Ali Ahmad is a member of the House of Representatives, representing Ilorin East/South federal constituency. The Chairman, House Committee on Justice, who chaired the just concluded North-East Zonal Public Hearing on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) in this interview, stressed the need to fine-tune the Bill to protect the environment. Excerpts:
How would you assess the just concluded zonal public hearing on the PIB?
It is a testimony to the commitment of the National Assembly to involve every stakeholder in the formulation of bills, especially the important ones like the PIB. It is important to let every Nigerians make inputs in the bill- what they view about it. Their views will be reflected in the collation. I mean the aggregate views of Nigerians on the issues they canvassed on the bill.
It has been observed that major stakeholders are concerned about their personal interests above the national interest on the debate on the bill. Where do you think this will place the aggregate interest of the masses?
We have issues that have regional coloration rather than national long-term benefit for Nigerians. This is, however, democracy and there is nothing we can do about that. If you bring the regional issues, then you have to collate them together. Whichever one that becomes the majority view will be seen.
For example, on the percentage for the host community issue, when you have laws that are working, when you have strict enforcement of environmental standard, when you have justice, there would not be any need for 10 percent for the host communities because it would be seen as a national issue. But because our laws are not working, we leave the oil companies to degrade the environment and leave the poor people to suffer. They should be responsible enough to take care of the corrections. They feel the system is not taking care of them. So, they demand 10 percent. You cannot blame them. We will now aggregate their demands for 10 percent with inputs from other zones. If at all they may not get the 10 percent, we will need to shore up our laws to ensure that the minimum standard of environmental enforcement will be maintained.
Are you saying that you prefer shoring up the provisions of the law to payment of percentage for the host communities?
Such a measure will have a long term effect and it will be fundamental. In other countries, you don't find this type of sectional demand like this 10 percent or the frontier service. If you have a country that is up and running, you do not need to have a commission for this. Whether it is a unit or desk, it would go all out to explore oil. But people fear that if it is not a commission, whoever is there, president or minister would starve it of fund. It all boils down on one point that we do not implement our laws.
These oil companies are degrading our environment with impunity. Yet, they do not want to comply with our fiscal terms. But when they go out of the country, they do the right thing. When they pollute the environment in other countries, they remediate the degradation without anybody telling them. They know that if they don't do it, they would do it later. When the government does it for them, they know it would be more expensive. They know whether by accident or sabotage, they must do it. Later, we can determine whether it is accident. If it is accident, then you are more liable. If it is sabotage, government can even compensate you and find out the criminals. The bottom line for all these distractions is that our laws are not faithfully implemented and until we do that, we will continue to have this sectional push.
Do you agree with those people who believe that the PIB is of less value to the North?
I do not agree. Their reason is that they are not oil producing states. You can fault that because today they are not oil producing, but no one knows tomorrow. They, may be, become oil producing states. They have the potentials as investigations have shown. The PIB is not for the South-South. It is for the whole country and laws are passed for permanent usage and not for sections of the country.
Is the PIB all-encompassing enough to cater for all the divergent concerns and unforeseen circumstances?
You can find out that lots of people are not talking about the environmental issue, which to me is very fundamental. People are talking about how to get more money and how not to lose more money. The environmental provisions are not adequate enough. There are contradictions here and there which need to be cleared. For example, which agency should be the frontline in enforcing environmental standard in the oil industry? We have the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), and then the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), which will metamorphose into another agency. According to the PIB, it should be an agency under the ministry of petroleum that should be enforcing standard. The problem with that is that the ministry will be the one setting the standard, formulating the policy, implementing the policy, and at the same time, penalising the operators.
People are asking "why don't you locate those who will enforce this standard in another agency?". You will call these oil companies that you are setting the standard for after having established familiarity with them. If they degrade the environment, you will not have the courage or temerity to go against them. But if there is another agency whose priority is the environment, they can call them to order like in other countries. You do not locate the environmental standard industry within the oil ministry.
I know of the EPA and the Exxon Mobil spill that occurred. The enforcement of the clearing was done by the EPA in America. It is environmental protection generally. People are saying we have to amend the PIB to prioritise environment. But the ministry officials do not want that. It depends on Nigerians to determine which is one is better for the country. Should the enforcement of environmental standard be placed under the oil ministry or NESREA or NOSDRA?
There is this observation that the Minister is wielding too much power. Because of this, there has been a call that such powers as contained in the PIB should be whittled down by making the minister accountable to the National Assembly, especially as it relates to allocation and revocation of oil licenses and oil blocks. Is this not another ploy by the National Assembly to control the oil sector?
Sections 5 and 6 touch the powers of the minister. The sentiment is not mine, but that of the people of the North-East. The Speaker of the Gombe House of Assembly was very vehement about it. This view that the power of the minister is too much has been expressed almost everywhere. Being that as it may, there could be some argument for or against that if you have a very powerful minister. He or she would steer the ship of oil industry towards a good course. But if you have another minister that is less than equitable, this is where there would be problem. For good governance, irrespective of what the PIB says, you don't give excessive power to an individual. That is a fundamental principle of good governance.
If it is good governance that we want, what is the whole purpose of dividing the power of governance into three; executive, legislature and judiciary. Before, we had emperors who were too powerful. It was resolved that power be devolved and check and balance is put in place. If what we want is to make the person to report to the President or the Federal Executive Council (FEC), who then is the minister, or the FEC? People are saying let us subject this minister's power to another external authority. So, some are saying let that external body be the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). But the minister might not want to subject himself or herself to a parastatal like NEITI. So, there is need for an authority that is "super-ministerial". The supervisory body may not be the National Assembly. But for me, what is fundamental is that you do not concentrate power in the hands of an individual. It is better to give such role to an institution. So, if you ask me, I would say give it to NEITI. They are independent and NEITI has demonstrated its capability.
What would you say on the fear that the report on PIB may not be actionable?
The PIB is a mega Bill. But it is still a bill that needs to pass through the process, including the public hearing. I assure that the report of the North-East would be ready in two weeks and submitted to the main committee. I am sure that within a month or two, we would have the report of our national exercise for Nigerians.