PIB will unlock potentials of Nigeria’s oil and gas sector – Sen. Ajibola Basiru

Surajudeen Ajibola Basiru, is the Senator representing Osun Central in the National Assembly and Chairman Senate Committee on Media and Publicity. Before coming to the senate in 2019, he served as Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Osun State. The Senator recently played host to BusinessDay Editorial Team comprising John Osadolor, Obinna Nwachukwu and Godsgift Onyedinefu in his expansive office and responded to a number of questions. Excerpts:

What does your job entail as Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Publicity?

I think from the nomenclature it’s clear, essentially, I would say my committee is a service committee in the sense that we service the senate in terms of information management and management of public perception of the Senate. So, we process information and we also disseminate information. We try to shape opinion around the work that the Senate is doing. I will tell you that it’s a very daunting task, because, there appears to be a lot of misconception around the workings of the National Assembly generally and the Senate in particular. And this perception is borne out of the fact that, of the three arms of government we have in the country, the Legislative arm appears to be the most underdeveloped in terms of the period that it has been practiced. You will recollect that in 1966 when the military struck, the major victim in terms of issues of government was the legislative arm. From 1966 to October 1979, there was no legislative experience; laws were being made by military decrees whereas there are the Executive and Judicial arms in place. And of course December 31, 1983, when the military struck again, there was no legislative arm properly so called until the return of democracy in 1999. There were some aberrations during the Ibrahim Babangida administration whereby the legislative arm was more like a consultative arm in that regard. For me, that institutional issue of not being at the same developmental stage with other arms of government is challenging. We must also confess that, at the inception of democracy there have been challenges as to whether the institution have been up and doing. But, I think over a period of time, the National Assembly is becoming recognized for her efforts in sustaining our democratic heritage and also coming up with developmental support for the country.

How would you access the performance of the 9th Assembly so far?

I will say that the 9th Assembly despite certain constraints have performed qualitatively in many respects. The way to make the assessment is to look at the legislative agenda that was put in place. I wouldn’t know whether previous assemblies had legislative agenda, but, I know the 9th Assembly started on a note of legislative agenda, which was titled “A National Assembly that works for Nigeria”. Part of the cardinal aspect of that legislative agenda is economic development of the country. Both in the area of security and electoral reform and constitutional review, the national assembly has been effective. So, in making our assessment, it will be good to definitely look at what the National Assembly has done in that regard. In the area of economy for instance, the deep offshore law and profit sharing contract has been a law that has been in the doldrums for 15 years, but this 9th Senate was able to amend it and it has opened a large revenue base to support the regulatory process. In terms of oversight, the downstream and upstream sectors of the petroleum industry, the National Assembly has been interfacing with the relevant agencies and has been able to look at parameters for the price of crude and has been able to make necessary price adjustments as to ensure higher profit and unity in that industry. I can confidently tell you that the petroleum industry bill which is largely over due and which will unlock potentials in the oil and gas sector of our economy is at the advanced stage. It is already at the committee stage and discussions are ongoing with critical stakeholders including the oil bearing communities, the International Oil Corporations (IOCs) with the executive and hopefully, in a matter of weeks, the final bill will be presented before the National Assembly. This will have a tremendous impact on galvanizing the economy particularly considering the impact the unbundling of NNPC is expected to have on the economy and considering the various licensing regime that will allow utilization of different aspects of the productive and value chain in the oil and gas industry. And of course a departure from my vocation into upstream and downstream, you now have the mid stream and having appropriate legislative framework and the financial and fiscal framework and specifically using the instrument of trust to deal with the host communities. That will be a very robust legislation, attracting investments, protective of the health and safety, and also addressing community concerns. Also, in the area of the economy, you can see the certainty that the 9th Assembly have brought to our budget circle. You will discover that the government expenditure is a major driver in the economy unlike the staccato nature of the budget circle before the 9th Assembly, we now have a predictable January- December budget circle consistently since the inception of this 9th Assembly. Notwithstanding the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic last year, the budget, together with the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy paper were amended in line with new realities of time. And, in being alive to its responsibility to ensure that the country is promptly brought out of the recession of last year, the National Assembly extended the life span of implementation of the capital projects in the 2020 appropriation to March 3Ist, 2021 in the first instance, and now it has been extended to May, so that it will ensure that in the process of returning money to the treasury, the nation is not losing valuable asset, and at the same time, it also assists in deflating the economy, so that you will have a situation whereby two sets of budgets are being implemented; the 2021 appropriation, for which I believe about 25% capital vote has already been released and the 2020 appropriation. These are efforts geared towards ensuring the economy is revitalised. That may be one of the reasons Nigeria was able to promptly exit from the recession. Then the Finance Act, both of 2020 and 2021 are also areas of the economy that the National Assembly has worked upon. You will discover that some categories of persons with vulnerabilities were insulated by the Finance Act. For instance, those whose take-home salaries cannot even take them home, were excluded from personal income tax, then the Value Added Tax (VAT) was reorganised in a way that the persons who have capabilities are the ones saddled with the responsibility. For instance, though it was increased to 7.5%, any company having the turnover of less than 25 million was insulated from VAT and of course essentially commodities, medical items and educational materials were also carefully selected out of the VAT rejig to ensure that, while we have an assured income from VAT, it will not be to the detriment of the vulnerable. There are also amendment in terms of the Capital Gains Tax and all other aspects in relation to e-commerce and so on and so forth. These are the creative ideas in the area of supporting the economy, raising the revenue, while also insulating the vulnerable in the society. Then the Bank and other Financial Institutions Act (BOFIA), is also one of the landmark achievement in the area of economy and finance. And, you will discover that the BOFIA had become a long overdue legislation for amendment and that have been properly done. Then, in the area of transportation, the rail system inherited on a monopolist legislation have also been reformed. We now have a more liberalised rail system driven based on private sector participation. So, I would say that a careful effort have been put into making legislations and embodiment of policies in laws that will be able to shape and develop the Nigerian economy and financial sector, not only for now but also in the future . Then, in the area of security, as I speak, the Senate plenary today was devoted entirely to addressing the problem of insecurity in the country. But then the National Assembly had a summit, which is bent on implementing the resolutions to ensure the security architecture in Nigeria becomes amenable to proper use for the purpose of addressing the problem of insecurity. The Police Act, which had become obsolete had also been amended under the 9th Assembly and there have been constructive engagements with the executive on how to address the problem of insecurity. In the area of electoral reform, the work on the Electoral Bill is already at an advanced stage and the report of the committee is being expected in a matter of weeks. And, in terms of Constitutional review, efforts are already at a very large scale to ensure that all views and opinion as to amendment of Constitution in a way that address many of the challenges that we presently face is taken care of. Also, there have been active oversight function by the 9th Assembly which has seen a reduction in the cost and inefficiency in public expenditure.

