Port Harcourt — Of all the things I have heard about the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) the most intriguing came from the 62nd birthday celebrations of the Senate President, Dr. Ahmed Lawan. In between the happy birthday wining and dining, Lawan turned his attention to the seemingly interminable journey of the PIB through the legislative process since 2008, and blamed it on the machinations of demons. “PIB is like a demon,” the celebrant declared. “People both within and outside the country are ready to work against it as they have been doing for the past fourteen years but the 9th Senate and by extension, 9th National Assembly, will defeat the demon with the current bill before both Chambers.” Dr. Lawan (he holds a PhD in Remote Sensing/GIS) should know what he is talking about. The man started his legislative career in 1999 in the House of Representatives, from where he has been a Senator representing Yobe North Constituency since 2007. He was elected Senate President of the 9th National Assembly on June 11, 2019. Indeed, we should pay attention when this distinguished senator speaks.
We don’t know the source of his conclusion on the role of demons on the fate of the PIB. This executive bill is perhaps the most famous piece of legislation in the history of modern Nigeria because it deals with a resource that is the backbone of our economy. Without oil, Nigeria will be in trouble. The government says that, without PIB, the oil and industry, as we know it will not fulfill the aspirations of the people. The PIB was first introduced in 2008, reviewed many times, re-introduced in 2012, and re-introduced yet again by the Buhari administration on September 28, 2020. To bring it home, the PIB has been in the legislative works for 12 years, the time it would have taken for your newborn baby to be in senior secondary school! So, was Dr. Lawan trying to make sense of the long stretch or was he speaking from spiritual insight? I will find out if I ever meet him.
We cannot however, deny the senate president’s frustration. Why has the PIB stayed so long on the shelves? The reason is simple: The bill is a victim of the sins it set out to curb. There has been a formidable collision of interests on the intentions and fate of the bill because it means different things to different people. The oil majors eye it with suspicion because it will fundamentally alter the playing field, and with the wave of resource nationalism now sweeping across many landscapes, these IOCs fear the wind will be contrary to their fortunes. To the Federal Government, the PIB is about making more money from oil and gas operations. To the communities who have borne the brunt of oil and gas exploration and exploitation, the PIB is the silver bullet that will transport them to the land of equity, justice and righteousness. As long as these three concentric circles continue to fall victim to centrifugal rather than centripetal forces, our beloved PIB will continue to languish in legislative halls in Abuja. Which is to say all of us are beholden of the demons.
Before you get offended at my suggestion that you are demon-possessed, let me remind you of what happened at the public hearing on the PIB called by the House of Representatives January 25 – 26 this year. The main talking point was the equity to host communities from oil and gas operations, which the Federal Government pegged at 2.5%. But a body known as Host Communities of Nigeria Producing Oil and Gas (Hostcon) wants 10%, in order, they say, to compensate for the years of degradation the people of the Niger Delta have suffered from oil and gas operations. Just when you thought the communities will marshal their arguments and effectively lobby the legislators to their stand, the community representatives who travelled to Abuja to attend the hearing instead turned against each other. In scenes reminiscent of championship boxing duels, community leaders in colourful traditional robes tore into each other. Thanks to television journalists, we watched the show in the safety of our living homes. I recoiled in horror as one combatant pummeled a fellow community member to the hallowed grounds of the lower chamber, leaving him dazed and disoriented with well-aimed blows. The way he did it must have left onlookers and me wondering whether this was a professional boxer or an innocent community man suffering from oil spills. When the man on the floor was helped to his feet, it was as if he didn’t realise where he was or what hit him. Trust me, I’m not making this up! The shameful show has quickly become the latest episode in the PIB saga.
I don’t know if the senate president watched the show, but it would appear his revelation has been confirmed. The demons have continued with their nefarious work, successfully tempting community people to forget about their agenda and fight themselves instead. Wicked demons indeed! What worries me is that, in the unlikely event that the legislators hide from the demons and pass the PIB, the Niger Delta should be ready for fights that are more tragic, because this time, it will be about the real thing. If community people can exchange blows instead of ideas in a debate about money, what do you think will happen when the money arrives in shiny bank notes? Dr. Lawan has assured us that the PIB will be passed in Q1 this year. I thought I would be happy to hear this, but I’m afraid. Let us first exorcise the demons so we don’t set off another bloodbath in the Niger Delta.