Even before the Federal Government unveiled the full details of its contents, the proposed request for emergency economic powers for the president is already generating some fuss in the polity. Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, examines the divides ahead of National Assembly’s resumption on September 13.
Nigeria, according to the National Bureau of statistics (NBS) is in full recession. Then what is the way out? The Senate had asked the minister in July and she sharply responded by saying that the nation must spend its way out of the crisis and stimulate economic activities.
Reports emerging from government indicated last week that one of the measures on the card is the presentation of a draft Emergency powers bill to the National Assembly on resumption this September. Though the details are still being fine-tuned at the topmost echelons of government, it emerged that the government had decided to secure emergency powers to roll back the threat of full recession.
The said Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill 2016 being worked on according to reports, aims at injecting the desired stimulus into the economy. Other objectives of the planned bill include plan to shore up the value of the Naira, creation of more jobs, boosting of foreign reserves, improving the power sector and reviving the manufacturing sector. However, the presidency has denied such proposed bill.
Key components of the reform, according to reports, include fasttracking the procurement process, increasing the volume of money that can be deployed in mobilising contractors to site; and granting the power of virement to the President in areas seen as critical and demanding emergencies.
The planned emergency bill it is speculated, might seek to empower the President to among others, abridge the procurement process via an amendment to the Procurement Act; ensure local contractors are favoured for supplies and contract awards; approve sale or lease of government bridge the process of sale or lease of government assets to generate revenue; allow virement of budgetary allocation to projects seen as urgent, without recourse to the National Assembly; amend the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Act, to reduce States’ counterpart funding and allow states access to over N58 billion lying in its vaults; to reform the Visa Policy at Nigeria’s consular offices and allow for issuance of Visa at points of entry; to amend laws that can compel agencies like the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), the National Agency for Foods Administration and Control (NAFDAC) among others to improve on time of doing business.
Through the proposed bill, the presidency is seeking the power to jack up the 15 per cent mobilisation fees to contractors to 50 per cent rate to ensure quick implementation of contracts.
The Economic Team was said to have realised that the existing Procurement Act constraints the contract award process and that contracts can only get awarded in six months, something they believe is a strain on the budgetary process. Going by the fact that the nation runs a 12-calendar month budget, the procurement laws are seen to have largely reduced the capacity of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) to award contracts within the fiscal year.
The government was also reportedly targeting at least $50 billion through the sale or lease of government assets through the planned emergency powers, which could guarantee quick fixes to the existing procedures.
While the business community appears to be receptive to the plan, a section of the political class as represented by the National Assembly, however, seems to be seeing the plan differently. Even though the debate is yet to be kick started on the floor of the chambers, the senators and members of the House of Representatives are not waiting till resumption before volunteering some views. A number of the lawmakers expressed instant rejection of the plan, while others decided to adopt a wait- and- see attitude.
Some senators, who spoke on the proposed emergency powers to be sought by President Muhammadu Buhari through new bill, said the document may be dead on arrival. The scaring concern of the lawmakers is that the Presidency failed to reciprocate the goodwill of the parliament in recent past and that it could be dangerous to give the President sweeping powers.
Some of the lawmakers also observed that the fact that the President was seeking such powers was a realisation of the lack of cordial relationship between the executive and the legislature. For instance, a lawmaker observed that the parliament had, in recent past, passed amendments to the Public Procurement Act 2007 to ensure purchase of Made in Nigeria goods and favour locally produced goods in the procurement process. The Senate, which passed the amendment, did so after one of its members, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe hosted the Made in Aba Trade Fair as part of his constituency project in Abuja. The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, who was guest of honour at the opening and closing ceremonies of the trade fair, announced the Senate’s readiness to pass amendments to the procurement Act to ensure that goods that can be produced locally are patronised through the budgetary process. That amendment has since been passed by the lawmakers.
A senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the executive and the legislature were working harmoniously, it should be difficult for the handlers in the executive to know that the parliament had already amended the Procurement law.
