• Shocked of ambush by opposition party, APC Reps return to drawing board
Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
No one saw it coming. From the leadership of the House of Representatives to the proponents of the controversial National Water Resources Bill, the events of last Tuesday, which led to the withdrawal of the proposed legislation came as a surprise – a huge shock.
The House had on July 23, shortly before it commenced its annual recess, resolved to commit the National Water Resources Bill, alongside 10 other bills, from the 8th Assembly to the Committee of the Whole for consideration.
However, the decision of the House to revisit the bill has been generating diverse reactions, with several stakeholders urging lawmakers to reject the proposed legislation.
The bill, which was transmitted to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2017, seeks to give the Federal Government control of rivers that tranverse more than one state.
It scaled through in the Green Chamber in the Eight Assembly, but was rejected in the Senate, after then Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio raised objections about certain provisions in the bill.
The decision of the House to reconsider the National Water Resources Bill generated so much furore in the polity, with those opposed to the proposed legislation, seeing it as an avenue to establish Rural Grazing Areas( RUGA) for cattle herders across the country.
The spokesman of the pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere, Yinka Odumakin, in an interview with our correspondent had described the proposed legislation as a recipe for crisis in the country and charged the lawmakers to jettison its decision to reconsider it.
According to him, “the bill was rejected by the 8th Senate. Now, they are bringing it back, they want to cause crisis in this country. And by saying that there is no going back on it, it means that they are hell-bent on fermenting trouble in this country.
“The National Assembly should not join the executive to cause crisis. They should throw away the bill like the 8th Senate did. If this government wants to cause crisis for Nigeria, the National Assembly should not be enlisted.
“This bill is RUGA by another means. The reason the last assembly rejected it was because there was a widespread outcry against the bill. It is a mad bill. Afenifere, Ohanaeze, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum, have rejected this bill.
“We have sent a message to all representatives in the parliament. They should remember they are coming back home. When the bill comes up they should stand with their people and not with this oppressors who want to take over the whole of Nigeria.”
Amidst the controversy that that trailed the House decision to reconsider the bill, both the Federal Government and the House leadership had stated that there was no going back on it.
For instance, the Chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata, in his reaction to criticism against the bill had described the passage of the bill as done deal.
According to him, “the bill can’t be stepped down because the House has passed it already. The lawmakers that are saying that they will step it down or that it was introduced illegally is because, may be, they were not there on the floor of the House when the members were given the opportunity to look at the bill not once or twice. Remember it was passed by the Eighth Assembly.”
The Chairman, House Committee on Water Resources, Sada Soli, prior to the resumption of the National Assembly from its annual recess, told journalists that there was nothing sinister about the decision of the House to revisit the National Water Resources Bill.
“This bill is a combination of four acts that have been in existence in this country for the last 35 years. We are just consolidating them, there is nothing sinister about it.
“ It is for the benefit of all Nigerians because water is common resources of all people. And wherever water is common to the good of all people, it must be subjected to statutory control, whether federal, state or local government,” he stated
Owing to the interest the bill has attracted, it was expected to be among the dominant issues in the House and by extension, the National Assembly in the new legislative year. However, no one expected that it was going to be part of deliberations in the House on the first day of resumption, as nothing relating to it was listed in the Order Paper.
The proceeding was going smoothly, when suddenly, Hon. Bem Mzondu, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Benue State springed a surprise, by raising a point of privilege.
Mzondu said that the resolution to commit the bill to the Committee of the Whole, without first gazzetting it, was a breach of procedure and his privileges as a lawmaker. He pointed out that the bill ought to have been gazetted and taken through all the processes of lawmaking.
“This same water bill was listed as National Water Resources Bill 2020, but it was not treated as such. A bill that emanated in 2020 should have gone through first reading, second reading and third reading before passage. It was not treated as such and this is a denial of my representation of my people.
“I, therefore, rely on Order 8 Rule 8 that, that bill be rescinded and expunged from our records or be made to go through the necessary considerations that a bill will have to go through before it is passed, particularly considering the mood of the nation. We are here to serve the Nigerian people and not to serve ourselves. If Nigerians do not desire a bill, we put it at rest or up for public debate and scrutiny for them to have their inputs.
“My rights have been infringed upon and as I stand, I cannot go to my constituency because I need to show them copies of this bill, and I have gone through all our journals, but it is not there. I, therefore, move that this bill be rescinded, expunged or begin its journey from the start,” he said.
Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, another PDP lawmaker , in his submission, called for the recision of the House resolution to reconsider the bill. Nkem -Abonta, while citing Section 315, Item 64 on the Exclusive List of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) posited that, “constitutionally, we have no right to discuss that.”
Exasperated by the direction the debate was going, Soli, an All Progressives Congress (APC) member from Kastina, insisted that the procedure was followed in committing the National Water Resources Bill to the Committee of the Whole.
“This bill followed the normal procedures as enshrined in the orders of this House. My brother, Abonta, was sitting for nearly one hour when this bill was considered and passed on this floor. He was here. So, when a member is saying that this House has no right to entertain it because of certain provisions of the constitution, it is not true. We must not misinform members on this bill,” Soli stated.
The Kastina-born lawmaker in a determined bid to save the proposed legislation demanded that any move to rescind the House decision on the bill must be through a substantive motion.
He warned that any “attempt to short-change the rules, Mr Speaker, we will challenge that decision.”
Similarly, the Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, in another attempt to save, accused opposition lawmakers of wanting to change the rules midway, so as to frustrate the consideration of the bill.
The deputy speaker, who stated that most of those opposed to the bill may not have been in the chamber the day the bill was earlier passed , added “I know that there was no way we should have considered a bill without a notice.”
However, at this stage, there was little or nothing the proponents of the bill could do to save the day, as they were holding the short end of the stick in battle of wits that ensured on the floor of the House over the controversial bill.
Soli demand for a substantive motion is understandable. It would have given proponents of the bill an opportunity to prepare very well and possibly lobby their colleagues to support the proposed legislation. Sunday Sun gathered that the decision by the opponents of the bill to rise under matters of privilege was a carefully planned strategy to take the proponents by surprise.
Unlike substantiative motions, which are usually published in the Order Paper, a matter of privilege could be raised at anytime.
The Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, swayed by the argument of the opposition, had observed that some persons seem to have done their home work very well.
He said: “On the issue raised by Hon Mzondu, he has backed it up with clear language of provisions of our rules, which state that any such bill must be re-gazetted. The Chairman (of the Committee on) Business and Rules sought to rely on Rule 16, which gives a window of either re-gazette or clean copy. Unfortunately, it appears some people have done their homework.
“I think we should err on the side of caution. I think the bill should be sent back to be re-gazetted and brought back to the floor, so that we can reconsider it and nobody will have any issues at that point; right thing would have been done. Chairman, Business and Rules, please, send the bill for re-gazetting and bring it back to the floor.”
The battle next time
However, the withdrawal of the bill does not necessaryly mean the end of the controversial legislation. The last certainly has not been heard about the water resources bill, especially as it has assumed ethnic colouration. Pundits say the battle over the bill may have just begun.
The lawmakers, across the two divides, as well as other critical stakeholders in the country, are not oblivious of this. Expectedly, both sides have returned to the drawing board to strategise ahead of the re-gazatting of the National Water Resources Bill.