Eighth Senate: Milestones on the Road to National Development

0

BY Chuks Okocha

Just as proverbs are the oil with which words are spoken, motions and bills are the lubricants of democracy and democratic governance. They are the ingredients which the legislature uses to weave and sustain democracy. A parliament or the National Assembly, as the case is in Nigeria, is adjudged by the number of motions, bills and other interventions that impact positively on the lives of citizens.

By June 9, the National Assembly would complete 365 days of its inauguration. To this extent, how has the National Assembly under the chairmanship of Dr. Bukola Saraki and the Senate, for which he is the president, fared in the last 365 days?

It is taken for granted, as it is part of its routine, that the National Assembly has passed the 2015 supplementary budget for the country as well as the Federal Capital Territory supplementary budget. It also in a special way passed the 2016 budget for the nation and for FCT.

But in the actual business of the day, the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) has been adopted by the 8th Senate as the main Legislative Agenda of the Red Chamber. By this, the PIB has become a priority bill that must be given attention at all reasonable cost. This bill is fundamental, as it is capable of turning around the petroleum sector for the general good of the country. The bill, according to the Senate President, will stimulate the sector for the overall good of the economy. He urged members of the Senate committees on petroleum to pay very close attention to the bill and treat it with dispatch.

The PIB was first introduced in 2008 following the submission of the report of the Rilwanu Lukman-led Oil and Gas Sector Reform Committee. It is intended to combine 16 different petroleum laws into a single document and provide a legal, fiscal and regulatory framework for the Nigerian petroleum industry, in such a way that increases the revenue from the sector to the country.

Also as part of its main legislative duties, the Senate a fortnight ago passed the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill, 2016 in a bid to ease the problems associated with accessing credit for business by Nigerians. For many Nigerian businesses, the issue of credit has become a severe problem. The lack of a functional bankruptcy and insolvency law has significantly raised the risk and, therefore, the cost of borrowing to an unsustainable level, creating an environment of very high levels of non-performing loans.

This state of affairs has in turn severely restricted availability of credit to key businesses and raised cost of borrowing. With the passage of the bill, banks would, with other things considered, be in a better position to give loans to business at more manageable cost.

Saraki said regarding the bill, “With the event of today, the Senate has taken a giant step towards fulfilling its promise under the legislative agenda to provide the necessary legal, institutional and regulatory framework that would facilitate the availability of credit. The Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill, 2016, is one of the priority bills of the 8th Senate. This bill was considered priority because of the important role as a key contributor to better credit risk management and also as a vital credit availability and business administration.”

Another crucial bill passed by the 8th Senate within the period under review is Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Prohibition Bill. The bill, sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo Agege from Delta State, enjoyed the support of the whole Senate. The bill specifically makes it a criminal offence for any educator in a tertiary educational institution to violate or exploit the student-lecturer relationship for sexual favours.

The bill that has passed its third reading at the Red Chambers sought and obtained a tighter statutory protection for students against sexual hostility and all forms of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. The bill also stipulates as offences, solicitation of sex or sexual advances by lecturers which result to intimidation, hostile or offensive environment for students. It is expected that the bill would be expanded to make it an offence in other spheres of life within the country.

In keeping with the Legislative agenda of the 8th Senate to ensure a transparent leadership, the Senate opened the books of the National Assembly for public scrutiny. This became an issue against the backdrop of campaigns by Nigerians that the National Assembly should open its books for everyone to see. It is on record that in line with Saraki’s campaign manifesto of transparency, the 8th Senate is the first to state what the budgets of the National Assembly look like.

It was the first time that the books of the Senate and House of Representatives were opened and since then, whatever the National Assembly is embarking upon has remained an issue in the court of public opinion. It is on record that due to the campaign promise of the Senate President, Nigerians come to know that N105.4 billion has been set aside for recurrent expenditure and N9.6 billion for capital projects.

Also in line with the legislative agenda of the Eighth Senath, which is forging a people-oriented relationship and identifying with the people at the grassroots on all issues that affect them, the Senate under the leadership of Saraki has lived up to that expectation. In this instance, the Saraki-led Senate was able to broker a deal that eventually led to the removal of the N700 monthly mandatory fee charged all electricity consumers by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission.

