Monday 11 May 2015

Legislating For Change - by Eze Onyekpere

The law provides the framework for economic development, job creation, anti-corruption programmes, among others, and it is crucial for every aspect of national life. Bills that metamorphose into laws are the bedrock for executive action and any area of national life that is not regulated by law is usually a grey area that is filled with uncertainties. This discourages investment and leaves a lot of room for conjecture and guesswork. This brings to the fore the need for collaboration between the executive and legislative arms of government to chart a way forward in the solution of national challenges. Collaboration is imperative in the incoming administration considering the dire straits of Nigeria’s economy and finances.

It must be stated that getting a bill through the legislature should not be a four-year exercise. A bill is either accepted or rejected. Key bills identified and agreed to between the executive and legislature can come on stream within the first 100 days of the administration. While it is recognised that lawmaking should not be rushed, it is equally important that the process does not become a perpetual drag on development as we witnessed in the outgoing Seventh National Assembly. There are already several issues that have generated a pan Nigerian consensus and we need not waste further time before codifying them into law. This discourse seeks to identify some key bills that should engage the attention of the executive and legislature if the incoming administration is to keep its promises of growing the economy, tackling corruption and improving infrastructure.

The first is the alteration to the 1999 Constitution. There are key provisions in the exercise just concluded by the Seventh National Assembly that are acceptable to the overwhelming majority. Examples include the separation of the office of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice which will facilitate the anti-corruption drive whilst the appointment of an Accountant General for the Federation will enhance transparency and accountability in the management of the Federation Account. Alterations that guarantee the continuation of criminal trials, especially in corruption cases while interlocutory appeals continue is also necessary for winning the war against corruption. The rights to basic education and maternal and child health that have been elevated to fundamental rights are worthy of re-enacting. Autonomy for the office of the Auditor-General at the federal and state levels will properly position the office for improved transparency and value for money whilst the autonomy of state Houses of Assembly is vital for re-positioning state-level legislature. Also, autonomy for local government councils is imperative if development is to proceed at the grassroots level. The President and the party machinery should prevail on governors to accept autonomy for local governments. However, this alteration should not be an opportunity for smuggling in repugnant clauses such as life pension for the leadership of the legislature.

The Petroleum Industry Bill should also be top on the priority list. No reasonable Nigerian understands the reason(s) that led the Seventh National Assembly to leave it unattended. The bill seeks to liberalise the management and control of the oil and gas sector and thereby bring in more investments, an improved fiscal regime and resources to the Federation Account for sharing by the three tiers of government. It also seeks to make oil and gas operation more efficient, transparent and accountable to the Nigerian people. If we are serious with anti-corruption efforts, strengthening the office of the Auditor-General through the Audit Reform Bill is imperative. The bill seeks, inter alia, to establish a professional Supreme Audit Institution with competencies to do value-for- money and forensic audits; proactive powers to nip corruption and fraud in the bud and to trace and recover monies in specie and compel anyone who has caused a loss to the treasury to remedy the loss. The bill also strengthens the independence of the office and establishes the Audit Service Commission.

The Federal Road Fund Bill is a proposed legislation with the objective of creating and sustaining a pool of funds dedicated to financing, rehabilitation, repairs and maintenance of federal roads and to enhance the sustainable development and operation of the federal road networks. The funds are expected to come from user fees and tolls, fines, levies, loans, grants, etc. Allied to this is the bill to liberalise the railways sector and bring in the private sector as a participant in financing, ownership and management. The railways are crucial for improved mass transportation of goods and human beings as this will bring down the cost of doing business in Nigeria. Another important piece of legislation is the Fly Nigeria Bill which will make it mandatory for public officers to use Nigerian airlines in trips funded by the treasury unless there is no Nigerian airline flying to the destination.

It seems the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission Act needs to be tweaked to activate public-private partnerships as a mainstream method of delivering infrastructure. This is necessary considering the paucity of public resources. The Commission needs to be given a more central role in partnership with ministries, departments and agencies of government in the identification and preparation of the PPP projects. There have been very few PPP projects and the existing few are subject to back and forth controversies as exemplified in the Bi-Courtney new airport in Lagos. The Development Planning and Projects Continuity Bill is also strategic for national development. The bill seeks to inaugurate a compulsory planning regime for the three tiers of government and curb the blight of abandoned projects. It seeks to create a register of projects which is a comprehensive inventory of ongoing and completed projects. It further seeks coordination between the works of federal and state planning commissions. The report of Oronsaye Committee which detailed a lot of agencies to be merged and scrapped should also occupy the time of the legislature. The Eight National Assembly should do a thorough study of the government White Paper and come up with amendments and repeal bills in deserving cases. But it can start with low hanging fruits. The National Assembly should also amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act and grant enforcement powers to the Fiscal Responsibility Commission to ensure fiscal transparency.

The judicial process seems to have constituted a drag on Nigeria’s quest to eradicate corruption. Trials go on endlessly and technicalities take the place of substance. The National Assembly should consider the establishment and funding of special courts to try corruption cases. And the courts should have simplified procedural rules that would speed up trials. This appears to be the only reasonable way to stop the delays in corruption trails. In its business of oversight, the Eight National Assembly must ensure that the executive establish the National Council for Public Procurement. The idea of the Federal Executive Council becoming a contract awarding bazaar every Wednesday ridicules the Presidency and the Nigerian nation.

In conclusion, the ruling party, executive and legislature should work collaboratively to set targets for the legislature to deliver on laws needed for reforms and change.

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