On Tuesday, March 19, 2013, a landmark judgment that leaves behind some far-reaching socio-economic consequences on the Nigerian state was delivered by a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.
The presiding judge, Justice Adamu Bello, had declared as unconstitutional, illegal null and void, the Federal Government’s planned deregulation of the downstream petroleum industry on account of the fact that the policy violates the provision of Section 4 of the Price Control Act, Cap P.28 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
The Federal Government has long sought to deregulate the downstream oil sector by allowing prices of petroleum products to be determined by the regular interplay of demand and supply as is the international practice.
It is, indeed, for this reason that government has continued to insist on the complete removal of subsidies on petroleum products.
The last bold attempt at subsidy withdrawal was on January 1, 2012 when President Goodluck Jonathan, in a New Year broadcast to the nation, announced the Federal Government’s decision to increase the pump price of petrol from N65.00 to N141.00.
This singular pronouncement sparked off a week-long nationwide workers’ strike and sporadic riots across the country, forcing the government to beat a hasty retreat by coming up with a more acceptable price of N97.00 per litre after a round of rushed parleys with Labour representatives and some state chief executives.
But even as these events were playing out, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, went to court to challenge the Federal Government’s attempt to hands-off the fixing of petroleum products prices contrary to the provisions of the Petroleum Act and the Price Control Act.
Aturu had in his suit which also joined the Minister of Petroleum Resources and the Attorney-General of the Federation as co-defendants, prayed the court to determine whether the government’s deregulation policy would not make freedom of movement guaranteed by Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution illusory for the generality of Nigerians.
In addition to granting the plaintiff’s prayers in full, the judge also ordered the Federal Government to continue to fix, regulate and regularly publish prices of petroleum products across the country.
With the court ruling, it will appear that the Federal Government cannot necessarily allow the industry operators to determine the prices of petroleum products as that will amount to flouting the Price Control Act.
To cross such hurdles, government must do the right things because lack of action on this matter could spell doom for the economy. The first step should be to amend the Petroleum Act and the Price Control Act through the National Assembly, in addition to persuading the Legislature to treat expeditiously, the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).
With the myriad of problems which Nigeria faces today, the court ruling which tends to question a major economic policy as the deregulation of the downstream oil sector cannot be treated with levity.
Even so, The Tide commends the presiding judge for his rare demonstration of judicial erudition without which some of the facts in the country’s existing statutes would have been taken for granted and only spell later-day doom.
Considering the Federal Government’s attachment and commitment to the policy and that it even allowed such a judgment to be delivered in the first place, portends a very good omen for the country’s judiciary.
This is why we commend the government, particularly the President, for demonstrating commendable neutrality in spite of his administration’s determination to deregulate the downstream petroleum sector, and for that reason refraining from interfering with the judicial process and allowing the rule of law to take its honourable course.
In fact, coming at a time when the President was preparing to hold consultations with Nigerians on how best to achieve his government’s subsidy withdrawal policy, nothing can better attest to his neutrality in this particular court ruling.
That Wike’s Bold Move Against Soot
Following the painfully obvious failure of the Federal Government and its security agencies to rein in those behind illegal oil bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners in Rivers State, the Governor, Chief Nyesom Wike, lately declared war against operators of the crude oil refineries in the state.
The audacious action of the governor specifically aims at tackling the environmental threat induced by soot, emanating from the illegal refining of crude oil in parts of the state. Consequently, Wike directed the chairmen of councils to go after all the illegal crude oil refining sites and shut them with immediate effect. The state Chief Executive made this declaration in his 2022 New Year address to the state.
Measures were outlined and effected to tackle the soot, which have been successful so far. The Rivers State Task Force on Illegal Street Trading has been executing hit-and-run raids on some illegal crude oil refining sites in Port Harcourt and arresting several persons. Again, many identified illegal crude oil refining spots and activities in the state have either been shut down or virtually destroyed.
