A Senate that works for Nigeria

By Ola Awoniyi

The ninth Nigerian Senate was inaugurated on June 11, 2019. Six months after, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and his colleagues have a lot to celebrate even if also some things to ponder on the task ahead.

The Senate can be proud of its record of achievements in all areas of its responsibilities as a preeminent democratic institution.

The pace has been frenetic, as would be seen shortly. But the smoothness of the process and seeming placidness of the legislative environment have made its feats gone almost unnoticed or unacknowledged.

This is understandable. The media is used to the daily feasts of intrigues and high drama in the chambers of the National Assembly and a cat and mouse Legislature-Executive relationship. These kinetic elements make good headlines and had been the main features of the federal parliament in the Fourth Republic. So their absence this time around has left the media feeling something big is missing or has gone wrong.

Let us put this in perspective. The ninth Senate started on a peaceful note, with the election of the Senate President and other principal officers devoid of rancour and much drama. The votes cut across party lines and left no bad blood in their wakes.

This good start is significant, given the upheaval that the same process had assumed four years before, at the beginning of the eighth Senate when a large group of senators did not even have the opportunity to cast their votes. The leadership election crisis of June 2015 shaped the mood of the senators and would eventually define that assembly, culminating in the defection of the then Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).

The smooth take off set the stage for the harmony in the ninth Senate. The assembly has a sizeable opposition caucus, but its tone has been mostly bi-partisan, temperate and cooperative. The opposition has its voice on every issue but there has been less bombast, grandstanding or playing to the gallery.

This spirit and a unity of purpose nurtured by the leadership have enhanced the legislative process and output. The distinguished senators have risen above partisanship and other divisive inclinations, to focus as a group on the thrust of their legislative agenda, which is to be the Senate that works for Nigeria.

The result is the outstanding achievements that have been made in the first half-year of the ninth Senate.

The assembly has passed Six Bills into law, four of which were members’ bills. The first to be passed was the Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act CAP D3 LFN 2004 (Amendment Bill, 2019.

While declaring open a public hearing on the Bill in October, the Senate President said passing the bill had become “absolutely necessary so that Nigeria can generate more revenues from its endowments.” He added that the National Assembly was determined to pass the bill as a precursor to its determination to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill in 2020.

The Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Bill was promptly assented into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 4, 2019, within days of being passed by the National Assembly.

At a lunch with senior journalists in Abuja on December 16, the Senate President underscored the excitement of his colleagues on this piece of legislation.

“This law will significantly increase accruals to the government from crude oil contracts. It has also ended our years of inexplicable failure to call in returns due to us from our joint venture partners. As a result of this law, we have expanded a critical revenue stream and ensured more funds will flow into the treasury that will enable the government to execute its budgets and critical developmental projects,” he said.

After the bill was signed into law by the President, the Senate President has disabused the minds that had misconceptions of the intention of the bill. Some investors, particularly the International Oil Companies(IOCs), think the bill will hurt them but Lawan said that impression is far from the purpose of the bill.

The Senate President once explained to an investors that the amendment was not intended “to reduce the margin of profit of the IOCs. We did so because it was necessary and imperative to carry out the amendment because it was long overdue.

“That amendment should have been done since 2003. And we were very conscious of the fact that we need to keep our friends, the businesses that are here, happy.

“So we did the amendment to actually get better deal for Nigeria our country from the endowment, the oil and gas that we have, but also in the process protect the business interest of the International Oil Companies that are here.”

The Senate passed the Finance Bill, 2019 on 21 November, 2019.  The Bill amended seven existing tax and fiscal policy laws  (Companies Income Tax Act, 2004; Value Added Tax Act, 2007; Customs and Excise Tariff (Consolidation) Act, 2004; Personal Income Tax Act, 2007; Capital Gains Tax Act, 2007; Stamp Duties Act, 2007; and Petroleum Profit Tax Act, 2004).

Its object is to reform Nigeria’s tax system for enhanced implementation and effectiveness.  It is in line with the reform of the tax system initiated by the Federal Government so as to create an enabling business environment and reduce the tax burden for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).

The Senate also promptly passed the Appropriation Bill in line with the commitment of the senators to realigning the fiscal calendar to a predictable January-December budget cycle.

The passage is the earliest in recent memory and was done by the lawmakers to enable the government have a full year to implement its budgets. Lawan said the lawmakers believe this will “enhance planning, implementation and monitoring of the budget by the relevant organs and agencies and significantly improve our annual budget performance.”

The ninth Senate also passed three Public Procurement Act 2007 (Amendment) Bills, 2019; to sanitize the public procurement process and curtail corruption. The emergency of these objectives cannot be overemphasized in an economy where corruption in the procurement process has stymied service delivery by the public sector.

Aside from the six bills passed, 185 Bills have also gone through first reading, while 32 other Bills have passed second reading and are before the relevant Senate Committees for the necessary legislative work.

The ninth Senate attaches great importance to the Petroleum Industry Bill(PIB), Electoral Reforms Amendment Bills and Amendment of the 1999 Constitution.

“When we come back, we are going to face very serious legislations that are required in Nigeria, Lawan told his colleagues shortly before the Senate adjourned for the Christmas and New year break.

“First, is the Petroleum Industry Bill(PIB). The PIB has defied solution since 2007 when the executive brought the bill and it couldn’t pass. In 2011, it brought it again, it couldn’t pass. In 2015, the legislature took it up in a broken version, it couldn’t pass.

