Oil law left in the hands of ‘chameleons’

Sunday November 25 2012

Uganda is expected to start commercial oil production soon.

Uganda is expected to start commercial oil production soon. 

By Yasiin Mugerwa

I have said here before that our Parliament has become a joke. It’s a place where people say something today and, within minutes, eat their words as if they have got amnesia. They make serious decisions and reverse them the following day. This is why the Executive no longer takes them seriously. In any case, they are spineless and they know it. Its very fabric has been examined and found wanting.

The truly awful situation is - even after our outrage - they are carrying on as normal. It is a joke because it is not a true Parliament. It’s a House full of chameleons. The 9th Parliament is a noble frame jam-packed with submissive individuals there to push through political expedience, while at the same time placating Ugandans that they are doing something about corruption.

They are, in some respects, comedians, more of the flavour of a sick system in our warped politics of numbers with a scrawny opposition swimming in murky waters. When you critically study the conduct of our MPs, particularly in times of challenge and controversy, you should be able to appreciate the creeping sense of repugnance. These matters were brought to the Speaker’s attention by Kawempe North MP Latif Ssebaggala when he asked her whether she is really in charge.

After spending a lot of time haggling over the amendments in the proposed Oil law, they reached a consensus that the minister’s powers to grant and revoke licences, negotiate and endorse petroleum agreements after the authority has taken a position as stated in Clause 9 of The Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill, 2012, be scrapped in public interest. The motive was to protect the independence of the Petroleum Authority and ensure transparency.

On Thursday, the ruling party called a Caucus meeting where they agreed to over-turn their position. In the afternoon, they came to a House without the FDC members and persuaded Speaker Rebecca Kadaga to proceed amid protests from independent-minded legislators. The FDC members were in Namboole voting their new party president. By proceeding without FDC in the House Ms Kadaga ignored the bigger picture — the national interest in the Bill. She should have used her discretion as a Speaker to postpone the debate instead of bowing to the vagaries of people who behaved like a hired mob.

Mr Theodore Ssekikubo, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Forum on oil and gas, and other members who worked so hard to ensure that Uganda gets a good law were let down by the mob. They sat for long hours under the guidance of deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanya and went through amendments clause by clause, fixing loopholes as well as making concessions in some cases. In the end, a decision was reached that the minister’s powers be limited to policy. But people who have never even read the Bill — the chameleons — joined ministers who were absent all the time to re-open a matter that had been closed in public interest.

In a system where corruption is pervasive, it becomes risky for any serious Parliament to grant infinite powers to a minister. This is why one of the corrupt and cursed oil producing nations wants the minister out of oil deals. Just last week, Nigeria’s lower house began debating its long-delayed Petroleum Industry Bill, but the event was marked with bottomless anger from the lawmakers who have rejected the government plan to grant sweeping powers to the oil minister.

This new piece of legislation in Nigeria is intended to transform the oil sector in this Africa’s largest crude producer after decades of mismanagement, conflicts and endemic corruption. In trying to do something about the curse, the new Bill provides for a community fund (10 per cent of oil revenue) to people living in the oil producing Niger Delta.

The contention in the Bill is a ludicrous section that gives oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke wide-ranging supervision over all aspects of the industry, including the regulator. In Uganda, Energy Minister Irene Muloni, with the backing of the government hiding behind oil as a strategic resource, is hankering after even more robust and tempting powers in the proposed Oil law. The minister wants powers to license, grant and revoke licences, and to approve data - a move that would inevitably undermine the autonomy and the relevance of the Petroleum Authority.

In trying to appreciate why ministers should not be given vast powers in the Bill, let’s look at what’s happening in Africa’s oil producing nations. Because of boundless powers, Nigeria and Angola, Africa’s biggest oil producers, have granted very lucrative stakes in oil fields to companies that may be acting as fronts for government officials, stifling development in both countries. The powers we want to give the ministers in the proposed oil law will not only choke them but will certainly lead politicians into the temptations.

While increased oil output has generated billions of dollars for Angola and Nigeria, the misappropriation of public funds by corrupt officials remains one of the main causes of poverty in those countries.

Looking at history
Whether the government is giving the minister powers for political expedience or otherwise, we should not forget that African countries with mineral resources have for long been held back from prosperity by a baleful history of collusion between corrupt and incompetent rulers.

In these countries, too often private ‘shell’ companies with opaque ownership structures are awarded lucrative concessions, with little information available about the owners of the company. I am not a prophet of doom but am afraid if our Parliament defies the wise counsel and grants enormous powers to the minister; we are going to open flood gates of corruption in the oil sector.

It’s my humble prayer that when this Bill returns to the House on Tuesday, we forget the politics and think for the nation. We must not give the minister powers because we want to mollify the government of the day. It will be dangerous. The minister’s powers should be limited to policies aimed at promoting and sustaining transparency in the sector.