Governor Wike had recently declared 19 persons wanted for operating illegal crude oil refining locations, directly responsible for soots prevalent in the state. Barely 24 hours after the declaration, the Rivers State Police Command officially announced that its operatives arrested and paraded 18 persons implicated in illegal oil refining activities in various parts of the state.
Recall that a report by a technical committee set up by the state government to investigate causes of soot in the state a few years ago disclosed that the soot was engendered by subversive activities of illegal refiners and the alleged complicity of security agents, among others. A reviewed report of Prof. Roseline Konya’s findings indicated that about 22,077 persons had suffered needlessly from respiratory-related ailments in the last five years.
Medical experts have associated the persistent soot in the state with rising cases of cancer and infertility. Their assertions were corroborated by a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Pollution titled: “Exposure to Heavy Metals in Soot Samples and Cancer Risk Assessment in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.” According to the researchers, the study was carried out to determine the presence and levels of heavy metals in soot along with a cancer risk assessment of heavy metals exposure in Port Harcourt.
A specialist and consultant surgeon at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH), Port Harcourt, Dr. Ibifuro Green, said about six million residents of Rivers State faced the risk of developing cancer of the lung and other respiratory problems, following the never-ending raining of cancerous hydrocarbon elements, commonly referred to as “black soot” on their environment. This startling revelation should be of genuine concern to all.
Meanwhile, the gloomy predictions by many health professionals are that if nothing is done urgently to halt the soot, many residents might experience chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems and an increase in mortality rate. This is becoming real as some persons, who have found it very difficult breathing while in Port Harcourt, have relocated to other places.
We commend the governor for listening to the cry of Rivers people by resolving to take on all crude oil thieves and refiners precipitately. While successes recorded in the war against oil thieves are acknowledged, we urge security agents to collaborate closely with council chairmen and traditional rulers to complement the governor’s efforts towards ending the public nuisance in their locations.
Rivers people cannot be their own implacable enemies. We must collectively fight this peril. The hazard we are faced with is becoming worrisome. Everyone who lives and does business in Rivers State should be solicitous about the soot and its effects. Time has come to end the impending catastrophe. It is necessary to know that the combined effect of soot and COVID-19 poses an existential threat to all residents of the state.
Those aiding and abetting illegal bunkering activities in different parts of the state who have been identified should be named, shamed and prosecuted, regardless of their political affiliations and status. Wike has shown that he is decisive and firm in prosecuting the fight, as a success in the war cannot afford favouritism. Residents must report shrewd operators of illegal crude oil refineries and other damnable activities to task forces set up at the state and local government levels for immediate action.
Furthermore, a strong institutional capacity for the judiciary is imperative. The Rivers State Assembly should exercise effective oversight, insist on the swift prosecution of offenders, and demand accountability from all recognised groups and institutions involved in the anti-soot crusade. Civil society organisations in the state should not give up but join the fray through unrelenting public engagements. There should be no cover-ups and sacred cows.
There is a need for the Federal Government to vigorously collaborate and assist the Rivers State Government in finding a lasting solution to this crisis. It is quite amazing why the federal authorities, whose security agencies have further complicated the soot situation by their collusion, have failed to take interest in ending this challenge. This is mainly the Federal Government’s business that requires a collective and inclusive solution as quickly as possible.
Improving Criminal Justice Delivery
The December 2021 jail delivery exercise by the Chief Judge of Rivers State, Justice Simeon Amadi, during
which 27 inmates of the Port Harcourt Maximum Security Correctional Centre were granted pardon and discharged, has again brought to the fore the need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system in the state.
The freed inmates included those who were either awaiting trials and had spent more than eight years in detention, as well as those who had health challenges. According to the Chief Judge, the jail delivery was in the exercise of his “powers in Section 34 of the Rivers State Administration of Criminal Justice Laws” (ACJL) and added that the decongestion of the correctional centres should be a major concern for stakeholders in the administration of justice.
Justice Amadi attributed the congestion of the correctional centres to several factors, including non-filing of information on case files, wrong charges, lack of diligent prosecution, among others. He said, in the pursuit to achieve decongested custodial centres in the state, the management of the state judiciary had “approved that periodically, magistrates will be posted to the centres to continue the exercise”.