At the public hearing on the PID, the Senate president assured that the bill would be passed into law before 29th May 2021. Is the Senate working towards actualizing that?

We are working. We just came back from a major retreat comprising senators and House of reps members already considering a clause by clause provisions in the PIB. We have moved round the states to get opinions from communities and stakeholders. We have engaged the executive as well as the IOCs for their input. We are looking towards a situation whereby by the time the bill is finally presented at the National Assembly it will have a smooth sail. And because the executive is being carried along, it will also have quick assent . We are also trying to avoid all the pitfalls of the earlier efforts at ensuring an acceptable PIB.

As chairman of this critical committee of the Senate, what challenges do you face in executing your Job?

The major challenge the Senate faces is that of a negative public perception. And it has to do with institutional, seemingly underdevelopment because of the mismatch between our history and that of the other two arms of government. There is also the traditional hostility and negative perception of politicians irrespective of who you are. This is a global problem. Also, you have to deal with the nature of our media itself which needs a more constructive engagement with the National Assembly as a democratic institution. There is the general perception to see elected representatives as ordinary Nigerians in terms of their opinion, but, in reality, because they represent a constituency, when they speak, it’s as if they are speaking for that constituency. Most of the time when I get confronted with people saying “Nigerians have said”, I ask questions like “is it somebody seating in his room, who possibly does not even have the support of his wife and children that is speaking on behalf of Nigeria? Or, people who have subjected themselves to a democratic process and get elected that are speaking on behalf of Nigerians?. Then, a lot of people have negative perception of anything that has to do with government. When you have that kind of situation, you need to be careful, you need to also know the challenge. There is also lack of understanding of the workings of the National Assembly by people who are supposed to educate and enlighten people. For example, if I introduce a bill in the National Assembly, what will be reported is that “Senate introduces a bill”, Senate does not introduce a bill. It is either a private member bill introduced by an individual or an executive bill. There is also the need for us to engage the media as moulders of public opinion. I must say that I have been lucky to enjoy the confidence of our conventional media and have a very good working relationship with them in being able to at least, let us ventilate our own side. And like I said, there is no gain in lying as to what really happened. Say the story as it is. There is no perfect system anywhere in the world, but, we learn from our imperfections and get better. So, our own philosophy to handling this issue is; to see it for what it is, say it for what it is and when necessary, make amends. So, that has enabled us to overcome the challenge of negative perception that citizens will generally have because of challenges that we have in our country; in terms of unemployment, insecurity etc. All these are generally taken to be at the door steps of politicians and no matter what effort you put in place, because you are democratically elected, you have the challenge to continue to explain, to improve your legislative process and to alleviate the people and make them to have a better perception of things that we do here in the national assembly.

Judiciary staff workers have been on strike for weeks. What is the position of the Senate with regards to financial autonomy for the judiciary?

The Senate has not met or taken a resolution on the strike , but as far as I am concerned as a legal practitioner, I am strongly concerned about rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. I am in support of financial autonomy for the judiciary. I have been an Attorney General before and I know the challenge that the judiciary have in being able to coordinate their affairs and handle their processes. So, the struggle for judicial autonomy is in order and must be supported by all of us who believe that judiciary is the hope of the common man. I believe it’s not something that is not achievable, because, at the federal level, it’s already being done. Even at the federal level I believe that there is a need to allocate more resources to the judicial arm of government. The salaries of judges have been stagnated and when you consider the rate of inflation, I don’t think it’s a good deal for those that are carrying out that very important aspect of our work. Also, the judicial system needs to be automated to be in line with modern development, particularly, the problem of expeditious determination of cases needs to be addressed urgently because you cannot have an economy that is developing and you are not thinking of judiciary and the process and system that will be able to deal with dispute resolution that will arise in the context of finance and economy.

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