By Yunusa Sariki
In spite of opposition, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr Niyi Adebayo, has fixed July 15, 2020, to commence talks and modalities for the handover of the five `Oil and Gas’ Free Trade Zones under the control of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones (NEPZA).
Adebayo is kick starting the process in spite of a pending suit in the Federal High Court, Lagos; National Assembly’s resolution; and stakeholders’ caution against transfer.
Some ‘Oil and Gas’ Free Zones seeking judicial intervention in the alleged attempt by Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority, OGEFZA, to regulate the ‘oil and gas’ free zones operations had described the plan as “contemptuous’’ having dragged OGEFZA, the ministry and the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) to court in respect of the planned deal.
The plaintiffs are seeking to know whether by the clear provisions of the Nigeria Export Processing Zone Act, Cap No. 107, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, should be regulated by the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA) being the Authority vested with the administration of the Authority and management of all the Export Processing Zones.
The contention is also that the zone purported revised law by the National Assembly was false as it was not passed by the 8th assembly before their tenure came to a close and has remained so.
The ministry in a letter dated July 7 and signed by Mr S.A Audu, Director Commodities and Export Department, on behalf of the minister, had directed the five ‘oil and gas’ free zones to unfailingly appear at the ministry on July 15 to commence discussion on the lingering misunderstanding concerning the regulation of the free zone areas.
The letter had identified the interpretation of the provisions of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority Act Cap 107, LFN 2010 and the Oil/Gas Export Free Zone Act Cap 5, LFN as the contentious issue to be re-opened.
This development has been criticized by a cross section of stakeholders who spoke on the condition of anonymity on July 10, 2020 in Abuja.
The stakeholders described the continuous disregard of the rule of law by the minister as a setback for President Muhammadu Buhari’s government that is passionate on repositioning the country’s justice system.
They also said Adebayo was not fair to Prof. Adesoji Adesugba, the new Managing Director of NEPZA, who assumed office on July 1 after his appointment was approved on June 26.
“The question is why now, when the new Managing Director of NEPZA is yet to settle down and properly get briefed on the challenges and prospects of the agency.
“The ministry should see this as a total distraction on someone who is just taking an important government agency in the ministry. This act of the ministry to the Prof. Adesugba amounts to attempting to service a plane 15 mins after it take off.”
Furthermore, it is an attempt to ambush the new MD into signing and transferring the 5 targeted ‘Oil & Gas’ Free Zones after failing to intimidate and railroad the immediate past Acting MD of the Authority, Mr. Bitrus Dawuk to do their biddings.
“Meanwhile, the Senate had earlier kicked against the acclaimed interpretation to Onne Oil/Gas Free Zone Authority Act 1996 that gave impetus to the agency current contemplation to take over some free zones approved and managed by NEPZA.
“The Senate Committee on Industry, Trade and Investment had described the purported interpretation given to the OGEFZA Act by two former Attorney General of the Federation as “unjustifiable’’ and not in line with actual intention of the law. The stakeholders said.
The senate committee pointed out that nothing meaningful could be achieved in this direction if the OGEFZA’s Act was not amended, adding that the minister’s effort was in futility.
“The reawakening of this issue now is of serious concern to stakeholders. The ministry should be more concerned with the template of the new MD of NEPZA on ways of growing the free zone scheme. Prof. Adesugba should remain circumspect and remain resolute by not allowing himself to be used to achieve this inordinate pursuit,’’ they also said.
The stakeholders are of the view that the ministry should rather be interested in redefining the nation’s free zone scheme bedevilled with lots of challenges instead of fanning the ember of hate and confusion between two sister agencies.
“The renewal of the saga of transferring the five Oil and Gas zones to OGEFZA by the minister is totally against the growth of the scheme and the attention of President Muhammadu Buhari must be quickly brought to this,’’ a stakeholder said.
“The stakeholders are wondering if there is something the ministry is seeing in this transfer of zones which operators of the affected zones that have consistently refused the planned action are not seeing.
“There must be more than meets the eye on this matter. But it beholds on the ministry to come out straight to explain to Nigerians why the hastiness of interpretation of 2008 & 2014, when the Federal Government had given directive for the two agencies to be merged.
“As a matter of fact, the agenda of the proposed meeting is before several Federal High Courts in Lagos and we are waiting to see if the President Buhari would continue to wait and allow his lieutenants to desecrate the justice system freely,’’ another stakeholder said.
Further questions asked by stakeholders include, if the legal opinion from the Attorney General office can be referred to as the Law.
Can the opinion of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice supersede the decision of the Federal Executive Council EC(2002)/173 issued in the year 2002 and reiterated in 2006?
Furthermore, has the Federal Executive Council at any time reversed its earlier resolution of 2002? Does the Executive arm of Government possess the power to unilaterally alter the law to change the name of an agency created by an Act of the National Assembly without going back to the National Assembly to effect this?
The free zones the agency is fighting to assume control of are Ladol Free Trade Zone Lagos, Dangote Free Trade Zone Lagos, Olokola Free Trade Zone Ogun, and Tomaro Free Trade Zone, Lagos.
Sen. Ade Francis Fadahunsi, Acting Chairman of the Senate Committee, on Trade and Investment had led Sen. Nakudu Sabo Mohammed and Sen. Yusuf. A. Yusuf, to conduct hearing session with top management of OGEFZA led by its Managing Director, Umana Umana on June 18.
During the session, Fadahunsi, while giving the committee’s resolutions, said nothing meaningful could be achieved from OGEFZA’s struggle to take over free zones being regulated and managed by NEPZA if the OGEFZA’s Act of 1996 was not amended.
“The legal interpretations given by the Office of the Attorney General to Sections 5 (2) and 25 of the OGEFZA Act 8 of 1996 which necessitates this long struggle for a take-over of some free zones are not explicit.
The agency can only genuinely move to claim those zones if their Act and that of NEPZA, Act 63 of 1992 were both amended.
“We are, however, here to make peace and to ensure that both Authorities are well positioned to perform their duties for the benefit of the country.
“So, you must ensure to expedite your action in bringing an Executive Bill so that we can commence the process of amending the Act,’’ Fadahunsi said.
He further explained that it was incumbent on the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment to step up initiative to bring an Executive Bill for the amendment of the Act if it felt strongly about the need to expand OGEFZA’s mandate.
Earlier, Umana had tried without result to convince the panel to be assuaged by his argument, as according to him, the OGEFZA Act had placed limitation on NEPZA’s function to only non-oil sector.
Umana also explained that: “I will however, be fair to admit that both OGEFZA and NEPZA Acts are obsolete and required speedy amendments. I agree that the current OGEFZA Act is not explicit.’’
In that meeting, Fadahunsi said the committee was intervening to end decades of the needless squabble between the two agencies.
Fadahunsi also said: “We will apply justice and objectivity in our decision to end the controversy which has not served the overall interest of our national economy’’.
The above position was recently re-echoed by Chief Denise Aghanya, Executive Secretary of Anti-Corruption Data Research Initiative, ARDI, who insisted that the ministry must allow President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive on the implementation of the Steve Oransanye’s Report to be effected rather than trying to bend the goal post.
Aghanya’s position was contained in a letter to the National Assembly dated June 27 which was also copied the ministry, NEPZA and OGEFZA respectively.