Undoubtedly, the judiciary, which is the third arm of government, performs a very important function of interpreting the law. It dispenses justice without fear or favour. Most importantly, the administrators of the judiciary are desirous of speedy justice dispensation because justice delayed is justice denied.
Interestingly, in both criminal and civil justice administrations, time is of the essence as delay defeats equity. However, recent happenings in the criminal justice administration in Rivers State appear not to take cognizance of the very essence of time. The Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Rivers State 2015 was no doubt enacted to facilitate justice delivery but unreasonable delays continue to be a pain in the ass as there is seeming unwillingness on the part of both the judiciary and public prosecutors to help matters.
The law is explicit, “A defendant charged with an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding three years shall, on application to court be released on bail…” except for certain reasons. The resultant effect of unreasonable delay is that the correctional centres in the state have become a dumping ground for all manner of defendants, sometimes over fathom and frivolous charges.
Unfortunately, the correctional centres in the state are filled to the brim. The Port Harcourt Correctional Centre which was initially meant for about 804 inmates now has more than 4,000 with attendant congestion and health hazards. There is obviously nothing to learn at the centre except the ugly experiences that inmates pass through. Many inmates who ought to be refined after their experiences come out hardened and society is worse for it.
Surprisingly, Amadi, during his recent jail delivery, discovered to his chagrin that certain inmates at the Port Harcourt Correctional Centre had no files. As benumbing as the fact appears, it underscores the fact that their detention at the correctional centre can only be adjudged illegal. Every detainee at the correctional centre must have been brought there upon a charge known to law. If the charge is bailable, the Magistrate’s Court must “suo moto” grant bail whether on the application of the defendant’s counsel or not.
Regrettably, that is not the case today. The supervisory role of Chief Magistrates to visit police stations in the local government areas where they have their courts is often neglected. Besides, withholding charges, a situation where matters are referred to court without the requisite jurisdiction have worsened delay in justice delivery.
For many years, defendants often await the advice of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) but to no avail. Most defendants are remanded in correctional centres without trial for more than 10 years despite the constitutional provision that an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. Some defendants, in the course of awaiting trial, serve out the prison terms of the alleged offences if they were properly convicted, yet, cannot regain freedom.
Pathetically, these defendants are abandoned to their fate; no information is filled and there is no advice from the DPP. Even when bail applications are made to the High Court by counsel on their behalf, the judges stick to the old order of not easily granting bail to applicants charged with serious offences often without a diligent perusal of the defence counsel’s motion and accompanying processes.
One condition for the grant of bail to a defendant charged with murder is the defendant must have remained in detention for one year and above without arraignment, absence of information as well as trial. Another reason for granting bail to an applicant charged with murder pertains to the health status of the detainee. If the applicant is seriously ill, he or she can be granted bail.
The situations under which a defendant charged with a serious crime can be granted bail are provided for in our extant laws, especially in the ACJL, yet, the conspiracy of the judges who stick to the old order and public prosecutors who arbitrarily oppose bail applications have put paid to the efforts to ensure speedy dispensation of justice.
To ensure a speedy dispensation of justice in the state, all hands must be on deck. The State Ministry of Justice and the judiciary must live up to their billings. This is because the number of inmates at the correctional centres across the state is increasing by the day as many defendants remain without trials for a long period.
Again, judicial officers still write in long hands. They have not kept pace with developed countries of the world that make use of electronic equipment to record court proceedings. Since writing in long hands is slow and tedious, it, in turn, slows down the administration of justice. The problem here is not the shortage of manpower, but the system adopted, hence, the need for toeing the electronic path.
We strongly advise the administrators of our justice system in the state to turn a new leaf and address the nagging problem of unnecessary delays occasioned by lack of diligence on the part of public prosecution or the reliance on the old order by judges where defendants charged with grave criminal wrongs are simply allowed to rot in jail without trial.
