When the 9th National Assembly was inaugurated recently, it signaled the commencement of 21st year of the Nigerian legislature since the return to democracy on May 29, 1999. The first set of lawmakers was inaugurated in June 1999.
Thus, the current lawmakers have effectively commenced their term which expires in 2023.
The nation’s maritime sector has been a beneficiary of democracy through the instrumentality of the National Assembly’s various committees and their oversight functions. But at the onset of the democratic experience in 1999, stakeholders (especially port operators) who were not used to what was initially perceived as meddlesomeness on the part of the legislature had kicked against the frequent visitations by the lawmakers, who often come calling; albeit, in the name of performing oversight functions.
But, all that have changed as stakeholders now see the legislature as partners in progress. The lawmakers also see stakeholders as co-travellers. The relationship has blossomed to the extent that the National Assembly; especially the successive marine transport committees of both chambers do rely on informed suggestions from stakeholders at their public hearings as veritable instruments in the law-making process.
Since 1999, the National Assembly has enacted some key bills, such as: the NIMASA Act, Cabotage Act and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding Act.
But, there are some equally important Bills that are at various stages of enactment at both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They are: Port and Harbour Bill, Chartered Institute of Shipping of Nigeria Bill, Maritime Zone Bill and the Anti-piracy Bill, among others. They have all been subjected to the mandatory first and second readings and have also been subjected to public hearing at various times.
Fact is- the last National Assembly didn’t do well for the maritime sector. The importance of these bills can not be over-emphasised as they are as critical to the engendering of a more robust maritime sector as the ones that have been passed previously.
For instance, the Port Harbour Bill (which ought to have been enacted alongside the 2006 port concession programme) is still pending at both chambers. This is most painful because the Bill would have created an independent port regulatory agency; the absence of which is currently causing friction among providers and users of port services in Nigeria.
While we acknowledge that, although public hearings are not mandatory pre-requisites in the process of enacting a Bill, we recall vividly that the 6th House of Representatives held public hearings for all the Bills, during which the views of all stakeholders were collated and subsequently reflected in the final drafts, which became Acts.
Sadly, there was no such during in the life of the Seventh and Eight Assemblies. While the lower chamber may enjoy some measure of sympathy from stakeholders over the bills, we are very sure that the Senate is fast losing its respect on account of its apparent nonchalant attitude towards the various maritime sector bills.
A few examples will suffice here. In the Sixth Assembly, the House held public hearings on the Port and Harbour Bill, Chartered Institute of Shipping of Nigeria Bill, Maritime Zone Bill and the Maritime Security Agency Bill. It has passed the Maritime Security Agency bill, while the remaining bills were awaiting final clause-by-clause considerations. On the contrary, the Senate never showed any seriousness in the handling of these bills, except the feeble attempt to deliberate on the Maritime Security Agency bill.
At the twilight of the Sixth National Assembly, concerted efforts were made by maritime sector stakeholders to persuade the lawmakers to consider these bills, but to no avail.
The Seventh Assembly didn’t fare any better, and even though it created more committees for the ‘comfort’ of its members , the Eight Assembly spent most of its time on oversight visits and bickering.
It is our expectation that the incumbent legislators will demonstrate more seriousness in the quest to enhance the fortunes of the Nigerian maritime sector by accelerating the consideration of the outstanding bills.
Even though its yet to constitute its committees, we do hope that they would look at the books and kick-off from where the Eight Assembly stopped, because the immediate past Assembly didn’t adequately register its presence in the maritime sector.
The committees were more after things other than the common good of the maritime sector. Otherwise, why would the National Assembly fail to either pass of thrown out the Ports and Harbour Bill, about 13 years after the ports were concessioned? The task before the Ninth National Assembly is to dare to be different. Just as this newspaper noted for their predecessors, the achievement of the Ninth National Assembly will be judged by the level of impact that they are able to bring to bear on the maritime sector.
As much as we align with the need to pass the Port and Harbour Bill, perhaps the Ninth National Assembly should first preoccupy itself with a revisit to the National Transport Commission (NTC) Bill, which the President refused to assent to in the Eight Assembly.
Our preference is therefore, the NTC Bill and the Piracy Bill and the Nigeria Maritime University Bill.
The NTC Bill will enable the nation’s transport sector to have a regulator in the real sense of it. It really does not matter whether an agency transmutes or not. The National Assembly will do well to look at the clauses and provisions which the President frowns at, rejig them and represent for his assent.
The same applies to the Maritime University Bill, wherein the President has also sighted some clauses that need to be reworked.
Finally, if the Ninth National Assembly is desirous of a good legacy, it should work on the Anti-piracy Bill so as to safe the nation from the embarrassment of the incessant attacks on ships and cargo and crew on the nation’s waters.
We will judge these present lawmakers by the impact they can make on the nation’s maritime sector. Their success or otherwise will depend largely on the membership of the marine and related committees.