Other lawmakers insisted that the planned reduction of the counterpart funding of states in the UBEC funds is a clever way of allowing the states to avoid the counterpart funding and only access the funds which could be diverted.
Another Senator said: “We have witnessed the report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), which indicted the state governments for diversion of bail out funds released by this administration for payment of salaries. If that can happen, what would stop the governors from pocketing the UBEC funds once the conditions are lowered?”
Other lawmakers, who spoke against the planned bill, said that granting emergency powers to the President would not only reduce the importance of the legislature; it would also make the President too powerful. “It would amount to killing the entire arm of government which will not augur well for the nation’s democracy,” said a lawmaker.
One of the senators, who spoke on record, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Senator Samuel Anyanwu said that the Senate could consider the bill if it is capable of stimulating the economy. He said that the economy had been badly beaten that it may have to be rescued by all means necessary.
He said: “Anything that would revamp the economy, reduce unemployment and put food on the tables of Nigerians would be supported as you know hunger is everywhere in the country,” adding however, that the plan to empower the President to vire projects already appropriated without recourse to the National Assembly could amount to rubbishing the National Assembly.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Baba Kaka Bashir Garbai, also spoke in favour of the bill, adding that the current state of the economy calls for concerted efforts.
Lawyer and public commentator, Liborus Oschoma, who spoke on the developing situation, said that a deficit of trust between the executive and the legislature could constitute a cog in the wheel of the proposed emergency powers. He stated: “The problem we currently have is one of trust because at every turn in our national life, the government had come out with proposals like this, especially in the disposal of assets as we saw with the Ajaokuta and Aladja steel plants, as well as the power holding companies and the exercise did not achieve its intended aim.
“So, you would excuse the fears being expressed by some people. What the government now needs to do is to continue to give the assurance that the implementation would be adequately monitored.”
While senators and members of the House are viewing the planned emergency powers with suspicion and expressing fear of giving the President “blanket cheque,” the business community appears receptive to the idea. A number of actors in the business sector immediately declared support for the possibility of emergency powers that could drive economic recovery fast.
For instance, the national president of the Nigerian Association of Small Scale Industrialists (NASSI), Mr Ezekiel Essien, said that the business community would queue behind the President’s bid for emergency economic powers, which he said appears long overdue. He said: “Most of our contracts go to foreigners. All the monies go offshore. They only take local people here as carpenters and drivers. The money goes out of the country.”
Also, the President of the National Association of Nigerian Traders, (NANTS, Barrister Ken Ukaoha stated that the government could take extra ordinary steps if it must stabilise the economy. He said: “We must do extraordinary things if we must pull out this economy from the woods and that includes some of the things the president is seeking the National Assembly approval to do.
“For instance, do we need the amount of aircraft we have in the presidential fleet, off course no. And if we need the President to grant waivers for the procurement of a very essential item that would help in propelling the economy, why not?”
In line with the above, the Organised Private Sector (OPS), including the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, (MAN) and the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), have also spoken in favour of the proposed bill, insisting that the economy has to be lifted from the current blues. Director General of the LCCI, Muda Yusuf, noted last week that the economy needed by be fixed with a sense of urgency. He said: “The sense of urgency demonstrated by President Buhari on the need to fix the economy should be acknowledged. It is a welcome development. Although the details of the Economic Stabilization Act are yet to be released, a few indications of the government’s thinking have been reported.
“In my view, some of the issues can be dealt with within the authorities of the executive; while others need legislative actions. I agree with the proposal to fast track the procurement process in order to quickly activate the stimulus spending by government.
The President of MAN, Dr Frank Udemba Jacobs, also said that drastic measures must be taken to give the economy the right direction. He said of the planned emergency powers: “It’s a step in the right direction. Something drastic has to be done by the government to rescue the economy from total collapse.”
The debate is sure to acquire more divergence when the bill eventually find its way to the chambers of the legislature. The legislature would be torn between taking a purely economic decision in a largely politicized environment. And they are sure to grapple with the question; to be or not to be?