Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Senate and the Oil Lobby

It is a story of allegations, denials and a promised investigation, but also one of questions and lessons. When the Punch Newspaper reported that “Oil companies operating in Nigeria might have compromised members of the National Assembly and the labour unions to shoot down the reforms planned for the oil and gas industry,” the story also contained denials by representatives of Labour and the National Assembly.
One would have thought that the story about the trip of 10 Senators to Ghana would end there, but it didn’t. On May 14, Dr. Emmanuel Egbogah claimed he was misrepresented and apologized to the National Assembly. He was at an investigative interaction with the House of Representatives’ Committees on Petroleum Upstream and Petroleum Downstream.
Last week, Egbogah followed this up with a newspaper advertorial to apologise to the National Assembly.
The sponsors of the trip, the Oil Producers Trade Section of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, are silent over the issue, but the Punch Newspaper has also published the full interview with Egbogah.
Asked what he felt about “government’s reaction to criticism by the oil companies concerning the reforms”, Egbogah was quoted as saying “We know what they are doing and we cannot be intimidated. They are carrying campaigns, bringing the senators to Ghana and feed them, going to the labour people to bribe them and say that this reform will kill you and all that nonsense. We cannot allow them to continue like this. We will take our destiny into our hands and Nigerians will begin to see the benefits.”
For a lengthy interview as published in the Punch on May 17, the reporter must have recorded it. We believe that the recorded interview will go a long way in clearing the air.
But of greater importance to us is the confirmation that the 10 senators were indeed sponsored to Ghana for briefing. The Senate confirmed as much when after a show of anger over the allegations in its hallowed chambers, its spokesman, Senator Ayogu Eze said they were unhappy about the trip.
He said, “I need to say clearly that we have found out unfortunately and regrettably that there was an attempt by some private sector organisations to lobby members of the National Assembly on the bill that is before the National Assembly and we found out today that some members of the National Assembly did go to Ghana.
“We are also not very happy with the development because section 21 of our standing rules specifies categorically that before you can travel abroad for whatever reason, you must write to the leadership of the Senate… The committee or the individuals that are involved never wrote to the leadership, never informed us, so we are completely in the dark about the people who made the trip”.
There is no evidence that the 10 Senators were bribed, but we are aware that sponsors of such trips are responsible for their tickets, choice accommodation and feeding and sundry expenses. Even if this is described as lobbying, and not bribery, we are concerned that it is a case of conflict of interest.
The briefing in Ghana may have made the 10 senators better informed about oil and gas operations in Nigeria, and obviously the oil companies’ position on the oil and gas sector reforms, which their chief executives have been speaking publicly about.
But assuming that it was proper; couldn’t it have held in Nigeria? As Senators, they should not only be proud of their country, but also show oil company executives, some of who are expatriates, that this is a great country. In some other oil –producing countries, they dare not engage legislators in this manner.
This issue has also brought to the fore the quality of legislative assistants some of our Senators have employed with the tax payer’s money. Elsewhere, legislative assistants are highly competent people, educated enough to conduct research into various subjects and prepare authoritative briefs for their bosses to use on the floors of the national assembly. With this quality of assistants, lawmakers do not need the kind of compromising briefing as the case in point.
The practice is also an opportunity to train future politicians, who learn how the legislature works on the job.
We commend the position of the Senate on the issue and wish to advise that they take the lessons therein seriously.