From Charity Nwakaudu, Abuja
The National Water Resources Bill, now before the National Assembly, is a potential landmark piece of legislation in the making. In terms of legal draughtsmanship, comprehensiveness, content quality and potential for providing the most reliable legal compass for the water resources subsector of the Nigerian economy, it was conceived with the best of intentions.
Yet, its birth is being threatened by a deadly political virus. It is coming into a political environment highly infested with mutual hatred and suspicions over region, religion, ethnicity, selfishness, greed and excessive love and pursuit of money. Such is the passion with which some politicians pursue these vainglorious objectives that they lose sight of national interest and of common good. Such is the passion that every issue brought to the table for discussion is perused from the perspective of region, religion, ethnicity and such other seif-serving objectives.
Nothing is spared by this version of Nigerian politics. Not even something as innocent and as remote from politics as the water resources sector for whose management the Water Resources Bill was designed to cater for, is immune.
Since the introduction of the first version of the Bill in 2016 its main antagonists have been the politicians.
When it was presented in 2016, the Water Resources Bill was met with stiff opposition and a great deal of controversy and suspicion. As a result of the complaints, the bill was later withdrawn after the public hearing.
The major concerns raised were that it has the potential to undermine the powers of respective State Houses of Assembly in Nigeria and deny original owners of land the right to their lands.
The antagonists also suspected that the bill was a grand ploy to favour a certain ethnic group thereby depriving the original owners of the land.
Hard core leftists objected to it on the ground that the federal structure of governance in Nigeria concentrated too much power at the top, leaving the states with minimal responsibilities.
Subsequently, some of these concerns were, according to the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, addressed in 2018 and the bill returned to the 9th Assembly in 2021. It was again re-submitted to the National
Assembly after some administrative issues were sorted out committee in 2022.
This time, the reintroduction of the Bill, titled “A Bill for an Act to Establish a Regulatory Framework For Trans-Boundary Water Resources in Nigeria,” provided for the Equitable and Sustainable Development , use and Conservation of Nigeria’s inter-state surface Water and Groundwater Resources; and for Related Matters 2022″ but it was still not well received by sub-national stakeholders. They were concerned and even suspicious that the repeated representation may go beyond national interest.
Prominent among Nigerians who spoke against it included Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana (SAN) and Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State, and Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue state.
The position of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum at the time was comprehensive on what the issues were. The Governors’ Forum feared that the Bill sought to grant unfettered powers to the Federal Government by totally centralizing the rights and control over all water resources in the country on the Federal Government.
The Forum feared that the passage of the Bill would be the deepening and unconstitutional entrenchment of the powers of the Federal Government over water resources and, indirectly, over the use of land in Nigeria.
Some of the latest scathing attacks on the Bill came from Benue State where the Governor, Samuel Ortom, in a statement, described the proposed legislation as part of an agenda to hand over lands in coastal areas to the nomadic herdsmen. Such an action, he said, would cause further breakdown of security in areas already prone to herdsmen attacks on local communities.
Mark Gbillah, House of Representatives member representing Gwer/Gwer West Federal Constituency of Benue state also spoke along the same lines as his state Governor.
Gbillah’s grouse, like most others in the past, is that the bill is a ploy by the Federal Government to get land for domination and control. He posited that the aspect that is controversial and completely unacceptable to the people of Benue State, and by extension, the riverine communities across the country, is the fact that the initial draft of the bill sought to cede land along states and waterways across the country about three kilometres inland, to the Federal Government.
“Agreed that the Federal Government would be involved in monitoring and development in rivers across waterways that traverse several states, particularly littoral states, to cede lands within their territories, in any way, is to cut their nose to spite their face.
“Perhaps, we need to reflect on the upsurge of Fulani invasions of these communities, bearing in mind recent happenings in this regard in Ondo State and other states in the country, notably Borno, Zamfara, Plateau, Kaduna, etc. To acquiesce to this invasion is like courting trouble and igniting flames of insecurity, arson and bloodshed in hitherto peaceful and secure environments.”
