By Our Reporter
ABUJA (SundiataPost) – The Senate Committee on Trade, Industry and Investment has kicked against acclaimed interpretations given to Onne/Okpokri Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority (OGEFZA) Act 1996 that gave impetus to the agency’s current contemplation to take over some free trade zones managed by the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA).
The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation had under the reigns of Mr Michael Andokaa, SAN and Mr Mohammed Adoke, SAN erroneously given legal interpretations on Sections 5(2) of OGEFZA’s Act 1996 that emboldened the agency toward taking over four zones managed by NEPZA.
The free trade 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.
The committee had described the purported interpretations given to the OGEFZA Act (eight) by the two former AGFs as “unjustifiable’’ and not in line with the actual intention of the law.
Senator Francis Fadahunsi, acting chairman of the committee, had led Senator Sabo Mohammed and Senator Yusuf. A. Yusuf, being other members of the committee to conduct hearing session with top management of OGEFZA led by its Managing Director, Umana Umana on June 18.
Fadahunsi, while giving the committee’s resolutions, said nothing meaningful could be achieved from OGEFZA’s struggle to take over free trade zones hitherto managed by NEPZA if the agency’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 (eight) of 1996 which necessitates this long struggle for a take-over of some free trade zones are not explicit.
“The agency can only genuinely move to claim those zones if the Act was amended. The Office of the AGF has not really helped matter for giving such interpretations.
“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 bring 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 OGEFZA’s current statute allowed the agency to take over all Oil/Gas Free Zones hitherto managed by NEPZA, adding that the narrative that OGEFZA was illegally expanding its territory was incorrect.
“I will however, be fair to admit that both OGEFZA and NEPZA laws are obsolete and require speedy amendments. I agree that the current OGEFZA Act is not explicit,’’ Umana said.
Recall that the panel had in a similar session on May 19 met with the team of NEPZA officials led by the acting managing director, Mr Bitrus Dawuk.
In that meeting, Fadahunsi said the committee was intervening to end decades of needless squabble between the two agencies.
He 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 acting chairman of the committee further said: “we are fully aware of the intention of the drafters of the two decrees that gave legislatives powers to the two Authorities’’.
Our investigation, however, shows that the current crisis got stoked by a directive from the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr Adeniyi Adebayo for a total take-over of zones erroneously labeled as Oil/Gas free zones managed by NEPZA without recourse to established laws.
Recall also that the minister had called for meetings of stakeholders between 16 March and 17 March 2020 to discuss the need for a bill to amend OGEFZA Act of 1996 when he surprisingly abandoned the process and went ahead to set July deadline for the takeover of the above listed zones by OGEFZA.
A number of stakeholders and investors had continued to criticise this indiscreet move to destroy the sector that should be genuinely left to inspire production and attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the country.
In a bid to salvage the situation, some investors of zones affected by this directive approached the National Assembly for its intervention.
The investors had contended that Onne Oil/Gas Export Free Zone Authority located in Ikpokiri in Rivers State was just a zone licensed to operate within that territory and should not be allow to expand its territory without legal backing.
While presenting NEPZA’s position before the Senate committee, Dawuk said OGEFZA had for almost 15 years worked against its Act, adding that the Authority had continued to hold on to the faulty interpretations of Sections 5(2) and 25 of its Act to proceed in error.
Dawuk also told the panel that the current Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, had not given credence to such illegality, as according to him, Malami is aware that only the judiciary has the power to interpret the provisions of an Act or law.
He further said the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had in 2012/2014 rejected a White Paper Report that recommended that OGEFZA be subsumed directly under NEPZA and went ahead to call for a change of name of the agency to Oil/Gas Free Zones Authority (OGFZA).
According to Dawuk, successive managing directors of OGEFZA had continued to misinterpret the decision of the Federal Executive Council to mean an express legislation of change of name and mandate without legitimizing same with an amendment to the Act.
The central issue of controversy lies more with the Section 5(2) of OGEFZA Act which says: “The Authority shall have power to take over and perform such other functions being hitherto performed by the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority as they relate to the export of all and gas from any of the Nigerian Export Processing Zones established by the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Act’’.
Dawuk argued that NEPZA was not into Oil/Gas export before the establishment of OGEFZA, adding that relying on that section of the Act amounted to naught.
He also explained that all the four free trade zones OGEFZA was fighting to claim control of were not into oil and gas export, adding also that these zones came into operations after 1996 and therefore the Act could have no effect on them.
Dawuk , therefore, said NEPZA was the sole regulatory authority that controlled and managed all free trade zones in the country whether they were non-oil or oil and gas based.