership Fair to Opposition

14 Mar 2013

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Senator Femi Lanlehin

Senator Femi Lanlehin cut his political teeth in Lagos before moving to his home state of Oyo where he was elected in 2011 to represent Oyo South senatorial district in the Senate. In this interview with OmololuOgunmade, Lanlehin addressed sundry issues. Excerpts:

Debate on Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) ended last week and referred to relevant committees for further legislation. What’s your overview of the heat the debate had generated?

I think the debate started well and ended well contrary to fears that it would generate so much dichotomy; so much friction to the extent that at the end of the day, we would be unable to do so much with it. Fortunately, I believe that patriotism of the members of the Senate came to the fore. And it has been handled very maturely, very objectively and we came to a consensus. Of course, we can’t have a total and full consensus at once.

It has to be built very slowly; it has to be built very steadily and that was it; even when we have not embarked on another very important aspect of the bill– public hearing. But from what happened on the floor of the Senate, you could see that despite some misgivings on some of the provisions of the bill, by and large, everybody seemed to agree that the petroleum industry, which is the core economic base, which is the fundamental basis on which the nation’s social economy lies, requires a lot of improvement to be put into it.

The industry has been very opaque. It has been corruption-ridden. It has been run in a way that has not been largely beneficial to our people and it has wreaked a lot of havoc on the environmental situation of the oil producing areas and their people. Bye and large, I think it is time to fix it. Since the time when oil was first discovered and prospected for in Nigeria, the benefit has not been anything to write home about. So, I think the bill is very vital to fashion out a much more economic, a much more realistic, a much more pragmatic law in respect of the petroleum industry and that is what we are trying to do.

But the general perception is that the bill has succeeded in exposing the level of disunity in the Senate?
I disagree very firmly. Disagreeing with certain sections of a bill or highlighting certain sections that you disagree with or that you want amended does not signify disagreement with the bill. Of course, we cannot have the same position on all sections of the bill. We must realise that Nigeria is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. To that extent, there are so many ways by which people will perceive a situation. Of course, it is only natural that you perceive a situation as it affects you. But that does not take away the fact that we’ve been able to see the need to sanitise or reform petroleum industry.

And the Northerners, as you would observe, only had reservations about the host community fund not because they feel the host community does not deserve the money but because they think that what had been given to both the host communities and their governments in the past have not been justified. So, they are saying ‘what is going to give us the assurance that whatever you pour into that hole - that problem of environmental degradation, pollution of the source of livelihood, pollution of the streams and rivers, pollution of farmlands; what gives us the assurance that once money is put there, the money will solve the problem and will not go the way others had gone?’

That is the background, to my mind, why a lot of people are skeptical about the need for this new fund. So, I don’t agree with whoever says it created a lot of dichotomy between the North and South. You will agree also that a lot of people agreed that the power of the minister is onerous; it is so much. It’s the power that will likely be subject to abuse going by the Nigerian experience. You will also agree to the fact that Section 191 gives the president awesome powers regarding the granting of prospecting licences and mining leasing.

You will also agree that a lot of people agreed that much more money should be put into the search for oil in the North because the more the places where oil is found in Nigeria, the better for the country. So, I think the areas of our development have been narrowed because fundamentally, we agreed on cleaning up the petroleum industry through a law that will enable the petroleum industry run in an economical manner that will be beneficial to the majority of our people.

But the issue of which community gets what has largely distracted senators from exploring in detail other vital sections of the bill. For instance, senators did not look closely at Sections 116 to 118 which stipulate that the minister of petroleum will be entrusted with the management of host community fund which may mean a continuity of the current trend where 13 per cent derivation funds don’t get to the intended recipients but to the governors?

No. This one is different in the sense that the host community fund is meant for the host community but like I did say, there is vagueness in the section that applies to the host community. There must be an agreed formula or procedure by which it gets to the real host community properly. What does the petroleum minister have to do with the community fund? He/she shouldn’t be the custodian of their funds and he shouldn’t be the one to disburse it because the fund comes from the prospecting firm in the community which will bring 10 per cent of its profit after tax. It doesn’t even go to the minister. All the bill needs to do is to spell out the procedures.

Who gets what? How do you determine the host community? How do you determine who the leaders are? How do you determine how it gets to them? How do you determine accountability? How do you determine transparency? These are the things we have to fine-tune? How do you determine host community funds in places where there is onshore/offshore exploration? Who are members of the host community there? Are they the fishes or the crocodiles that are there? So, there has to be the definition of the host community. It should be expanded to include where the pipelines pass through because in most cases, the pipeline bursts and the environmental degradation is as bad as the one in producing areas. So, these are parts of the things that we need to fine-tune and adequate procedures and processes put in place.
As an opposition lawmaker, how much has the opposition fared so far in the Senate?
By and large, I think the opposition to which I belong has kept to the rule. And of course you are aware that the Senate has the majority membership from the ruling party which is the (Peoples Democratic Party) PDP. But despite that, in my own opinion and to the best of my knowledge, I think we have been able to work together under the leadership of somebody who has a wealth of experience not only in the legislature but also in the executive arm of government. And he has also been a member of the Senate since 1999.

So, we have benefitted very well from his wealth of experience and navigation of Senate through its business. And so far, it has been good because irrespective of party affiliation, first and foremost, we are all there to foster and protect the interests of our constituencies and the man who is from Oyo South- his needs are not different from the needs of those who are from Yobe East or Bayelsa North.

Basically, we are there to foster, defend and promote the interests of our different districts and I believe that we have been able to reach unanimity and there has been amiable interaction among all members of the Senate. Although, occasionally, we have party affiliation coming to play but at the same time, we have been able to work round it so that at the end of the day, we build a democratic consensus. But I assure you, it has been good. This also borders again on the manner of the election of members of this seventh Senate.
How will you react to an allegation that opposition in the Senate has so far not portrayed itself as one as it is in the House of Representatives?
I don’t agree with that although like I did say, there is still room for improvement but that is not to say that the opposition panders to the whims and caprices of the majority party. No. Again, you must realise that fights and struggles and opposition can only arise in their unique forms. You don’t just arise and fight and struggle when there is no need for it. The opposition has hitherto successfully taken up some issues and sometimes, the opposition has been able to convince members of the majority party to see its position. It’s a situation that is ongoing. I don’t agree with the position that the opposition in the Senate is not doing fine.

How has your representation impacted on your people?
Well, that question should have been put to them. I can only offer my services to them. I’m representing them here. I believe that I have tried within the context of my ability to give them the best. I believe that so far, I have been able to carry the members of my constituency along. Long before the coming of official constituency projects, I had gone ahead with my own funds to initiate some projects. Funds that I should have appropriated to myself, I had used them to build very modern solar boreholes because I realised their needs for water. I have also been using my own funds for the economic empowerment of my constituents in order to create jobs for young men and ladies who roam about the streets years after graduation. The economic empowerment is to help them to be self-employed.

One has done a lot of economic empowerment programmes within one’s immediate local government and the larger senatorial district in other local governments and I believe that they are grateful for that because I have their testimonies both in verbal and written forms. Also, I have been able to facilitate a number of things in terms of classrooms’ electrical infrastructure, emergency reliefs for disaster victims. So far, so good, one has been able to deliver the good.

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