He said the re-packaged National Water Bill is yet another route to introduce the Rural Grazing Area policy (RUGA) the widely rejected human settlement policy of the Federal Government, steeped in distrust and a call to armed conflicts and a sure way to increased refugee and IDP menace in the country. It is advisable, therefore, that the Muhammadu Buhari-led APC government should, in conjunction with advocates of this ill-conceived Water Resources Bill, withdraw it forthwith to avoid the evil wind that is likely to blow across the country by reason of its continued hearing and possible passage in the House of Representatives.
Feelings and misgivings such as these have been expressed since the introduction of the first version of the bill. But a lot of work has been done since then to alley them. The Federal Ministry of Water Resources assembled an independent team of experts to provide an assessment of the provisions of the Bill against the backdrop of implications for pertinent constitutional provisions and State powers, contemporary developments and initiatives for water and environmental governance at both national and global scales, and impact on existing commitments in order to allay the fears and address the main concerns of the various stakeholders.
With the collective efforts put together into making the revised copy of the 2022 water resource bill, the Ministry has insisted that those antagonizing the bill may be doing so as a result of their ignorance of the present revised copy of the bill. In a special note titled, “Misconceptions About the Revised water bill,” the ministry emphasized that those opposing the Bill were relying on second hand information to draw their conclusions. Otherwise, it stated, the current letters of the bill would not attract the fear entertained by subnational stakeholders.
Refuting any altruistic agenda of some interests, the ministry said: “It is a sad commentary that at a time when Nigerians are seeking for improved service delivery in the water sector, the very policies and reforms required to achieve progress are being undermined by some unpatriotic people because of cheap politics.”
According to Adamu, rather than the other way round, the bill seeks to reinforce citizens right to water, promote citizens participation in water resources development, ensure sustainable water resources management, protection of the ecosystem, attract investment and establish a funding mechanism for water supply, sanitation and hygiene services to better the lot of Nigerians.
Highlighting the importance of stakeholders reading the Bill’s updated text before objecting to it on the grounds that the federal government is expanding states’ water authority, Suleiman Adamu said: “The current Bill has eliminated all ambiguities in connection with pertinent constitutional provisions and alleged overreach of State authority
Specifically, they pointed out that the power of the State as stakeholders is clearly saved. There are checks and balances to restrict unfettered discretion. Safeguards put in place to avoid excessive political interference in the implementation of provisions of the Bill. The Bill has been aligned with the National Action Plan on Gender and Climate Change for Nigeria, and also created opportunity to leverage traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities relating to water resources and conservation.
Section 2(1) reads, “The right to the use, management and control of all surface water and groundwater affecting more than one State pursuant to item 64 of the Exclusive Legislative List in Part 1 of the Second Schedule to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, and as set out in the First Schedule to this Bill is vested in the Government of the Federation to be exercised in accordance with the provisions of this Bill.”
Section (2) ,”States may make provisions for the use, management and – control of water resources occurring solely within the boundaries of the State in line with regulations and guidelines made pursuant to this Bill on policy and principles of Integrated Water Resources management.”
Section 3(1) provide that: “Subject to the provisions of S. 2 (1), a person may, without a licence: (a) take water from a water source to which the public has free access for the use of his household or for watering domestic livestock; (b) use water for the purposes of subsistence fishing or for navigation to the extent that such use is not inconsistent with this Bill or any other existing law.”
Section 10(1) stated that: “It shall be the duty of the Minister to promote the protection, use, development, conservation, and management of inter-state water resources throughout Nigeria and to ensure the effective exercise of powers and performance of duties by institutions and persons identified under this Bill and in the constitution.”
The minister is not relenting in his efforts to ensure the passage of the bill. He is firm on the determination to see to it that Nigeria does not lose the immense benefits of a well regulated and managed water resources sector. He is reaching out to the widest audience of the relevant stakeholders.
Speaking at a Media parley in Abuja on July 20, to clarify certain misconceptions about the bill, the minister implored Nigerians to carefully and dispassionately peruse the proposed Water Resources bill in order to appreciate its potential benefits.
He regretted that while Nigerians were yearning for better water delivery services in the country, some unpatriotic citizens are antagonizing Government efforts to improve the situation through the introduction of the bill.
“There is no provision in the bill that allows the federal government to take over land from any community, not even an inch of land, as being peddled by some group,” he said.