In the days of yore, it was the culture that water ran from the taps. It was free, available and accessible. These days, it is the tradition that the taps run dry. Water is a luxury in homes, not to talk of public places. Yet the National Assembly appears bent on knocking out whatever hope is left for clean and affordable water for the common man with the controversial Water Resources Bill. SINA FADARE and INNOCENT DURU X-ray the contending issues and the likely consequences of the bill whose passage was recently suspended by the House of Reps.
The dialogue between two concerned Nigerians inside a commercial bus on the controversial Water Resources Bill recently instantly ignited the interest of other passengers in the issue. An angry middle aged man had asked his friend for the latest development on the issue, but the friend comically dismissed it as a non-issue, saying: ‘The government wants everybody to pay for water, even on the borehole you sink in your compound.”
In response, the other man said: “Ah, the issue has led me to conclude that our leaders truly need to visit a psychiatrist home. How can any sane man think of such obnoxious bill after all the country has passed through in this era of Coronavirus pandemic?”
The scenario above seems to mirror the feeling of millions of Nigerians who are pinned to the wall by poverty and penury. To worsen matters, even an item as ordinary as water appears to be going out of their reach. One can therefore feel the pain, the agony and the despondency of the common man at this critical time.
At a time Nigerians are yearning for true federalism in which power would devolve to states and local governments, President Muhammadu Buhari introduced an executive bill tagged Water Resources Bill. Since the re-introduction of the bill, which had passed second reading in the House of Representatives, the country has not remained the same.
The belief in many quarters is that the bill previously abandoned by the 8th National Assembly was smuggled into proceedings to test the patience of the common man. Others see it as an attempt to take the country back to the Stone Age while some others perceive the bill as the harbinger of a hidden agenda about to be unfolded by the executive arm of government.
Crux of the matter
On the surface, the provisions of the bill appear to be promoting the concept of public-private partnership enterprise, which sounds logical with the past experience of Nigerians where virtually all the public corporations supervised by government are enmeshed in fraud and corruption with little or no efficiency in service delivery. But can a need as sensitive as water be in the hands of a private enterprise without it milking the people to the marrow? There seemed to be a consensus of opinion among the socio-cultural groups and activists that the passage of the bill would be inimical to the survival of the common man on the street.
Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, who lent his voice to the wide condemnation of the bill, argued that the Federal Government, with the connivance of the National Assembly, smuggled the rejected bill into the front burner again in order to dare the temperament of Nigerians.
According to Soyinka, “a roundly condemned project blasted out of sight by public outrage one or two years ago is being exhumed and sneaked back into the service by none other than a failed government and with the consent of a body of people supposedly elected to serve as custodian of the rights, freedoms and existential exigencies of millions.”
An aspect of the Bill that drove the most passion is the section that says, “The Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person in respect to the exercise of its functions, or the issuance of any report or conduct of any inquiry, but shall be guided by policy approved by the Federal Executive Council and the provision of this Act.”
Condemning the re-introduction of the once rejected bill, the Executive Director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) Mr. Akinbode Oluwafemi, noted that the bill reared its ugly head in the National Assembly again after it had been rejected by Nigerians, adding that it has nothing to offer the common man.
Oluwafemi, while speaking to The Nation, pointed out that session 24 was outrageous in the sense that it vested too much power in the Commission and thus subjected water management and control to arbitrariness and political whims and caprices of the Federal Executive Council (FEC).
He argued that by the time the issue of water management and control is left for public-private partnership, it will lead to exploitation and the people’s right to water will become a thing of the past.
“Public-private partnership on the issue of water resources, control and distribution will, at best, be inimical and counterproductive to the free access of private citizens to water as clearly admitted as a matter of right in previous sections of the Bill’s objective,” he said
If there is an area the Water Bill received the hardest knock from its army of critics, it is the belief that it adds to the excessive responsibilities of the Federal Government through the exclusive list. At the last count, there were 68 items on the exclusive list in the 1999 Constitution. Political pundits are of the view that a lot of knotty issues are woven round some items on the exclusive list to the extent that the country cannot move forward.
A legal practitioner, Mr. Tunde Odetoyinbo, lamented that the 8th Assembly jettisoned the bill because it tends to divide the country, adding that the issue of land is sacrosanct to the states, adding that any attempt to take it over by controlling water territories would not work.
Odetoyinbo argued that the issue of water management and control should not be added to other knotty ones like solid mineral and electricity on the exclusive list.
He said: “It will create a crisis the Federal Government cannot handle. Why fighting numerous battles that are avoidable?
“The bill is seeking to further centralise power and resources in an already overwhelming federal government and further rubbish the theory of true federalism.
“A lot of people are clamouring that the exclusive power under the purview of the Federal Government is against the letters of the constitution that placed the country under federalism.” According to him, the federal government is fighting too many battles, including Boko Haram insurgency, internal banditry, kidnapping and the Covid-19 pandemic and can, therefore, not afford to add more crises by way of the “draconic bill”.
Speaking in the same vein, a social critic and lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Prof. TunjiOgunyemi, explained that the bill, which has been rejected by the 8th National Assembly, cannot bring any good tidings to the common man.
The don noted: “It is unethical and constitutes a “crowd out effect” of the functions of states. It is unethical for the federal government to seek to crowd out the states of the federation who are co-ordinate partners in the Nigerian federal project from their concurrent functions on land use, water provision at the local levels of governance and significant constitutional role in the federation.”
