National Assembly And Private Sector Operators

By Olukorede Yishau

There is an interesting legal tussle unfolding in Nigeria. The plaintiffs are members of the Organised Private Sector of Nigeria (OPSN). The defendant is the National Assembly. The crux of the matter is the incessant invitations and summon of its members, and investigations of the activities of private business concerns. The OPSN comprises the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria (MAN), the Nigeria Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA), the National Association of Small-Scale Industrialist (NASSI), National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (NASME) and the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA). These bodies consider these actions of the National Assembly worrisome. So, they are asking the court to determine the constitutionality, scope and extent of Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution on businesses in the private sector.

“The crux of the matter is the determination of the extent of legislative investigatory powers as contained in Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution, especially how it applies to businesses in the private sector. The case also challenged the grounds relied upon by the committees to invite companies in the private sector.

“We had written severally to the committees informing them that their action is not only a distraction to organised businesses, but also a usurpation of the powers and responsibilities of the executive arm of government.

“Our understanding of the powers conferred on lawmakers by Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution is for the exercise of oversight functions on public sector agencies. We, honestly, cannot find any support in the aforementioned sections for investigations of private companies.

“In our view, the legislature cannot make law and supervise its execution. We strongly believe that the intended investigation falls within the prerogative of the executive arm of the federal government. This is based on the doctrine of separation of powers in Nigeria.

“If the National Assembly’s committees have issues with the way and manner the executive arm is carrying out its responsibilities of ensuring compliance to various laws and regulations, their focus of investigation should be directed at the relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government rather than the private sector,” they said.

I have always wondered if the National Assembly has the kind of power to carry out investigations on private businesses, and issue them directives and ultimatum. So, this is a case I will closely monitor.

I have also been bothered that in a country faced with gargantuan challenges, its lawmakers feel what they should prioritise are issues such as a private company’s decision to hike its tariff at a time the cost of running businesses has hit the roof. It seems lost on the lawmakers that with our economy contracting so badly, we must keep it in mind that the global market for foreign direct investment is highly competitive and, to tap into it, we must position ourselves strategically, and avoid conducts that project us as unreasonable and wedded to the long-discredited idea of communism.

From time to time, the National Assembly, through its committees, probes private businesses and issues directives, such as asking them to pay compensation to a community or individual, and so on. This has always made me wonder if the lawmakers have become law courts which look into disputes between host communities and firms operating in them.

Recently, the Senate directed the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited to pay N18.4 billion to 73 communities and 200 families in Bonny, Rivers State, within two months, for acquiring their land for pipelines’ Right of Way. It followed the adoption of the Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions that investigated a petition from the communities.

We have seen courts determine cases between oil giants and host communities. It is strange to me to see the National Assembly playing this role. It will be good to see how the court rules in this case instituted by the private sector operators.

Among others, there is a private company our lawmakers are unable to hide their fixation with. Any time it makes an announcement that it is raising tariffs on its platforms, citing grim economic factors that are in plain sight, one arm or the other of the National Assembly has frothed with anger, with members eager to wear the toga of the defender of the universe. In 2016, under Dr Bukola Saraki, there was an attempt to dictate how much the private company should charge for its services. The House of Representatives toed the same line last year.

In one instance, the Senate, in a statement ordered the return to the old prices, claiming it acted “in tandem with the prevailing reality of the economic situation in Nigeria” as well as the adoption of the pay-per-view billing model. This gives the impression that the firm is immune to the “prevailing reality of the economic situation in Nigeria”.

Also observed is similar insouciance about how private businesses will remain afloat if tariffs charged are not economic reality-reflective. Does it matter if obeying the orders of the lawmakers could send the businesses out of business? Does the National Assembly have the power to legislate what a private business should do? Are private businesses shielded from the economic factors that drive up operational costs and, ultimately, everything else?

This is not a time to allow unnecessary squabble kill the few thriving investments we have. For me, the moves of the lawmakers are at variance with the much-talked-about ease of doing business mantra of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Coming at a time when the economy is in trouble and we need FDI, we might end up making potential investors stay far away from our shores. Actions taken without giving a fair hearing to the parties involved can send wrong signals to potential investors, which we need badly to save our economy and move millions out of poverty!

What should occupy the attention of the National Assembly now is how to secure the country, how to arrest conditions that drive up prices of goods and services, how to get the Executive branch of government accountable and responsible, how to stop terrorists in different parts of the country, and how to legislate for the people and the people alone. The Senate also needs to be worried about these facts: How can the majority of the citizens of a country so rich in natural resources live in hardship and poverty? How can access to electricity, which is critical for development, be an issue? How can our people be perpetually afraid of kidnappers, terrorists and vagabonds in power? How can we be losing over 95 per cent of oil production to thieves? How can the Bonny Terminal, which should be receiving over 200,000 barrels of crude oil daily, be receiving less than 3,000 barrels? These are the questions United Bank for Africa (UBA) chair Tony Elumelu raised recently in a series of tweets. The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) General Overseer Pastor Enoch Adeboye also raised issues around security and others some days back.

My final take: The private sector operators have acted well by asking the court to determine whether or not the National Assembly has the powers to incessantly invite them, probe their activities and order them to make one payment or the other. This is a case that should be seen to logical conclusion. If need be, it should go up to the Supreme Court so that it can be settled once and for all.

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