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Court declares FG's deregulation policy unlawful

By The Citizen
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The Federal High Court, Abuja Division, may have thrown spanner in the works of the Federal Government with regard to its on-going effort at deregulating the downstream sector of the petroleum industry as it Tuesday declared it 'unconstitutional, illegal, null and void'.

Delivering its verdict in the action brought by a Lagos-based lawyer, Bamidele Aturu, to challenge Federal Government's decision in 2009 not to fix prices of petroleum products, the court held that the government was bereft of any constitutional authority to deregulate the sector and therefore cannot leave the fixing of price of petroleum products in the hands of individual marketers.

Aturu had sued the Minister of Petroleum Resources and the Attorney-General of the Federation, praying for an order restraining the government from deregulating the downstream sector of the petroleum industry for failing to fix the prices of petroleum products as mandatorily required by the Petroleum Act and the Price Control Act.

Aturu had even argued that the near yearly prohibitive hike in the price of fuel which has gone up to N65 was an indirect breach of the rights of Nigerians to freedom of movement provided for in Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.   He, therefore, prayed the court to declare government's decision to deregulate the downstream sector by not fixing prices at which petroleum products may be sold in Nigeria 'unlawful, null and void and of no effect whatsoever.'

He further sought an order restraining government and its collaborators from deregulating the downstream sector of the industry or from failing to fix prices for petroleum products as mandatorily required by the Petroleum Act and the Price Control Act.

But the government, through the defendants - Minister of Petroleum Resources and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Justice Minister - raised a preliminary objection to Aturu's suit, asking the court to dismiss it for incompetence on the premise that the plaintiff lacked the locus standi (legal right) to initiate and sustain it.

While arguing that the plaintiff did not disclose any reasonable cause of action, the government also said the suit, as constituted by Aturu, was not properly brought before the court.

In setting out his decision, the trial Judge, Justice Adamu Bello, dealt with the preliminary objection by dismissing it for lacking in merit, and upheld the rights of Aturu to institute the action and maintain it.

The judge held that the policy of government to deregulate the downstream sector of the petroleum industry by not fixing the prices at which petroleum products might be sold in Nigeria was 'unlawful.'

Bello held that the government has a statutory obligation to fix the price of petroleum products sold across Nigeria as provided by Petroleum Act and the Price Control Act.

Consequently, the judge ordered government to 'continue to fix, regulate and publish regularly prices of petroleum products across the country.'