He lamented that “the ordinary man has always been at the receiving end of poorly conceived policies and mean decisions of government. The Water Bill will negatively impact on the agrarian poor, particularly in the Middle Belt and southern parts of Nigeria, who depend on the rich and fertile banks of the inland waterways for their FERDAMA and other crops production.
“To seize such a land and vest its management in the hands of the federal government as this newly re-introduced water Bill seeks to do will rob the ordinary citizens in the affected areas of the main input into their crop production, which is land. Governance and production are ultimately local, so, when government takes decisions or seeks to make laws that depart from local initiatives for production and land use, the danger is very clear.”
Ogunyemi, a historian and legal icon, noted that at a time the government should be thinking about how to make water accessible to every home, it is planning to pass a bill that will be inimical to their existence.
Perhaps the fear of the unknown that the bill may likely create if passed to law was why it was heavily criticized. The Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, who called on the National Assembly to reject the bill with immediate effect, said it was anti-federalism and negates the right of Nigerians to their God given resource.
The governor, who described the reintroduction of the bill as curious, noted that those pushing for its passage at all costs had a surreptitious motive which was not clear to many.
According to him, “the bill, in addition to its provisions which are at variance with the Land Use Act, is designed to grant pastoralists unhindered access to river basins, adjacent marine and coastal environments across the country.”
He maintained that the bill is another version of Ruga, whose objective is to create grazing areas in the 36 states of the federation for herders and their livestock.
Ortom’s view tallied with that of the President of the Middle Belt Forum, Dr. Bitrus Porgu, who sees the bill as another ploy by the Federal Government to go against the will of the people who had initially rejected it.
Porgu said: “We were so lucky that the 8th National Assembly had leaders who saw into tomorrow’s dangers. That Assembly refused to pass the Inland Water Ways Bill. Regardless of that success, the Ruga issue came up. Thanks to the concerted efforts of our peoples with our friends in the south, Ruga has been suspended.”
He noted out that “the bill seeks to take away all rivers, their banks to some kilometers from state control to federal control and, therefore, take away ancestral lands for the exclusive use of the Federal Government. Your guess is as good as mine on what would happen next. Our National Assembly members must resist and reject the passage of that bill.”
From all indications, suspicion remains the biggest threat to the Water Resources Bill as the National President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Mr. Pereotubo Oweilaemi, noted that the country cannot commit same mistake twice, noting that the mistake it made on the issue of Niger Delta is still hunting it.
He said: “This should not be another petroleum laws that have denied the Niger Delta people from controlling the petroleum resources in our land. Through legislative rascality with military fiat, the Federal Government of Nigeria enacted inimical and obnoxious laws to colonise Niger Delta people. Today, we are suffering from this neocolonialism.”
Oweilaemi argued that the government of Nigeria is surreptitiously reintroducing the botched cattle colony or Ruga settlement.
“This is a slap on our collective resolve to live in a united Nigeria. We think that the Federal Government is putting the unity of Nigeria in jeopardy if it continues to push for this Ruga settlement either expressly or implicitly,” he said.
Perhaps the legal battle which the controversial bill will cause provoked Senator Adesoji Akanbi who represents Oyo South in the National Assembly to declare that the bill, if passed into law, would contradict the provisions of the Land Use Act. According to him, if the Federal Government should take over the control of inter- state water, it would generate a lot of crisis it would not be able to manage on the ownership of rivers.
“What does the Land Use Act say? Who has the vested interest in land? Another contradiction is who has the ownership of the mineral resources on and underneath the land?” he queried. He lamented that the same constitution that gives ownership of land to states gives ownership of the resources.
Thinking along the same line, Oladoyinbo argued that Supreme Court Justice Samson Uwaifo once upheld the argument of the former Lagos State Attorney General, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who incidentally is the Vice President, that Section 20 of the Constitution provides that “The State shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air, land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria ‘is not an exclusive legislation function of the National Assembly’”
He said the eminent jurist was of the opinion that “It must follow that the (National Assembly) cannot make law in the form and to the detail and territorial extent of the present Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning (Act) 88 of1992.”
Doing so, according to Uwaifo, “will be in breach of the principle of federalism and amount to an incursion into the jurisdiction of states.”
Oladoyinbo said it will be laughable if such a bill is passed into law and a state like Bayelsa with about 80 per cent of its territory on water, will be under the control of the federal Government. “That will further create an endless litigation which the federal government will not be able to handle.” he warned.
Not an enemy bill, says FG
However, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, insisted that the Water Bill is not as draconic as people tend to see it. He said the bill is for the good of the nation and has no hidden agenda.
Mohammed, who spoke on the controversial bill in Lagos recently, explained that the bill was “being re-enacted with necessary modifications to bring it in line with current global trends as well as best practices in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).
He said: “There is nothing new about the National Water Resources Bill. This is because it is an amalgamation of Water Resources Laws that have been in existence for a long time. These are: Water Resources Act, Cap W2 LFN 2004; the River Basin Development Authority Act, Cap R9 LFN 2004; the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act, Cap N1100A, LFN 2004; National Water Resources Institute Act, Cap N83 LFN 2004.
According to him, “The overall objective of this amalgamation is the efficient management of the Water Resources Sector for the economic development of Nigeria and the well-being of its citizens.”