Saving our commonwealth: Thoughts on Legislative Oversight

By Dakuku Peterside

In 1787, the United States gave the world a unique gift. Through the famous Philadelphia Convention, Congressional Oversight came into existence as a means of reviewing, monitoring and supervising government agencies, programmes and activities. Aside the American Congress which continues to exercise this legislative power through the Congressional Committee System, other democracies including Nigeria are today partakers of this great tradition.

Perhaps initiators of the concept of legislative oversight acknowledged the fact that human beings when entrusted with responsibility and commonwealth are likely to abuse the privilege, hence the need for checks and close watching. There is no where that the tendency to abuse office and commonwealth is more glaring than the Third World countries such as Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan African countries.

For us in the House of Representatives, equivalent of the American Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 which concretised the Philadelphia Convention is Section 88 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Order xviii, Rule 184 of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives. Here, oversight is embedded in the powers of the legislature.

I admit that there is some truth in the allegation that in a few isolated cases, this power of legislative oversight has been abused for selfish purposes by those who do not understand the purpose and import of the role.  This isolated few do not appreciate that oversight is a sacred duty being carried behalf of the Nigerian masses who entrusted us with such solemn responsibility.

A few days ago, I had reasons to reflect oversight as a legislative tool. My thought also drifted to the state of Nigeria’s public institutions, not necessarily in the oil and gas sector. My reflections stemmed from a recent oversight tour of both public and private businesses in the petroleum downstream sector in the South-West geo political zone of Nigeria. For a while, I saluted the courage and vision of men like James Madison and other founding fathers of America who thought it wise to empower Congress with the power of oversight.  I really do not think I should overemphasise the privileges and opportunities American citizens and public organizations have enjoyed over the years account of this legislative instrument.

Nigeria’s National Assembly does not have the long history or the good fortune of America’s Congress that has over two centuries of uninterrupted process.  This partially accounts for the few isolated cases of abuse of power of oversight. However, I still believe legislature need not attain that stature of America’s Congress to effectively add value to the democratic process and there is no better time than now to monitor government business and commonwealth. As public organizations stand today, there is really need to worry. And except we urgently address our decrepit infrastructure and man power needs with everything at our disposal, our public institutions may one day grind to a halt. As representatives of our people, we therefore have everything to gain by routinely monitoring the executive arm for probity, fidelity and above all, efficiency without necessarily being adversarial. This is a sacred duty we owe to the ordinary Nigerian people who have vested in us their trust. [eap_ad_1] But for this recent oversight tour involving members of the House Committee Petroleum Resources (Downstream) one would not have been able to fully appreciate the enormity of the deterioration of public infrastructure in the petroleum downstream sector. In just four days, we visited about eleven private oil and gas facilities and over four oil and gas infrastructure belonging to and managed by government. However, the most disturbing but revealing aspect of the tour is our shared view that government is a bad businessman. My colleagues and I agreed that the more businesses are removed from the purview of government, the better for that business, the government itself and even our people.

The Committee also took note of the multifarious problems facing these public institutions. For me, the most critical is power. Almost everywhere we went, power remained recurrent because it plays a vital role in almost every business venture. Issues of obsolete equipment, poor management, inadequate staffing, funding, pipeline vandalism, transparency and environmental challenges also came up.

Again, one baffling contradiction is the unresolved issues around HHK or DPK (kerosene). I had to repeatedly ask questions bordering on the never ending scarcity of HHK or DPK and the question of transparency and greed which in my considered opinion, is at the centre of the crisis. Like most Nigerians, I know that this product which services the mass of people never reaches the final consumer at government approved rate. Sadly, the answers were unsatisfactory. Beyond the availability of HHK or DPK, I know that Nigeria has the capacity to swiftly transit from DPK to LPG (gas) as source of domestic fuel, which is now widely used in countries like Ghana, Cameroun and other smaller countries within sub-region. The fact that we have not taken deliberate steps to re-orientate people and develop gas infrastructure to support the use of gas as domestic fuel in homes is an indictment on our leadership.

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