By DAPO FALADE
The Onne Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority (OOGEFZA), a federal agency, has been accused of forging its enabling act to criminally expand its mandate, even as stakeholders canvassed for the creation of a single export free zone for Nigeria.
It was alleged that the agency not only changed its name as contained in the enabling act but also altered some provisions to widen its jurisdictions and usurp mandates of other federal agencies.
In a further brazen move, OOGEFZA is alleged to be seeking legislative amendment to cover up several illegality already committed including alteration of its enabling name and mandates.
These revelations were made in memorandum submitted by the chairman of Sinolat Group, Adesina Agboluaje, at a stakeholders’ forum organised by the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment on proposed amendment to the agency act.
Agboluaje submitted that OOGEFZA, “in its effort to acquire powers and jurisdiction not given to it in law, is guilty of criminally altering its Enabling Act by deliberately avoiding the proper legislative process to give itself powers and responsibility not given to her by law.
“Each alteration is designed to achieve an intended objective to further entrench its monopoly of the oil and gas sector and mislead the public to the extent of reprinting and editing the decree that established it, now wrongly referred to under a nomenclature different from what was initially enacted.
“The true title and the name of the Act is Onne/Ikpokiri Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority Act. The Onne/Ikpokiri, Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority Act was enacted on 29 March, 1996 and it, in turn, created the Onne/Ikpokiri Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority.
“Without legislative amendment, the Authority has criminally changed its name to Oil and Gas Free Zones Authority(OGFZA).
“Section 1(1) of the 1996 Act provides that “The President designates the Onne/Ikpokiri Area in Rivers State as an ‘export free zone’. This section expressly designates Onne/Ikpokiri area of Rivers State as OOGEFZA’s area of operation.
“In a brazing display of power, the Authority is now illegally and fraudulently claiming to be in Warri, Calabar and Apapa Ports Terminals as Oil and Gas Free Zones without legal or constitutional authority,” Agboluaje submitted.
He also spoke on the need to reject the proposed amendment to the Onne Authority Act, the unconstitutional persistence of Onne Authority and the need for a single free zones authority, as being variously canvassed by stakeholders.
“OOGEFZA had, in 2016, attempted to implement the self-amended laws of Onne Oil and Gas Authority by approaching several zones licensed by NEPZA (an authority with a wider mandate), with the intention of regulating and taking over their operations based on their interpretation of their self-created Act.
“After due consultation with the supervising ministry, NEPZA and the
zones rejected the illegal moves by the Onne Authority and that remains the status quo up till today because, notwithstanding their self-amendment of their law, the provisions are not enough to take over operations that NEPZA has been overseeing.
“To resolve the issues then, a Federal Executive Council resolution on the matter led to a directive from the Secretary to the Government of the Federation to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Iinvestment for NEPZA to take over all activities of Onne Oil and Gas as a move towards creating a single free zones authority.
“The resolution directed that both agencies should operate as a single Authority. For reasons best known to the Ministry, this directive was not implemented.
“I guess this emboldened the Onne Oil and Gas Aauthority to continue seeking for self-help, legal opinions, procuring opinion from Minister of Justice.
“In its responses, NEPZA has consistently supported the implementation of the standing Federal Executive Order which directed the creation of a single export free zone authority which has not been reversed till today.
“This suggestion of the public at the Hearing for a single free zones authority was consistent with the position of the Federal Government when, in 2002, the FEC directed the Ministry of Justice to draft an instrument for a single Free Zones Authority.
“The Secretary to the Government of the Federation forwarded Mr. President‘s approval for implementation, of a single Free Zones Authority with a drafted Nigeria Free Zones Authority Executive Bill 2006.
“At the public hearing, it was suggested that both NEPZA and OOGEFZA Acts should be repealed to create NIFZA and the drafted NIFZA Executive Bill 2006 was submitted to the Senate Committee for consideration in harmonizing both Bills to create a single Free Zones Authority.
“Distinguished Senate Committee on Trade and Investment invited the public for Senate hearings on the proposed NEPZA Amendment Bill on Monday, 20 December, 2016.
“At the public hearing in the Senate Building, participants called for the repeal of both NEPZA and OOGEFZA Acts to make way for a single Free Zones Authority to sanitize the free zones environment as was done with the Nigeria Communication Commission, where the various wireless communication service providers were brought under one single regulatory Communication Commission.
“On Thursday, 26 January, 2017, there was also another Senate Public Hearing on OOGEFZA proposed amendments Bill.
“At the hearing, participants, especially NEPZA-licensed zones who are tailored as targets of take-over by OOGEFZA, rejected the proposed amendment and instead supported a bill for a single export free zone authority.
“Also present at the hearing was a representative of the World Bank Group who lend is voice to a single Free Zones Authority as Nigeria investment procedures are already complex for investors to understand and that the best practice worldwide is free zone to be managed by a single authority.
“The other issue in the Bill is the designation of certain ports as dedicated oil and gas ports in Nigeria to the disadvantage of stakeholders within and outside the free zones scheme. There are Port Terminal Operators and Port Concession schemes both under the NPA statutory responsibility.
“The representative of the NPA at the hearing revealed, first that there were no such designation done on ports on the basis of commodities /goods in the concession of ports and, secondly that there was no designation of any port as dedicated for oil and gas cargoes.
“The above position of NPA is consistent with the Federal Government’s position and policy since 2006 where Mr. President declared that ‘importers of oil and gas related cargoes should be free to choose port of preference’.
“In 2008, the late President Umar Yar’Adua restated the policy through the Minister of State for Transportation Public Notice Ref. No. T. 4316/ST3/24 of 7 August, 2008, re-confirming the presidential directive on choice of preferred port by importers of oil and gas related cargoes subsists.
“The current proposed fraudulent OOGEFZA Amendment Bill being peddled in the National Assembly cannot stand because the basis of the amendment is false, the contentious issues raised are not acceptable as they are in conflict with other existing laws of NEPZA.
“If such is allowed to pass, it will go against the FEC resolutions, presidential policy directive and natural justice in a competitive market place.
“At the last Senate public hearing on this matter, stakeholders made relevant submissions that OOGEFZA exceeded its mandate and authority as conceived in her Enabling Act.
“The proposed amendment is a self-help attempt to usurp the authority of NEPZA and NPA and make nonsense of the investors’ investments in the free zones.
“The amendment, if allowed, may plunge the government into an unending litigation by both local and foreign investors and ridicule the Federal Government and laws of Nigeria.
“In line with stakeholders’ recommendations at the last senate committee hearing on trade and investment, we call for the harmonization of all related bill for the creation of one single export free zone regulating agency in Nigeria.
“This will conform with international best practice, reduce cost of governance, align with similar move in other sectors, preserve open access to Nigerian ports and safeguard investment licenced by NEPZA against likely litigation.”