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Nigeria Lawmakers to Debate Oil Industry Overhaul

  • Heather Murdock

Demonstrators in Abuja protest the elimination of a popular fuel subsidy that has doubled the price of oil in Nigeria, January 11, 2012.

Demonstrators in Abuja protest the elimination of a popular fuel subsidy that has doubled the price of oil in Nigeria, January 11, 2012.

As the Nigerian parliament gears up for the start of its fall session next week, locals are on edge, waiting for debates on what many say is one of the most important pieces of legislation in Nigerian history. If the Petroleum Industry Bill is passed, it could help Nigeria use its oil wealth to lift regular people out of extreme poverty.

Singer Victor Iteimowei Ugele - also known as “Jeffy J.” - raps about the riches of Africa. He said that he’s proud of his country and its wealth.

"Nigeria has virtually everything that the earth has in terms of natural resources," he said. "Nigeria has oil. Nigeria has gas, which is flaring everywhere. Nigeria’s rich in agriculture. Iron. Palm [oil]."

This wealth also is a source of bitterness, he said.

"Nigeria is a rich nation, but the people are poor, if you know what I mean. Ten percent of the population controls 90 percent of the resources," said Ugele [Jeffy J.].

Oil riches alongside crushing local poverty has been the status quo in Nigeria for decades. But lawmakers are about to debate a bill that, if passed, could begin to make the oil a source of wealth for the people rather than a source of anger and environmental destruction.

The bill seeks to boost investment, maximize exploration and profits, protect the environment and make the industry - currently known as corrupt, inefficient and secretive - more transparent and accountable.

Economist Wale Oluwo said the bill will put money into the pockets of average Nigerians and make the national oil company more efficient and competitive.

“A lot of Nigerians can now participate in this petroleum industry to the benefit of the development of the economy," said Oluwo. "Because when Nigerians make money, chances are they spend money in Nigeria here. But when these multinationals make money they take a lot of it abroad. And it’s capital flight.”

It’s hard to find anyone in Nigeria against the bill as an idea, with many people saying anything is better than the current chaos. Some analysts say for the bill to be a success, however, the current draft must be severely amended before it is passed.

Jibrin Ibrahim, the director of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, said the main problem with the bill is it gives extraordinary powers to a single minister, which could deepen corruption in the industry.

“The National Assembly should review the bill carefully and ensure that too much powers are not given to the minister of petroleum, because the core problem in the industry has been the excessive concentration of power in the hands of the minister of petroleum,” said Ibrahim.

The current draft of the bill gives the minister control of all oil agencies, including the regulators, and promises fines or jail time for anyone who “obstructs or interferes” with ministerial orders.

The bill bans gas flaring - a process that wastes Nigeria’s natural gas and pollutes the environment - at an unnamed date. But it also gives the minister the power to issue exemptions to the ban.

Nigeria currently produces 2.5 million barrels of crude oil a day. Clement Nwankwo, executive director for the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said the bill could - and should - help the country produce more.

“With oil being discovered across the continent and several other parts, we need to make the Nigerian oil market very competitive for those that want to invest to come in and do that. Having a bill that tackles this would be very important,” said Nwankwo.

The bill was first suggested five years ago, and has failed year after year. But analysts say this year may be different, following mass protests, scandals, strikes and inquiries that all are related to the oil industry. They says that as a result, lawmakers are now on high alert that the public wants to see action.
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