No To Ban On Doctors’ Strike
The House of Representatives may, on resumption from its Christmas and New Year recess, examine a bill prohibiting strike for medical professionals in the enrolment of the three tiers of government. The bill, if passed, will facilitate administrative and judicial processes for resolving trade disputes involving medical practitioners in government employment.
It is entitled: “An Act to Amend the Trade Disputes Act Cap T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 to Prohibit Medical Practitioners in the Employment of Federal, State, and Local Governments (as employees in the essential service sector) from Embarking on Strike and to Accelerate Administrative and Judicial Proceedings in the Determination of Trade Disputes Involving Them and Related Matters.”
Sponsored by Rep Simon Chukwuemeka Atigwe (PDP, Enugu), the bill, which is entered on the House Journal as House Bill (HB) 1618, had earlier scaled first reading in the House and is thought to be scheduled for second reading which is the debate on the general principles of the bill before it goes for public hearing.
Reacting to the proposed law, the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) knocked members of the House of Representatives over plans to proscribe strikes in the health sector. The bodies described a bill to that effect as draconian and an onslaught on the democratic rights of employees.
Recall that doctors and other health workers frequently get involved in industrial actions, which have paralysed the health system in the country. In 2021, for example, the NARD were on strike for 63 days because the government was unable to meet its demands. The National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, Lagos State chapter, is also proposing to go on a strike by January 10 over the failure of the state government to meet its demands.
There is no doubt that this move by the legislators will amount to a gross violation of the rights of the medical workers to declare their grievances with amicable negotiation and, as a last resort, launching industrial action. The right to strike is a universal democratic right of all employees, regardless of their workplace – whether private or public.
Our legislators must recognise that industrial actions or strikes are not undertaken for nothing; some issues contribute to them. If there must be a law to ban strikes in the medical sector, then, the House of Representatives should first promulgate a law that will inhibit the government from reneging on several agreements it enters into with health employees.
Furthermore, there should be laws to prevent the government from delays in payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities, promotion and disbursement of entitlements of workers. They should pass legislation that requires us to improve the infrastructure in our hospitals and ensure that consumables are available at all times.
Anything short of that as preconditions to the law to prohibit strikes by health workers means the government wants to arm-twist, gag and turn health providers in Nigeria into captives and lame ducks. The result of this will particularly be a spike in the already colossal migration of the workers to other countries with better service conditions, where their efforts, abilities, and expertise are better recognised.
Indeed, the bill is tumultuous and runs counter to the freedom of expression of health workers. Instead of creating a system in which medical workers do not have to go on strike, the Federal Government seeks to infringe on their rights to declare their resentment. Unfortunately, these legislators fail to understand the privileges that democracy confers. Why would legislators, who are supposed to sympathise with Nigerians as representatives of the people, come forward with such a bill? Shame!
Medical and health workers’ strikes are a global phenomenon, reported in both remarkably developed and progressive countries. Strikes by health workers are of increasing concern for international and local health authorities. They are an obstacle to achieving the universal health coverage contemplated by the World Health Organisation.
However, while the right to strike is regarded a fundamental one, medical workers in Nigeria, notably doctors, must realise that they have a moral duty to adhere to the Hippocratic tenets of the medical profession and fiduciary obligation to their patients. Under Hippocrates oath, doctors are deemed to be in a social contract and obliged to treat a patient’s health and life as a preference over everything else and going on strike may be seen as a contravention of such contract.
As essential workers, Nigerian doctors and health care providers should invariably strike a balance between improved health care services for patients and the need to press for justifiable wages for themselves to fulfill their primary human needs like everyone. So, we advise health workers in this country to act in the best interests of patients and make their health and their lives a priority above all else.
Resolving persistent strikes in the health sector calls for fiscal and ethical solutions and a moral commitment to promoting the health and welfare of Nigerians. All stakeholders involved in the management of the medical profession in this country are required to come to the negotiating table. A conference between health workers’ unions and associations and the Nigerian government is long overdue. Instead of banning strikes in the sector, a work system must be established where medical staff see no reason to declare a collective action.
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