“Now, we have to act differently. The executive and the legislature would work very closely on this and come up with legislation on the PIB that would be in the interest of Nigeria but also protect the investments that are here, and even encourage more investments to come in.

“We are also going to look into the issue of constitutional amendment. There are so many issues that today require the attention of the legislature, of the National Assembly, particularly in the amendment of the constitution to make governance better.

“But we also have to do a lot on the electoral reform.  Every election gives us the opportunity to see the strength and weaknesses of our electoral laws,” Lawan said.

The Electoral Reforms Amendment Bill addresses an urgent need to improve the electoral process. The lawmakers want to pass the Bill well ahead of the next electoral cycle in 2023 to avoid a repeat of the situation whereby the president declined assent after the eight National Assembly passed the same bill close to the 2019 general elections.

Some of the bills currently being considered by the Senate have stoked concerns from the public. Two of the most controversial are the anti-hate speech bill and the bill seeking to regulate the use of social media in Nigeria. But as Lawan has pointed out, “lawmaking is a rigorous process that allows for all sides of an argument to be heard and the true will of the people established before a bill becomes law.”

The Senate President called on Nigerians with strong views on these bills, and indeed on any other one, to attend the public hearings on them so that they can represent their positions before the lawmakers, fellow Nigerians and the watching world. It is through involvement in processes like this that the legislature can produce robust laws that well consider various opinions.

“On behalf of my distinguished colleagues, I pledge that we, as elected representatives of the people, will always ensure that the will of our people is pivotal in our legislative business. This Senate and indeed the ninth National Assembly will not pass any bill that is not in the national interest. Ours is and will remain a Senate that will always work for Nigerians,” Lawan further stated on this issue.

The Senate within the past six months received 78 public petitions which it referred to the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions. Most of these petitions were presented by private citizens with grievances against agencies or agents of the government.

The committee has so far examined nine of the petitions, concluded its investigations and laid its reports on the table. The Committee is also working on the other petitions with a view to satisfactorily addressing the grievances behind them.

The Senate also convened roundtable discussions on three critical sectors of our economy, starting with the power sector. The decision to begin with the power sector is easily understandable. The government in recent years has invested billions of dollars in this sector, but the problems of inadequate power supply have continued to plague Nigeria without let.

Even the subsequent privatization of the sector made no visible impact as power supply has remained epileptic across the country and desperately needs fixing.

The Senate Committee on Power assembled stakeholders in the sector at the roundtable discussions and has promised to be guided by their suggestions in presenting a report that is hoped would be decisive in addressing Nigeria’s power challenges.

Similar exercises have been held by the Senate on the Solid Minerals and Steel sector and the Agriculture sector.  The lawmakers believe that solid Minerals and Agriculture offer great potential to transform the Nigerian economy and the government’s revenue profile and wean the country from its overdependence on oil revenue.

“We are still expecting the reports of the relevant Committees on these three sectors but I can assure Nigerians that this Senate is ready and willing to confront all these problems head-on through appropriate legislative interventions,” the Senate President assured.

The ninth Senate has enjoyed a harmonious working relationship with the House of Representatives and the Executive. These have been of tremendous benefits to the nation as it has removed the mutual suspicion and hostility between the two arms that obviously slowed progress in the previous dispensation.

Under the new atmosphere, the National Assembly passed the budget and finance bills timeously and the president reciprocated the gesture with prompt assent to the Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act CAP D3 LFN 2004 (Amendment Bill, 2019 and the Appropriation Act, 2020.

In the past, it took an average of five months to pass the appropriation bill, which mostly did not come into operation until the third quarter of the year. The uncertainty and instability of the fiscal year have been a major element in the poor execution and performance of the annual budgets under the Fourth Republic. This problem has now, hopefully, been significantly addressed.

The ninth Senate also confirmed 12 key appointments, including those of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ministers of the Government of the Federation, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, President of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria; and chairmen and members of eight Commissions, Services and Corporations.

The timely consideration/screening and confirmation of ministerial nominees was to ensure immediate commencement and implementation of government policies in line with this administration’s agenda.

The Senate has also approved the presidential nominees for the National Hajj Commission, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCOM), and also passed the 2020 Budget for the Federal Capital Territory.

Lawan said the speed of events at the Senate is deliberate.

“We know the need for us to act fast. Time is of essence. In the next two years or so, the Nigerian political landscape will be dotted by people campaigning for presidency, for governorship and the rest of it. And that will in a way cause some disruption or slow down governance.

“So between now and the next two years we have told ourselves that we have to work hard to ensure that, as a legislature, we are able to perform our roles creditably to enable government function very well for Nigerians. And that is what we have been trying to do.”

Notwithstanding the cordial relationships with the other arms of government, the Senate under Lawan remains committed to the  firm exercise of its oversight role on the ministries, departments and agencies of government with a view to ensuring transparency and accountability in public expenditure as well as overall good governance.

The Senate President is always a loyal party man. He has maintained fidelity to his political platform throughout his career and has been rewarded by his constituents with serial elections; and by his party with important roles. But in all the positions he has held, Lawan has been guided by higher national interest. He pledges the same commitment in his current role.

The Senate under his leadership has pursued its responsibilities with diligence, candour and maturity.

“Our loyalty as legislators is to the Nigerian people, the Constitution and the oath that we took at our inauguration. I assure you that the ninth Senate and National Assembly will not betray the trust of the people. We are going to serve our fatherland with love and strength and faith,” he said.