Senate in session
BY Yusuph Olaniyonu
Next Thursday, June 9 will be the first anniversary of the 8th Senate. This is therefore a a good period to critically examine the performance of the Upper Chamber of the federal legislature. There have been attempts by some people to define the narrative of the performance based on the initial controversy arising from the politics of the emergence of its leadership. However, It is clear that this Senate has more going for it beyond politics.
Early enough, members had settled down to business of defining how the law making chamber can be relevant and serve the interests of the constituents. Led by an experienced and brilliant public officer, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, it was clear to the lawmakers since their inauguration that the major challenges facing the country centred mainly on economic crisis which has resulted in youth unemployment, security problems, particularly insurgency in the North-east zone and pervading corruption which has eroded the confidence of the international community in Nigeria.
The Senators were quick to realise that their relevance will be determined by the ability of the institution to contribute to the resolution of the identified problems. Also, Senators understood that they can only make themselves relevant by tackling issues that have to do with people’s general welfare. Knowing that the economy is the sub-structure of the polity and in fact a key to solving some of the other challenges facing the country, they decided that legislations, oversights and advocacy that have to do with economic revival, revitalising businesses and creating employment should be given priority.
To achieve this, they engaged a team of experts from the World Bank Group, Department for International Development (DFID), the private sector, professional bodies like the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), the academia and others. The task assigned to the experts was to identify existing laws that need to be reviewed and amended to bring them up to Global standards, old laws that should be repealed and new legislations that require enactment, all in a bid to help the economy grow.
The main concern, here, is the poor rating Nigeria continues to get annually in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Assessment Report. At least, it is a fact that investors will not go to a place where they cannot easily establish and operate their businesses at a profit. Also, the prevailing condition will kill big and small scale local entrepreneurs. And without these investments, employment cannot be created, the economy cannot grow and government will not get money from other sources beyond oil whose price have continued to be on a downward slope.
The experts in their reports have identified 54 laws which need immediate attention to achieve the aim of making it easy for investors to establish and operate businesses in Nigeria. Their recommendations were later subjected to further debate and analysis through a business roundtable dialogue with stakeholders in public and private sectors.
The Senate has started acting on the 168-page report. First, the recommendations formed the core of the Legislative Agenda which, though yet to be publicly launched, is already being implemented. Second, the legislations recommended for review are now in various stages of law making process.
As at today, the Senate has passed the Electronic Transaction Law 2015 and Bankruptcy and Insolvency Law 2015. The new Railways Act which will enable the private sector invest and participate in running a vibrant railways sector is in the last stage before being passed. It is gladdening that the 8th Senate is the one reviewing the almost a century old Railway Act. In fact, if not for the decision to constitute a committee of experts to review the work of the Senate committee on Land Transportation and help straighten the technical aspects, the Railway Act would have been passed.
The Senate has equally commenced the review of the Public Procurement Act to make it compulsory for government to patronise local manufacturers, except in cases where the needed goods and services are not locally available. The objective here is to ensure that a substantial percentage of the N6 trillion that is in the 2016 national budget is retained in the local economy and put in the pockets of our people. This, according to the lawmakers, is the best way to achieve wealth creation, increase the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), encourage local industries to grow and stimulate increased productivity among Nigerians. It is also an ingenuous way of creating mass employment. With this move, the eighth Senate must be drawing inspiration from other developed economies that had done a similar thing. US enacted a similar legislation around 1922 with the Buy America policy promoted by the Herbert Hoover administration. China, South Africa and other countries also have related laws.
The deliberate efforts to promote Made in Nigeria goods have been backed with practical demonstrations by the Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki and other Senators like Ben Murray Bruce, Enyinaya Abaribe, Theodore Orji and others who are now ambassadors of Made in Nigeria goods. With all these carefully planned and inter-linked measures, one can see that there is a system, process and method to the way the present Senate is doing its work.
Still on the economic revival plan, the Senate has revived the long-pending Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and the plan is to break the old bill into several workable, practical and functional laws so that the various issues involved can be tackled at different times. It is calculated that the logjam around this bill can be resolved if the Senate, for example, takes the first step of enacting into law the aspects that are not contentious and where national consensus has been achieved. These non-contentious codified aspects can immediately be deployed to effect the much needed reforms in the sector. The lawmakers can later proceed to work on the contentious areas through different bills. This is considered a more realistic approach, instead of having a humongous, all-purpose bill, which will continue to be bogged down by divergent interests. The first bill from the original PIB is now at the second reading stage.
The PIB is one of the 167 bills that have passed first reading stage. 39 others are in the Second Reading stage and 6 others are in the final stage of passage, which is the third reading. The reasoning of the Saraki-led Senate is that the earlier the Senate focus on bills that will transform the national economy, curb youth unemployment, eliminate insecurity and other social malaise and institutionalise social justice, the better for us all. This will prevent a situation where the Senators will desperately resort to rushing bills with little legislative value at the twilight period of their tenure as it happened in the past.
