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Columnist: Yes, It Is a Public Not a Private Hearing

Last week, the Senate Committee on Environment held a two-day public hearing and colloquium on a bill seeking to amend the National Biosafety Management Act 2015 that empowers the Agency to regulate issues of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country.

The much-advertised public hearing was well attended and provided a platform for the expression of all shades of opinions by different individuals, organisations, societies and associationsto reason with the Senate on the necessity of the amendment.

The bill soughtto amend a total of 23 sections and subsections in the principal Act including those concerned with the process and duration of risk assessment and management. It was sponsored by Senator Yahaya Abdullahi (Kebbi North) and had already passed two readings before it was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment to collate public views on the proposed amendment.

Dr Rufus Ebegba, Director General/CEO, NBMA, opened discussions on the proposed amendment. He told the committee that the proposed amendment was ill-motivated, does not represent the aspirations of the Federal Government of Nigeria regarding Executive Order 3, is unnecessary and will not add value to the regulation of GMOs in the country.

Prof. Mohammed Ishiyaku, Executive Director, Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University and Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency also proposed the same argument urging the senate not to go ahead with the amendment because it is anti-science.

Both Professors had based their submissions to the Committee on the assertion that science must not be stifled in Nigeria. Adequate mechanisms must be put in place to regulate and properly guide scientists in the pursuit of knowledge.

Prof. Ishiyaku said he was addressing the committee as an ordinary Nigerian. He was quick to point out that those who sponsored the bill do not have the interest of Nigeria at heart. “Those behind the bill want to turn Nigeria into a dumping ground and ensure our scientists funded by public money remain redundant while we increase our importation rate, using our scarce resources to provide jobs for citizens of other countries.”

Prof. Mustapha said the bill was unnecessary, uncalled for and retrogressive in both nature and intent. He urged the National Assembly to jettison the move to amend a law that is the envy of other African countries.

The major pillar in the amendment, sort by those behind the bill, was to introduce a strict liability clause and reduce the threshold for labelling of GM products. This,according to scientists,has grave implications for the practice of science and technology in Nigeria.

As succinctly put by the noble Professor of Biotechnology from the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, Celestine Aguoru, introducing a strict liability clause in the NBMA Act means; scientists involved in the development of genetically improved crop varieties will spend the rest of their lives going to court to answer for what someone may think their product may have caused.

“Anybody can wake up in any part of the country and say she/he is suffering from any pain and say the pain is causedby the consumption of a product developed using my research and I will be arrested and taken to court.

Strict liability has not worked in any part of the world. Distinguished Senators, any attempt to introduce strict liability into our laws is telling us that have remained behind to salvage our country, to pack our bags and start looking for where to practice our science. I’m sure the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will not support a move that will open another door for all scientists to leave Nigeria.”

The farmers’ groups were not left out of the hearing. Arc. Kabiru Ibrahim, President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria, in his submission told the Senate that already, Nigerian farmers are enjoying the cultivation of GM crops released in the country and they are smiling to the bank. “Any attempt to kill the joy of our great farmers will have a very negative impact on Nigeria’s quest for food security.”

The highlight of the hearing was when the Acting Senate Committee Chairman, Senator Ibrahim Hadejia, read out a slip of a paper passed to him by those who proposed the amendment asking for a behind close door presentation.

“This is a Public Hearing, if you have any statement to make the floor is yours to come forward and make your submission, you cannot ask for a private hearing in a public hearing, it is either you say it now or never”, Senator Hadejia said.

Two lessons of note from the public hearing are:

  1. Manyorganizationsand individuals are being used by outsiderinfluence to waste the precious time and resources of the Senate by proposing frivolous and superfluous amendments that attempt to limit our progress as a nation and ensure we continue to operate an import-dependenteconomy.
  2. There is an adage that says you cannot shave my hair in my absence. Every Law or Act passed by the Senate is directly or indirectly controlling or providing a conducive environment for a government agency or ministry. It is important that the National Assembly establish a liaison office with government agencies and ministries to cross-check if amendments being proposedare in the interest of the country.

At the Public hearing, Dr Rufus Ebegba, Director General/CEO, NBMA shocked the audience by revealing that the proposed amendment did not come from his Agency nor was he contacted.

A civil society Activist and legal luminary, Frank Tietie, in a submission to the committee said the Nigerian Senate has a reputation for producing some of the best laws on the continent and any attempt to make the Nigerian National Assembly a laughingstock must be rejected.

In April this year, Ghanaian members of Parliament were in Nigeria to understudy how Nigeria regulates GMOs and another delegation is coming from Ethiopia and Mozambique before the end of the year.We must not amend laws when they are serving us well.

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