54 laws to empower Nigerians

The Eighth Senate has repeatedly stated that its legislative agenda is anchored on  three legs. They are economic revival, social development and youth employment. The choice of issues must have resulted from the current situation in the country. Since the present administration in Nigeria came into office, the price of oil, the nation’s economic mainstay has been at its lowest. The fall in price occurred when the foreign reserve had been seriously depleted, thereby causing social dislocation in a population that has been weaned on foreign goods. As expected, the economic downturn has imperilled small businesses.

For a new regime taking office under this economic difficulty, the people’s expectations had hit the sky. While the executive arm battle with fulfilling its numerous promises and meeting the high expectations, the legislature felt compelled to provide legislative backing for the efforts to put the economy back to shape. It therefore agreed to focus on using legislations to reform and revive the economy.

According to a report by the World Bank in 2013, 90 percent of jobs in a developing economy like Nigeria are provided by the private sector. This reality therefore means the government needs to focus on helping the private sector to grow in leaps and bounds in order for people to be put to work and for the gross domestic product to rise.

To do this, government policies must seek to create a vibrant business environment where serious and hardworking private enterprises can develop. This, according to a report submitted to Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, by a team of expert-advisers, is because “with firms making investments, creating jobs and increasing productivity, there is a greater opportunity for inclusive growth”.

The report noted that Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are the engine of job creation in Nigeria and there are 37 million of them currently operating in the country, contributing almost 50 percent of the nation’s GDP in nominal terms and providing 84.02 percent of all available jobs. It is, therefore, incumbent on government to provide the right atmosphere for these small businesses to grow.

The government is expected to give clear, proactive and strategic direction that will enable serious and hardworking, existing MSMEs to thrive and new ones to be created. It is believed that to develop the private sector, it is not only macro-economic factors that need to be worked on but also the quality of laws, regulations and institutional arrangements that shape the daily lives of people. The role of the legislature in this new thinking, therefore, is central. The lawmakers are expected to review and reform the laws, use their oversight powers to monitor compliance with the laws and advocate attitudinal changes in government agencies.

The 8th Senate in order to position itself to play these key roles set up an advisory body of experts under the aegis of Adam Smith Consultants. The team was led by a professor of law and senior advocate, Prof. Paul Idornigie. Other members are Leonard Ugbajah, Eberechi Mary Okon and Isaiah Bozimo. The setting up of the team was mainly inspired by the World Bank Ease of Doing Business annual report 2016 which placed Nigeria 169 from the list of 189 countries surveyed. In 2008, the report placed Nigeria 114th out of 183. In 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, Nigeria was ranked 118th, 125th, 133, 133rd, 131st and 170th respectively.

The World Bank report considers relative ease or difficulty of beginning and operating a small to medium size business while complying with existing laws and regulations. The experts contracted to advise the Senate did a diagnostic review of current and proposed laws relevant to the business environment in the country, including the procurement law, competition laws, company laws, investment laws, finance and contract laws. After extensive consultations with operators in the private sector, the experts identified major legislative gaps and deficiencies in these legal frameworks and recommended priority legislative areas which require urgent interventions.

They used the survey research method to get private sector people to identify main challenges and constraints confronting the operation of MSMEs. These include lack of finance, weak infrastructure, inconsistent government policies, lack of support, lack of work space, and multiple taxation.

One of their recommendations therefore include establishment of a Federal Legislative Clearing House to reconcile differences and inconsistencies as well as to scrutinise and review bills before presentation to the respective chambers for first reading. They also seek for the National Assembly to always avoid multiple agencies with overlapping or conflicting mandates.

They also recommended the passage of an Independent Warehouse Regulatory Agency Bill with the aim of solving the challenge of collateral by allowing businesses to securitise their commercial warehouse receipts. There is also expected to be sponsored a Secured Transactions in Movable Assets Bill which will establish a National Collateral Registry. The group also proposed that a National Development Bank of Nigeria Bill which seeks to consolidate the operations of development finance institutions ( Bank of Industry, Bank of Commerce and Industry and National Economic Reconstruction Fund).

The experts also suggested the establishment of a National Legislative Forum to constantly facilitate dialogue between federal and state governments and between different state governments with a view to modernising and harmonising laws, regulations and practices affecting the business environment. The Senate was also advised to improve commercial dispute resolution through different means like creating courts solely devoted to commercial matters, review of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 2007 and encouragement of more states to create the Multi-Door Court houses to encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution option.

The Senate was also advised to simplify the process of payment of taxes and eliminate multiple taxation, review all laws relating to businesses and determine whether they are consistent with international best practices, the extent to which they provide a conducive environment for the operation of private sector enterprises, especially MSMEs, the degree of transparency in their operations and whether they prevent arbitrariness.

In all, the team of experts recommended that 54 existing laws need to be attended to by the federal legislature to leap-frog the economy. Twenty-eight of them are top priority, five are rated medium while 21 are tagged low priority.

The high priority laws include Arbitration and Conciliation Act, Coastal and Shipping (Cabotage Act), Companies and Allied Matters Act, Companies Income Tax Act, Copyright Act, Federal Highway Act, Federal Inland  Revenue Service Act, Fiscal Responsibility Act, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (Establishment) Act, Investment and Securities Act, Mortgage Institutions Act, National Information Technology Development  Agency Act, Nigerian Civil Aviation Act and  Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority Act.

Other top priority laws to be quickly revised are Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission Act, Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Act, Nigerian Ports Authority Act, Nigerian Railway Corporation Act, Patents and Designs Act, Petroleum Act, Petroleum Profits Act, Public Procurement Act, Taxes and Levies Act and Trade Marks Act.

Already, the Senate has started implementing the recommendations. For example the Public Procurement Act and the Nigerian Railway Corporation Act have been comprehensively reviewed and new laws passed. Amendments to or new version of the remaining aforementioned priority laws  are already being considered and are at various stages of passage in the red chamber of the federal legislature.

The implication is that the current Senate is determined to use laws to jump-start the economy and lift it out of the current ‘technical recession’ in which Nigeria has found Itself.

Olaniyonu is Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to the Senate President.