The Misadventure of Buhari’s Water Bill

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By Oke Epia

The late Afrobeat legend and socio-political rights crusader, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, in one of his evergreen renditions of Nigeria’s realities sang that water no get enemy. It was an anecdotal expression of the neutrality of water as substance that can be used by anyone at any time and for any purpose so desired. In a sense, the song spoke to the loyalty of water not to anyone but to everyone. What water does to one it does to all, whether giving life or enervating same. And this could be extrapolated to mean that water cannot be said to be exclusively owned or controlled by anyone to the detriment of another. In other words, Fela’s musical narrative of everyday life experiences did not contemplate the colourless substance as a tangible resource that could be held or controlled to the exclusion of others and by which loyalty could be commanded and/or rewards and sanctions dispensed.

But that is what a bill in the National Assembly is seeking to do: imbue the ownership of water which is a God-given and free-flowing resource on the federal government of Nigeria to the exclusion of the constituent parts. From what has been said about the bill, the federal government of Nigeria is seeking to transmute the utility of water wherever found as a gift from God to all of humanity into the realm of resource ownership by the state at the centre.

It is an anti-climax of some sort that the said bill is coming at a time when the clamour for devolution of powers to the sub-national units is gaining ground and the argument for centralization of resource control is fast ebbing. It is allergic to social consciousness that this contentious bill is introduced at a time when the federal government has refused or neglected or is slow to address the lingering killings and violence inflicted on farming communities by rampaging herdsmen supposedly in search of greener pasture for their cattle. It is also ironic that the bill is sponsored by a government that came into power on the back of promises made on resource control and devolution of powers. It is furthermore cynical that the bill has been introduced at a time the Muhammadu Buhari administration has chosen to keep mute on the report of a committee on restructuring which recommended that some of the heavy weight of the centre be shed to the states. That the water bill is a seeming contradiction of the APC committee report is a suggestion of either confusion or cluelessness on the part of the government in Abuja. But whatever the case is, the rash backlash that has attended the bill across different sections of society is a salient conveyance of its unpopularity and unacceptability. This is a message that cannot be lost in the run-up to a general election wherein the incumbent President is seeking mandate renewal for another four years.

Opposition to the bill began right in the Senate chamber once it was presented for debate. In fact, the Senate was divided along regional and ethnic lines, forcing the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, to step it down for further consultations. The most contentious aspect of the bill during the debate was the provision on ownership of water that passes through more than one state which is placed under “the use, management and control of the federal government.” The bill also grants the “Federal Government, acting through the Minister power to protect, use, developed, conserve, manage and control water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner for the benefit of all persons.”

Expectedly, senators whose states have water as their natural resource, spoke stridently against the proposal. Sen. Gbenga Ashafa from Lagos took the opportunity to narrate the legal battle his state is facing with the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) over control of water ways. According to him, “NIWA has extended its federal might in so many ways in controlling the navigation and all other things you need to get before you can do anything in all those areas.

There would be need for us to identify those rivers that belong to the Federal government as well as the state if we want to avoid any problem.”

For the Minority Leader of the Senate and a former governor, Godswill Akpabio, it is almost an impossible task to give a clearly defined boundary of water, noting that government was yet to even resolve existing contentions over land boundaries.

However, some senators especially from the northern part of the country had opposing views. Senator, Binta Masi from Adamawa deployed the logic of federal roads in her argument and wondered why there would be an “issue about a small river in a state that has to pass through another river in another state.” Senator Danjuma Goje from Gombe State who is a former governor argued that “the whole idea is that the federal government is the custodian of all the water resources in the country.”

Away from the Senate, it is very instructive that governors of the littoral South-south states have opposed Buhari’s water bill. According to a statement by the state chief executives, “we are of the view that the provisions of the bill are offensive and obnoxious, we disagree with the centralized control of water resources as we are already dealing with the problem associated with over centralization of our country and we have agreed that the bill should be immediately withdrawn by the federal government and further consultations be made on that.”

Given this strident opposition to the bill, it will be in the interest of the polity that is already heating up and getting divided by the day for the proposed legislation to be allowed to die a natural death.