15 November 2012

Nigeria: Wrong Ways to Lobby


Many Nigerians are aware that money changed hands during the debate in the National Assembly for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution that would have ratified Obasanjo's third term bid. In April, this year, while signing the 2012 Appropriation Act, President Goodluck said he would sack heads of government agencies that lobbied the National Assembly for an increment in their budgetary allocations.

Also, some billionaire debtors, whose firms, directors and shareholders were barred from securing further loans from banks in the country, in September this year, according to reports, "commenced intense lobbying of politicians and senior government officials to force the Central Bank of Nigeria to repeal its directive".

With the proliferation of sabre-rattling groups disguised as lobby groups wanting to influence government decisions, the "Lobbying and Lobbyists Conference" put together this week by the National Assembly could not have been better timed.

Despite the outdated term, lobbying still works. Others prefer to call it advocacy. There is always a tendency to use these terms interchangeably, though they have different meanings and involve different processes. Coined from the old days when those who wanted to influence legislators would camp out in the lobbies of legislative buildings, lobbying allows influence peddlers to pitch their piece.

While nuances and major techniques may have changed in time, the objective remains the same: present information to affect legislation and public policies. In contemporary Nigeria, lobbying and the lobbyists have assumed a somewhat negative connotation. It is seen by most people as the real metaphor for corruption.

Each time executive bills or specialised ones go to the legislature, many assume that it has to be "pushed" and legislators have to be "settled" in order for it to pass through the legislative process. This is not only wrong but negates the very principle of good governance and at variance with global best practices.

While lobbying is a legitimate practice in modern democracies, because it improves policy making by providing valuable insights and data, it has to be ethically managed because it could confer unfair advantages on vested interests if the process is opaque.

Many countries consider or develop guidelines and rules requiring disclosure on communications between public officials and lobbyists. Lobbyists, in sane democracies, equally recognise the damaging public perception of undue influence-peddling. It gave birth to the Lobbyist Declaration Act in the US.

The European Union has the European Transparency Initiatives to guide the conduct of lobbyists. Nigeria needs to restructure the practice as a well-regulated industry in tandem with constitutional guarantees of rights to free speech, assembly, and petition to government. It is not acceptable for Ghana-must-go bags to become a recurring decimal in policy lobbying.

Where lobbying is slurred by resort to brigandage and other unorthodox underhand tactics such as militancy, terrorism, blackmail, ethnicism or religion to force the arms of government to yield to sectional, economic, political or institutional interests, as in Nigeria, it weakens democracy. And it is an open recipe for chaos. These despicable practices underscore the need to regulate the industry.

We look forward to a mechanism that would engender a corps of expert technicians capable of examining complex and difficult subjects in clear, understandable fashion through personal but ethical engagement in personal discussion with members of national and state assemblies in which they explain in detail the reasons for the positions they advocate.

Since our legislative representation is based upon geographical boundaries, the lobbyists who speak for the various economic, commercial and other functional interests of the country should put the nation first. We advocate harsh penalty for aberrant behaviour bordering on corruption, treason or ill-will.

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