From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Since the transmission of the National Water Resources Bill to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari, in 2017, the proposed legislation has been a source of controversy in the House and the larger society.
The proposed legislation, which is intended to create a legal framework for the management of the country’s water resources, is no doubt one of the most controversial bills introduced in the National Assembly. This is especially as it has pitched lawmakers against one another while critical stakeholders, including ethnic nationalities have kicked against it.
The National Water Resources bill was passed in the House of Representatives in the eight assembly but was rejected by the Senate after the then Senate Minority leader, Godswill Akpabio raised objections about certain provisions in the bill. That automatically marked the end of the bill in that assembly.
Nevertheless, two years ago, the ninth House of Representatives resurrected the bill. The House on July 23, 2020, 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 re-consideration.
However, at the resumption of plenary on September 29, 2020, the controversy that had trailed the bill, before it was killed in the eight assembly resumed. On that fateful day,
no one expected that it was going to be part of deliberations, as nothing relating to it was listed in Order Paper. In fact, the day’s proceeding was going smoothly, when suddenly, Bem Mzondu, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Benue State raised a point of privilege.
Mzondu said the resolution to commit the bill to the Committee of the Whole, without first gazzeting it, was a breach of procedure and his privileges as a lawmaker. According to him, the bill ought to have been re-gazzetted, and taken through all the processes of lawmaking, in line with the Rules of the House.
“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,” he contended.
The lawmaker added, “I, therefore, rely on Order 8 Rule 8 that, that bill be rescinded and expunged from our records or be made to go through the necessary considerations that a bill will have to go through before it is passed, particularly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 had stated.
Pronto, the House was thrown into confusion, as an another PDP member, Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, 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.”
But the chairman, House Committee on Water Resources, Soli Sada, as well as the deputy speaker, Idris Wase disagreed vehemently. Soli, an All Progressives Congress (APC) member from Kastina, insisted that the procedures were followed in re-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, “any attempt to shortchange the rules, Mr Speaker, we will challenge that decision.”
After a lengthy debate, the House resolved to withdraw the bill. While the opponents of the proposed legislation jubilated, the proponents licked their wounds. But both groups, as events later proved returned to the drawing board to prepare for battle next time.
Analysts say the opposition against the Bill is fuelled by the ruinous activities of herdsmen, and government’s alleged determination to create a safe haven for them nationwide. Critics of the bill said the proposed legislation was an avenue to establish Rural Grazing Areas( RUGA) for cattle herders across the country.
Renewed battle over the bill
However, on June 29, the House re-introduced the contentious bill amidst protests by two PDP lawmakers from Benue State. The re-introduction reopened the battle over the bid by the Federal Government to control water resources in the country.
The clerk of the House, Yahaya Danzaria, had barely finished mentioning the bill, which was listed as item number two, under presentation of bills, in the Order Paper, when Mark Gbillah raised a matter of privilege.
Gbillah said he was surprised that the National Water Resources Bill, which was withdrawn after it generated so much concern across the country, was being re-introduced on the floor of the House.
According to him, “I am aware that the matter listed for first reading, the National Water Resources Bill generated a lot of controversy within this honourable House and even across the country. And some of us wonder why this issue is still being represented on the floor of the House, because some of us are not comfortable and in support of this bill in the first instance Mr speaker. I thought I should bring that to the notice of the Rt Honourable speaker.”
Nevertheless, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, said Soli had assured him that all the contentious issues in the bill have been addressed by the governors.
Gbajabiamila stated: “I asked the chairman the same thing this morning and he told me that the issues of controversy that were raised then have been addressed by all the governors. Apparently, it is a new bill, that all the governors of the federation both South and North participated on this bill and I want to take him by his word.
“I believe that you raised a very cogent point. We live in a very diverse country and everybody’s sensitivity must be taken into consideration. I think we should leave it at that and be extremely vigilant. Talk to your governors both from the North, from the South and get their opinion on how it affects your states or your area of operation.”
The chairman, House Committee on Water Resources in a determined bid to secure the support of the House for the proposed legislation, explained that all the attorney general of the different states, as well as the Attorney General of the federation, have all commented on the bill.
“Let me assure my colleagues on my honour. I will not stand here to see a particular section of this country is shortchanged by a legislation of this country. If that happens Mr speaker, I will withdraw the bill in the interest of this country,” he stated.
Prior to the adjournment of the House for its annual recess, last week, the leadership directed that copies of the bill be circulated to all members, preparatory to debate on general principles of the bill. It is expected that the proposed legislation would be among major issues to be treated by the House, immediately it resumes from its vacation in September.
Nevertheless, the bill has continued to generate controversy within and outside the House. Last week, there were speculations that northern lawmakers were allegedly plotting to impeach Gbajabiamila, if he fails to support the passage of the contentious bill. Nevertheless, the House leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, the minority leader, Ndudi Elumelu, as well as the leader of the Northern caucus said there is no such plot.
Apart from the opposition of lawmakers to the proposed legislation, the Nigeria Governors Forum, on Wednesday, rejected the bill, calling for its review to accommodate the interest of the states.
The NGF in a communique issued at the end of the 5th teleconference meeting, last week, posited that “the bill does not adequately address interests of the states and is inconsistent with provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The bill, according to the forum, should be reviewed, with a view to accommodating the concerns of all states.”
Ironically, the governors’ position contradicts the position of the House, that all states chief executives had bought into the bill. Analysts say the position of the governors on the proposed legislation is a big blow to the bill.
Nevertheless, the Executive arm of government is unrelenting in its bid to push through the proposed legislation while proponents and opponents of the bill prepare for what can be termed the final showdown over the proposed legislation on the floor of the House.
However, the pertinent question is what is the big deal about the National Water Resources Bill? Why is the government so concerned about the passage of bills, that has been roundly criticized by stakeholders?