As part of its contributions to the economic revival agenda of government, the Senate has also expressed its commitment to frugal management of the meagre resources now available to the government after the drastic fall of the price of oil. It is reasoned that if the government can block the loopholes in its finances, diversify the source of revenue, be frugal and innovative in its spendings, Nigeria could convert the present economic downturn to advantage. That is why motions and resolutions in the Upper Legislative Chamber are focussing on areas where government is losing revenue.
Two instances readily come to mind here. Through a motion raised on the floor, the Senate investigated and found out that in the operation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA), government has lost more than N20 billion and will lose more if the contract with the company charged with the collection was not terminated. In a well- argued, revealing submission, it called on the executive to discontinue the transaction.
In another investigation arising from a motion, Senate discovered that the government has been duped of over N400bn through wrong application of the Duty Waivers policy. It has since directed that the culprits be made to cough out what they wrongfully got.
Another area where this Senate has exerted a lot of energy with a view to providing service to the people is in the area of restoration of peace in the North-east zone which had been devastated by the activities of Boko Haram. Not only did the Senate continue to call for briefing from security agencies and also intervening at every necessary point to ensure that the armed forces get the necessary funding and moral encouragement to restore peace in the area, the Senate has championed early commencement of rehabilitation, rebuilding and resettlement of people in the area.
Last year, the principal officers made the first ever fact-finding visit by the federal legislature to the areas since the insurgency started over a decade ago. During the visit, the Senate also made financial donations to the upkeep of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
The visit led to the consideration of a bill to establish the North-east Development Commission which may be passed into law next Thursday. The lawmakers had earlier passed a resolution on the establishment of a Presidential Committee on the rehabilitation of the people who are presently in the various Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Again, the leadership has continually rallied international support for the rehabilitation and war efforts in the area. Not only has the Senate President, Saraki, made the issue of international assistance for restoration of peace and rehabilitation of people in the North east a recurrent issue in all his international speaking engagements, he repeatedly canvassed these issues when he meets with diplomats and development partners who are frequently on courtesy visit to his office.
The current Senate is totally committed to tackling issues that have direct impact on our people. That is why they intervened on the electricity tariff issue and their efforts led to the abolition of the fixed charges. Last week, the Senate held a well-attended public hearing on the recent increase in the same tariff and it will soon announce the result of the investigation.
Also, when the forex policy of the CBN became suffocating for small scale manufacturers that require foreign components to keep running their operations, the Senate invited the CBN Governor and the discussion with the apex bank alongside pressure mounted by other bodies led to the review of the policy to allow easier access to forex by genuine businesses.
The Senate has consistently discussed motions, pass resolutions and consider laws which have direct impact on the lives of the people. For example, it has expressed concern about the growing rate of kidnapping, rape and brutality to children in the country. Now, there is a pending bill aimed at making kidnapping a capital offence. Senators are also considering laws that will protect women against sexual assault. The proposed law against sexual molestation or harassment of female students by randy lecturers and others in higher Institutions of learning has gone to committee stage. The Senate has also intensified the campaign to ensure that all state Houses of Assembly adopt and enact the Child Rights Law in their respective states. It has investigated and is still investigating several cases of child abuse.
One other way through which the Upper chamber has continued to serve our people is through investigations of petitions and public complaints submitted by ordinary people through their respective senators. Through these petitions, many aggrieved persons have got reprieve, without having to spend a kobo on legal fees. A case in point was that of a policeman in Lagos wrongfully dismissed 25 years ago but who has now been reinstated after the Senate Committee on Ethics and Public Petitions investigated his case and found out that injustice had been meted to him. As at today, 162 petitions have been submitted, 32 already dealt with conclusively and 82 under consideration. The rest were found to lack merit, probably because they are subject of litigation or that the committee found out the claims were frivolous.
Also, to demonstrate support for the anti-corruption war by the Federal Government, the 8th Senate has equally engaged with anti-corruption agencies like the EFCC, ICPC, CCB and the rest on how to improve their efficiency through a review of their enabling laws as well as provision of more funds for them to procure necessary facilities and train their officers.
The Senate has also commenced the process of setting up an independent Transparency and Delivery commission which will help draw up a robust scheme and strengthen the internal structure and capacity of the National Assembly to fulfil its role as an anti-corruption institution. The commission will help the Senate to use its oversight tools to act as catalyst for greater transparency and efficiency in fighting corruption.
More importantly, the Senate has decided that no single bill or motion will be debated in the present Senate except it adds value to the objectives of reforming the economy, eliminating insecurity, enthroning social justice, fighting corruption and making lives better for the generality of the people.
By giving priority to laws and issues that affect the economy, the present Senate has defined its own focus. And if they can record appreciable success in these areas, they would have helped to solve a large percentage of the problems threatening the existence of the country. They would also have helped to reposition the country for achieving greatness and serving the interests of Nigerians.
–Olaniyonu is Special Adviser to The Senate President.