Aside the Intrigues, Senate Focuses on Economic Reform

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Abu Quassim

No doubt, the major news that dominate the airspace about the upper chamber of our nation’s federal legislature, the Senate, is the politicized trial of its President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), the scheme by some mischievous elements to get him off the seat by all means, the disagreement with the Presidency over the passage into law of the 2016 Appropriation Act and the power tussle between the Like Minds and the Unity Forum groups in the party with the majority, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

However, a more important trend which has the possibility of revolutionising the national economy and creating prosperity for majority of Nigerians is going on in the red chamber of the federal legislature.

In one instance of the vigour being displayed by the Senate to trigger economic reforms as part of the current Change Agenda being pursued by the Federal Government, penultimate Tuesday, it commenced the process for the amendment of the Public Procurement Law of 2007. The amendment bill co-sponsored by Senators Sam Egwu and Enyinanya Abaribe is specifically aimed at making Section 34 of the law more effective in compelling government and its agencies to patronise locally made goods where they are available.

The key elements of the proposed amendments are contained in Section 34, sub-sections 1 to 4. The new provisions are as follows : Section 34 (1) states that “ A procuring entity SHALL (emphasis mine) grant a margin of preference in the evaluation of tenders, when comparing tenders from domestic bidders with those from foreign bidders or when comparing tenders from domestic suppliers offering goods manufactured locally with those offering goods manufactured abroad.” The existing law gives the discretion to the procuring authority as it used the word May.

Furthermore, sub-section 2 states that “ where a procuring entity has allowed domestic preferences, the bidding documents SHALL clearly indicate any preference to be granted to domestic suppliers and contractors and the information required to establish the eligibility of a bid for such preference” while sub-section 3 adds that “ margins of preference SHALL apply only to tenders under international competitive bidding”. Sub-section 4 says that “the bureau SHALL by regulating from time to time, set the limits and the formulae for computation of margin of preference and determine the contents of goods manufactured locally”.

The proposed amendment of the Procurement Law is aimed at promoting local entrepreneurship and encouraging the growth of small and medium scale enterprises. That it is coming at a time when the 2016 Appropriation Act is about to be passed into law also means that the lawmakers are seeking to ensure that a significant percentage of the N6.06 trillion estimated to be spent by government during the current fiscal year is put in the hands of Nigerians.
The plan is to ensure that the huge funds budgeted for are not just freighted abroad through importation of goods and services, thereby depriving Nigerians the opportunity of benefitting from the budget. Before now, government expenditure hardly impacted on the domestic economy because of the tendency of contractors to import most basic items that can be easily procured locally. That has not only resulted in mass unemployment and poverty, it has further deepened the trade imbalance between Nigeria and many other countries of the world. Thus, the national budget helps the growth of other countries and leave Nigerians depraved.

The need to reverse this ugly trend led to the new thinking in the Senate in which from the leadership down to the members, the focus is on how to reform the economy such that many more Nigerians will live above poverty line. With the new amendment, Nigerians will start taking control of the national economy while the creative energy of the people are unleashed, inspired and empowered.

The first hint about amending the Procurement Law immediately after the passage of the budget was first given by Senate President Saraki when he participated in the opening of the Made in Aba Goods Trade Fair in Abuja. The Senate President has also at various fora articulated the viewpoint that the right response to the falling value of the Naira against the dollar (N340 to $1) is for the country to increase its productive capacity and change from an importing, foreign goods-crazy and oil dependent country to a nation which is self-reliant, with many buoyant local industries and millions of youths gainfully employed.

The Senate President envisaged that the employed youths will become tax payers. Thus, domestic taxes will become a veritable source of revenue for funding infrastructural development and social services. These positions have been espoused by the Senate President in many prepared and off-the-cuff speeches he made at different fora, particularly while receiving many of the numerous groups, organisations, foreign missions and individuals that have paid courtesy call on him in his office. To further demonstrate leadership, Saraki alongside Senators Ben Murray-Bruce, Egwu and Abaribe became ambassadors of Made in Nigeria goods. The promotion of patronage for locally made goods has now become a fad catching on in the upper chamber of our federal legislature.

With the plan to amend the Procurement Act of 2007, the Senate is seeking to reenact the Buy American Act signed into law on March 3, 1933 by President Herbert Hoover which compels US government and its agencies to prefer US made products in their purchases. Also, Section 217 (3) of the South African constitution provides a framework for the policy of preferential procurement for government agencies just as the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act 5 of 2000 and the regulations published under it in 2001 prescribed requirements regarding Black economic empowerment considerations in the former apartheid enclave.

In China, Article 10 of the Government Procurement Law provides that domestic goods, projects and services must be used for government procurement except when the required goods are not available in China, the objects of procurement are for use outside China or it is specified otherwise in other laws and administrative regulations. Thus, what the Senate seeks to do with the Procurement Act is putting the law on the same pedestal with what obtains in some developed economies.

The proposed amendment of the Procurement Law, however, has to be viewed alongside other efforts of the present Senate to reform the economy and make it work for ordinary Nigerians. For example, the Senate’s positive intervention led to the review of the foreign exchange policy by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) such that business people can now save and withdraw foreign exchange from their bank accounts. Even some window of access to procuring forex by genuine importers and those who need it for essential services have now been opened.

Also, the Senate sponsored an initiative in partnership with the private sector, international financial institutions, development agencies, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) and the academia to review all business related laws and identified institutional, regulatory and legal instruments currently constraining and impeding business activity in Nigeria. The efforts led to the preparation of the 168-page Business Environment Legislation Review Report submitted by experts on February 29. In the report, certain laws were identified as priority for amendment or repeal to jump-start the economy.

The bills recommended by the expert as requiring urgent attention are Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill 2015, Federal Roads Authority Bill 2015, National Inland Waterways Authority Bill 2015, National Roads Funds Bill 2015, National Transport Commission 2015, Nigerian Ports and Harbours Authority Bill 2015, Nigeria Postal Commission Bill 2015 and Nigeria Railway Authority Bill 2015.

The report of the experts was later subjected to re-examination by stakeholders during the National Assembly Business Environment Roundtable platform which is a good example of fruitful engagement between the private sector, legislature and executive to promote relevant and sound policy.

As at today, the Senate is already working on the Petroleum Industry Bill so as to resolve the lingering problems that have obstructed the proposed reforms of the sector which today still provides the largest chunk of the nation’s foreign earning. What all these efforts by the Senate amount to is that despite the cacophony of the trial of its President at the CCT and other political issues, the institution is silently making great efforts which will help revive the national economy and eliminate poverty in the polity.
Quassim writes from Abuja