I recently wrote about Nigeria’s power sector reforms. All of it of course started with a piece of legislation, the Power Sector Reform Act of 2005, which helped deliver a dose of lethal injection to the Nigeria Electric Power Authority, by dismantling it into 18 “successor” companies under the control of the holding company Power Holding Company of Nigeria. It also created a new regulator, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission.
The lesson from the power sector reform is clear: The really significant change Nigeria needs starts with the boring, often thankless job of legislation. Without the electricity legislation of 2005, there would be no such thing as power sector reform in Nigeria today.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the bill was never passed, and instead we continued pouring money into NEPA, trying to make it work without attempting a fundamental restructuring, just as we’ve been doing with our refineries.
This is why the Petroleum Industry Bill needs to be passed as soon as possible. I understand that there’s a big debate over parts of the bill; the degree of power it is supposed to confer on the Minister of Petroleum Resources, and the royalty/tax terms imposed on the oil companies. But perhaps while that is being debated, we can at least find a way to pass a version of the bill that immediately sets out to do to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation what the PSRA did to NEPA.
Most of us agree that there’s no place for an opaque, ungainly, inefficient structure like the NNPC in the Nigeria we want. No serious country saddles one single organisation with what the NNPC is saddled with – simultaneously being an operator and regulator, and without any responsibility to be accountable to anybody. So, why are we still insisting on keeping the NNPC as it is?
Ditto the railways. Nigeria has apparently been passing legislation to repeal the Railways Act 1955 for several years now. While writing this piece, I came across a news article from 2008 that said that the bill to repeal the Act had passed second reading.
Five years later, we’re still stuck with the 1955 Act. The bill is still somewhere in the National Assembly, crying out for attention.
Without the amendment of that 1955 law, which vests the Nigerian Railway Corporation with monopolistic powers, there’s no hope for a rail revolution in Nigeria. The Minister of Transport, Idris Audu Umar, is quoted as saying, last year, that “the legislation – Nigeria Railway Act, 1955 – as it stands now cannot allow private sector to play any role in the sector.”
A few years ago, I remember being told that the Nigeria Police Force was still encumbered by a Police Act dating back to colonial times (1943). It is as outdated as they come. Like the railway bill, the Police Reform Bill is still languishing in the National Assembly. An online search reveals that it passed second reading a while back. There has been no progress since then.
The laws regulating the oil industry are a patchwork of arcane prescriptions dating back to the late 1960s. It is this mess that the stillborn PIB seeks to replace with a single, transparent piece of legislation.
As much as we all like to talk about reforming Nigeria, we’re probably not doing a good enough job of acknowledging that the roots of real reform lie in the legislative process.
Decades of military rule – with the absence of parliamentary structures, and the practice of administration-by-decree – have left a dysfunctional mark on the society, stunting the habit – critical for any democracy – of creating and consistently improving laws designed to create the sort of environment in which real and lasting development can take place.
This means that Nigeria is sadly burdened with several generations of inadequate or irrelevant legislation.
It is the duty of our governments and our duty as citizens to keep putting pressure on them to do this.
It’s understandable that we’re obsessed with how much money our legislators currently earn. But that’s not all we should be concerned about. We also need to become obsessed with what exactly they’re doing. While we await the miracle that will revoke the privilege of outsized salaries, we can start paying greater attention to the “numbers” and the nuances of legislative process.
How many sittings on the average are our legislators attending? Who are the leading truants (and there are apparently a good number of them who are hardly ever seen in the Chambers)? How many bills are they managing to pass? (The numbers are generally dismal). If the legislators are going to enjoy so much of the commonwealth in terms of salaries and constituency allowances, they might as well give proper account of them.
I was delighted to see the published account of voting patterns in the Senate during the Constitution Amendment debate on the Age of Marriage. The news of the Ondo State Senator who reportedly burst into tears and apologised to his constituency about the way he voted is evidence of how much pressure ordinary citizens can bring to bear on the legislative process when light is shed on it.
And, as 2015 approaches, this is a challenge to the good, smart and change-seeking Nigerian men and women toying with the idea of contesting for powerful elective offices: there are many of you who think of yourselves as Governorship or Presidential or Vice-Presidential material, who should actually be looking to the National Assembly instead.
We need a critical mass of change agents in the National Assembly; men and women who understand that the legislature is as critical as the all-powerful Executive; that it should never be seen as a less prestigious alternative, or “fallback” option.
Nigeria needs a lot more talent, intelligence, drive and honesty in the chambers of the National Assembly. At this stage of our development as a country, we need to be passing “landmark” legislation with alacrity and regularity.
And the Executive also has a role to play here. Thankfully, we’ve put the dark ages behind us, when a certain President assumed that one of his primary responsibilities was fighting with and destabilising the National Assembly. Now that we have a sense of relative calm and understanding between both arms of government, can we at least ensure that the definition of “dividends of democracy” extends to smart and capable legislation.
A “transformation agenda” that does not seek to produce, with any measure of zeal, transformed legislation, does not deserve its name.
If we look at how long it’s taken between the passage of the power sector reform act and the theoretical end of the power reform journey, then the lesson is that we need to start the journey as soon as we can. There’s no time for pussyfooting.
If railways reform takes as long as the power sector reform has taken, then we still have a long wait ahead before we can see the first fruiting of private sector involvement in our comatose railways sector. It is going to be a long and contested process.
Therefore, the earlier we start, the better for us all. The best time to pass Nigeria’s landmark railway, police, health, petroleum and land reform bills – and the several others of critical importance – was years ago.
The second best time, is now.