By Enyeribe Ejiogu
The relative peace in the Niger Delta, which has allowed oil and gas operations to pick up would grow and become permanent when the Petroleum Industry Bill which is before the National Assembly is passed and signed into law by the president. This is the contention of the prresident of Southern Youths Development Forum and senior pastor of Royal House of Faith International, Pastor Bassey James.
James, who is the publisher of the First People’s Parliament Magazine, further picks holes in the argument that northern members of the National Assembly are opposed to the passage of the PIB because of the provision that host communities of oil and gas activities should get 10 per cent of the revenue. In this interview he sheds more light on this.
It is almost two years since the 8th National Assembly was proclaimed. What is your general assessment of the national assembly in terms of legislative agenda of the government?
I want to commend the members of the National Assembly. They have been able to show some direction and firmness in tackling the legislative agenda, but we still need a whole lot more from them.
When you say ‘more’ what exactly do you mean?
I said that we want the National Assembly to do more because there are bills before the National Assembly that are not being attended with the necessary speed and patriotic zeal they require, in order to get them passed into law. For crystal and major example is the Petroleum Industry Bill, which has not yet become the law that would regulate the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry. Agreed that it was first passed by the 7th National Assembly and presented to former president Goodluck Jonathan. The former president raised some questions regarding certain provisions in the Bill and sent it back to the National Assembly. But the necessary legislative work was slowed down by 2015 electioneering activities. The Bill was then inherited by the 8th NASS. After the brouhaha over the election of the principal officers of the National Assembly, one would have thought that the business of law-making would become turbo-charged and proceed at the speed of Formula-1 race cars, to lay the legislative foundation for confronting the infrastructural, social and economic challenges that are making life difficult for the people and the business community, and thereby drive economic recovery that would get the country out of recession. In all honesty, we have not seen the required level of legislative activity. But like I said earlier, the members of the National Assembly have performed to some extent, given the extraneous distractions due mainly to investigations by various agencies that seem more like persecution of particular members of the leadership.
The passage of the PIB is the most important law that Nigerians are expecting the lawmakers to deal with and do so speedily. This will support the efforts of the federal government, which has started the process of the clean up of Ogoniland. You will agree with me that the efforts of the president and the vice president have brought noticeable peace to the Niger Delta. Yet the people of the Niger Delta are expecting an urgent passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill; doing so would give the people a sense of belonging. The shuttle diplomacy embarked on by Vice president ,Yemi Osinbajo, when he acted for President Muhammadu Buhari during his first medical vacation in Britain, went a long way to calm nerves in the Niger Delta and facilitated the ongoing talks on the way forward.
When he visited Akwa Ibom State, the Vice president Osinbajo (who again is the Acting President) made a very strong declaration that telling the oil majors to return to their areas of operations in the Niger Delta. When he made that statement, there was wild jubilation in the South-south region. The security situation has substantially improved as bombing of oil installations by aggrieved Niger Delta militants has gone down as federal government is now showing genuine interest in discussing with the people of the Niger Delta. Again, the state governors have set joint task force on security in their domains in the Niger Delta. I also know that communities that host oil installations are ready to guarantee peace that would enable and encourage the oip companies to resume activities. The communities are ready for development and are therefore eager to provide security for oil workers and protect them from kidnapping. You will agree with that unemployment in the Niger Delta is a major factor that drives restiveness in the region. So when oil prospecting and production activities speedily pick up again in the region, more jobs will be created. It will become more difficult to entice a well-paid indigene of the Niger Delta working in an oil company to join a kidnapping gang. Crime rate was low in the Niger Delta when the oil companies were very active and hiring young people. Kidnapping was alien to the region. So kudos must be given to the Buhari administration for the moves it has made to reduce restiveness in the Niger Delta. But these are early days and more needs to be done.
That is why I keep saying that the National Assembly should address the issue of the PIB and do so urgently. The fact that the PIB has not yet become law is hindering massive fresh investments in the petroleum sector. The passage of the PIB would open up more opportunities for indigenous as well as foreign investors.
What would you say is the major obstacle to the passage of the Bill?
I think that there is some kind of politics going on about it in the National Assembly. I believe that the governors of the Niger Delta states as well as ministers from the region should speak to members of the National Assembly from their states to come together and push for the passage of the PIB. If they had done this, by now the PIB would have sailed through the legislative process and be ready for President Buhari to sign it into law. I am convinced that the Buhari administration has shown commitment to dealing with issues concerning the Niger Delta.
One fact that must be recognized is that the PIB is not just about the Niger Delta; it is about Nigeria. Like VP Osinbajo said at one of the town hall sessions he had in the Niger Delta, when the PIB is passed into law, it will provide opportunity for the establishment of modular refineries, which will not be cost intensive as huge refineries of the size built by the federal government in the past. Small groups of indigenous investors can collaborate to set such modular refineries and thereby create more job opportunities. When the PIB becomes law, it will bring unity and cohesion in the country and give hope to the average Niger Delta person or Nigerian.
We have many qualified Nigerian oil industry engineers who lack opportunity to practice what they have learnt. Establishment of more companies will give these Nigerians opportunity to participate in national development through the oil and gas industry. Look at what the Lagos Deep Offshore Limited is doing in the Lekki Free Zone. Today, Nigeria is playing a major role in the fabrication of high-end, oil industry structures, which previously built overseas and then shipped to Nigeria. When the PIB becomes law, the implementation of the local content law will receive a big boost. Therefore the PIB will benefit every Nigerian and just the people of the Niger Delta. Oil production would soon start in the Benue and Chad basin troughs, going by the announcement made the Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Makanti Baru, who told President Buhari that oil had been discovered in the north. Oil has been discovered in Badagry in Lagos State and production activities will commence in earnest before long. So the PIB will not only benefit the Niger Delta. It will benefit all Nigerians. Prompt passage of the PIB is one challenge that I am giving to the President of the Senate, Dr. Abubakar Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara. Passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill is long overdue. The 8th National Assembly should endeavour to pass the PIB before May 29, as a second anniversary gift to Nigerians. That is the minimum expectation of Nigerian entrepreneurs who are rearing to invest in new oil and gas ventures.
There is provision in the PIB that 10 per cent of the revenue will be retained for direct development of host communities where oil exploration and production activities, specifically to develop such communities. This 10 per cent to be set aside is addition to the 13 per cent derivation fund given to oil producing states. Against the background that northern states will benefit from both the derivation fund and the 10 per cent for communities, what then do you think should be the attitude of northern members of the national assembly to the PIB as it is believed that they are opposed to the passage of the PIB?
Well I don’t know about the north opposing the PIB, because they are also Nigerians who will benefit from the passage of the PIB. What I think is the major problem is the question of mobilization and proper lobbying with facts and figures. That is why I feel a little disappointed with members of the National Assembly from the Niger Delta, who are not doing what they should do to make the PIB become law. I think they need to do more lobbying and enlighten their colleagues more on this. The PIB is for all Nigerians and it grow the economy. The 10 per cent provided for in the draft PIB is right because it will affect the communities directly, which have been bearing the brunt of oil exploration and production activities. If you go through some of these communities you will weep when you see the horrendous damage done to these communities by oil exploration and production activities. But I think that with the Buhari administration there is a lot of hope. Once again, I urge the National Assembly to hasten the passage of the PIB. It is long overdue.