When the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress declared a protest rally and picketing of some government offices that included the Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOS) and the Generation Companies (GENCOS), the Senate was able to broker a deal with the unions. This facilitated a meeting between the Minister of Power, Works and Housing and the protesting labour leaders.

Though the meeting with the labour leaders was impromptu because the Senate President was billed to attend the opening ceremony of the Made in Aba Trade Fair holding in Area Eleven, Garki, he still found it expedient to attend the NLC and TUC rallies after they had picketed the National Assembly.

Addressing the rally comprising NLC, TUC, civil society organisations, and electricity consumers who besieged the National Assembly Complex, Abuja, to protest the recent increment in electricity charges across the country, Saraki reiterated the commitment of the 8th National Assembly to collaborations with the executive arm of government in entrenching people-friendly policies.

The Senate President said the Senate believed in the struggle to ensure that the right thing was done, saying he would do everything in his power within the shortest time possible to resolve the impasse between NERC, Discos, and electricity consumers in order to avert any further unrest.

Today, due to the intervention of the Senate, the mandatory fee paid by electricity consumers is history. Thanks to the motion sponsored by the former Governor of Ebonyi State, Sam Egwu. Through the motion, there was an agreement by NERC to remove bulk metering and charging of mandatory fee by the Power Holding Company of Nigeria.

The economy has remained in the centre stage of the activities of the Senate under the supervision of Saraki. For this reason, it organised a workshop where laws of the federation considered as obsolete were reviewed. Hitherto, it was gathered that Nigeria ranked 169 out of 189 economies in the World Bank Doing Business Report. Nigeria was among the worst countries with laws inimical to investment.

It was through the efforts of the workshop that some laws were recommended for review. The workshop organised between the senate and some commercial lawyers with sponsorship from the British DFID specifically recommended that the Company and Allied Management Act (CAMA) and the Land Use Act should be reviewed.

The report further lamented that some of the 1914 commercial laws inherited from the British colonial masters were still in existence in the country’s statue books, especially in cases where there is arbitration. The report of the workshop noted that there were conflicts of interest and powers in the laws regulating the Nigeria Ports Authority and the National Inland Waterways (NIWA). It also queried why the railway laws should remain in the Exclusive List of the constitution. The report called for the delisting of Railway Act from the Exclusive List. This explained the reforms and reviews of the Railway Act.

Speaking at the workshop, the Senate President said the present economic crisis facing Nigeria should be seen as an opportunity for its leaders to show leadership and courage by ensuring that articulated legislation to rescue the country. He said Nigerians should use the present economic situation to set the stage for a post-oil era in which the private sector will steer the ship of the economy while government provides the enabling environment.

Saraki said, “The National Assembly through the legislative agenda seized on the moment to chart a new course for the nation’s economy. The legislative agenda we have adopted is one framed largely around good governance, accountability, opening up of the economy for greater investment, ease of doing business and security of lives and property.”

On a specific note, the chairman of the National Assembly said that the 8th National Assembly would give priority to the amendment of obsolete laws, saying since some of the affected laws require constitutional amendment, the planned process would be expedited to ensure that all stakeholders concerned make the changes happen as soon as possible.

The Senate President stated that the collaboration with the private sector, development partners, professional groups, like the Nigeria Bar Association and the academia, in the on-going process to review laws affecting doing business will give birth to a new business environment that will boost the economy, solve the problem of unemployment, curb social vices and restore national values and pride.

He stressed that the Senate and the House of Representatives were on the same page with President Muhammadu Buhari on his policy on diversification of the economy.

According to Saraki, “Our President has laid out a vision to fully diversify the economy beyond oil and has been committed to the actualisation of the project.

“The overarching objective of the agenda targets private sector investment and business development as a major plank of the plan. This is because of our belief in the ingenuity, creativity, entrepreneurship of our people and that in order to create jobs, give our people better opportunities; the private sector remains our best option.

“This is at the heart of the clamour for diversification.

Saraki stated that the collaborative efforts between the National Assembly, DFID’ ENABLE programme, and GEM3, with strong participation of the organised private sector led by the Nigeria Economic Summit Group was the first of its kind. He added that the Senate had offered to the country a detailed plan and a cohesive legislative agenda for renewed national cohesion and development.

Overall, over 165 motions and resolutions with far-reaching impacts on the wellbeing of Nigerians were passed.

– Okocha is the Special Assistant to the Senate President on Print Media.