In this interview, Hon. Victor Afam Ogene, former Deputy Chairman, Media & Public Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives and currently, Chairman, Network for Best Practice and Integrity in Leadership (NEBPRIL), a nongovernmental organisation, speaks with Ihechi Enyinnaya on the current hike in prices of petroleum products and the National Assembly’s response, CAMA and water resources bill controversy
A lot of Nigerians are worried over what they regard as the deafening silence of the National Assembly in the midst of several hikes, especially fuel and electricity. What’s your take on this?
Thank you for that question which borders on the present happenings in the polity. As you have observed – perhaps rightly – there appears to be a conspiracy of silence swirling over the landscape; making me wonder if even for me, conventional wisdom doesn’t demand that I hold my peace. Having said this, let me say that like many Nigerians, I’m appalled by the seeming nonchalant vibes emanating from the National Assembly.
In fact, a simple goggle search of the word, ‘democracy’ will return a definition which describes the term as, ‘a system of government by the whole population, or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.’ Mark the words: elected representatives! This, to my mind and understanding, connotes the ever-present role of the legislature in the lives of the people, especially under a democracy.
Now, the issue that arises therefore is, why then the loud silence of the legislature at these time of grave national challenges?
You talked about increases in fuel and electricity charges, right? But I can go further to vouch that in addition to these two, the National Assembly as an institution, and its Senators and House of Representatives members are not known to have provided any form of clarity to the contentious Companies and Allied Matters (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Water Bill. So, essentially, you just may be correct in your observations.
During your time in the 7th Assembly, a similar issue arose during which you and your colleagues won the hearts of Nigerians in the manner you handled the fuel hike of January 2012. What propelled that unique response?
In simple terms, one word: Leadership. Although you’ve described it as a ‘unique response’, I dare say that what has so far stood the 7th Assembly apart from all others before and after its tenure was the innovative leadership it was privileged with.
As you would easily recall, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, Rt. Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, now Governor of Sokoto State, provided efficient and effective leadership, to the extent that bi-partisan loyalty largely gave way to nationalistic fervor in the life of that Assembly. I recall, vividly, that when Nigerians woke up to the shock New Year gift of an astronomical hike in the price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), or petrol for short, from N65 to N140 per litre, many who had traveled to the hinterlands for the yuletide were consequently stranded, as they couldn’t muster the funds needed to pay for their fares back to base.
Worried by this development the Tambuwal leadership urgently summoned members back from recess, to attend a Special Session on Sunday January 8, 2012. Besides being unprecedented in the annals of legislative intervention, the outcome ensured that the country was brought back from the precipices, with organised labour, civil society organisations and other stakeholders poised for a long drawn showdown. As one of the 61 members that sponsored that historic motion, I hasten to add that one of its positive outcome was that, for the first time in a long while a proper inquest into the actual number of litres of petrol consumed daily in the country was empanelled. Conversely, more than one week after the twin hike in petrol and electricity charges, mum remains the word from the peoples’ elected representatives.
But Honourable, despite the noble ideas behind that historic intervention, some Nigerians still hold the 7th Assembly responsible for postponing the evil day, as it were…
In reality, no one who lives in today’s Nigeria would, with a simple wave of the hand, dismiss the imperative of fully stopping the subsidy regime which has over the years been riddled with monumental fraud and outright economic sabotage against the Nigerian state. However, in seeking to find our way out of this quagmire, I insist that the legislature must lend its voice, and weight, to the discourse. Essentially, on behalf of the Nigerian people who they represent.
In fact, contemporary Nigerian history is replete with Executive haughtiness, wherein we are often told that the position of the Executive branch was the only way. Remember the lingo, “No alternative to SAP; No alternative to Abacha; No alternative to deregulation” and several such self-righteous pontifications? In a democracy, the legislature should be the lead agency for people-centred change. But, is that the current reality?
Only last Tuesday, September 8, 2020, I read a report which quoted the Governor of Jigawa State, Mohammed Abubakar Badaru as saying that the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), was billed to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari to push for a reduction in fuel and electricity prices. In fact, let me quote Governor Badaru: ‘I don’t want to pre-empt our proposed meeting with President Buhari over this issue, but I’m assuring you that we are going to mediate for the benefit of Nigerians.’
It beats me hollow why the governors would want to engage, on behalf of suffering Nigerian masses, while the National Assembly elects to remain aloof. Institutional memory of the House, especially under Tambuwal, does not support such characterisation of the parliament, as an institution that would jettison its representational role for governors who are on the Executive side of the aisle. So, my candid opinion to members of the 9th National Assembly is that, even life and living has an alternative.
So, what would you advise they do, since the increase is already fait accompli, because President Buhari has declared that it is inevitable?
Like I stated earlier, full subsidy removal seems to be the way to go. But if we must trudge that path, the legislature must ensure that we do not take away the little benefits which accrue to the people through subsidy, only to continue subsidising the follies and greed of the elite. What, for instance, is being done to ensure that wastages in the running of MDAs are eliminated, or at least reduced to tolerable limits?
What has happened to the several Turn Around Maintenance (TAM) of our three refineries, such that instead of producing droplets of refined petrol rather churned a loss of N154 billion in year 2018 alone? When is the country going to have full deregulation, instead of the current ‘yoyo’ price regime whereby everyone, no matter your location, buys the product at the same price? Indeed, the legislature has its tasks cut out for it. And silence is not on the list.
The Water Resources Bill, which was rejected in the 8th Assembly is about to be passed in the 9th House. Looking at the contents of the bill and the controversy it has generated, what would be your advice to the lawmakers?
It bothers on respect for laid down processes of law making. If the Bill was rejected in the 8th Assembly, the rule is that it dies at the expiration of that Assembly. And if for any reason it was to be represented, it ought to start afresh from the First Reading, in other to accommodate more views for a better understanding and also to put into consideration, current realities and sentiment in the nation. But trying to side-step some parts of parliamentary provisions and processes, unwittingly made room for diverse interpretations, which is very unhelpful and disturbing.
The signing into law of CAMA (amendment) bill is also causing ripples in the polity especially from the Christian community. What’s your view on it and what do you think should be done to douse the tension?
In my opinion, the CAMA controversy is a reflection of the deep-seated ethnic and religious mistrust in the nation. It also underscores the people’s growing lack of faith in the political class and the objectivity of the kind of leadership it provides.
Ordinarily, there is no sector or section of the populace, whether religious, political or economic, public or private, that would not support democratic accountability and proper corporate governance in any setting, but the problem has always been the true intent of any public policy, as well as the process of formulation of such policies.
The question is, was there a holistic consultation before the CAMA law was signed in order to ensure that all stakeholders were carried along, given the sensitive nature of some of its provisions? The simple answer is no, given the public uproar that it elicited. I believe government should listen to the people and revisit the matter, as was recently advised by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, and the President, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).