Last week’s desperate attempt to pass the controversial National Water Resources Bill through the back door in the House of Representatives, was thwarted via a sound legislative coup, report Adedayo Akinwale and Udora Orizu
Following the raging controversies surrounding the National Water Resources Bill, the House of Representatives, has decided to withdraw the bill for re-gazetting before it would reconsider it. The controversial bill, at the resumed plenary last week, succeeded in pitting Southern lawmakers against their Northern counterparts.
However, spirited efforts by the Northern lawmakers to save the bill proved abortive as arguments by the members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and other opponents of the bill forced the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, to order its withdrawal and reintroduction.
The First Introduction of the Bill
President Muhammadu Buhari had in 2017 presented the controversial bill to the eighth National Assembly. The proposed law seeks to transfer the control of water resources from the states to the federal government. The bill was titled: ‘A Bill for An Act to Establish a Regulatory Framework for the Water Resources Sector in Nigeria, Provide for the Equitable and Sustainable Redevelopment, Management, Use and Conservation of Nigeria’s Surface Water and Groundwater Resources and for Related Matter.’
It partly reads: “This Act repeals the Water Resources Act, Cap W2 LFN 2004; River Basin Development Act Cap R9 LFN 2004; Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act, Cap N110A, LFN 2004; NationaI Water Resources lnstitute Act Cap N83 LFN 2004; and establishes the National Council on Water Resources, Nigeria Water Resources Regulatory Commission, River Basin Development Authorities, Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency, and the National Water Resources Institute.”
A Re-introduction of the Bill
Following the failure of the bill to sail through Eighth Assembly, the bill was re-introduced to the Ninth Assembly. The Chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata (APC/Jigawa), had moved a motion on July 23, 2020, calling for the reopening of 11 bills, including the Water Resources Bill, not passed by the Eighth Assembly.
Fulata prayed that the bills be withdrawn from the committees they were referred to and considered by the Committee of the Whole, as the panels had failed to meet their deadlines. The motion was unanimously adopted.
Speaking later in an interview, Fulata described the passage of the bill as a done deal, saying, the process would not be reversed. “The bill can’t be stepped down, because the House has passed it already. The lawmakers that are saying 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.”
Contentious Sections of the Bill
Section 98 of the bill states that, “the use of water shall be subject to licensing provisions”. Section 120 of the bill makes it compulsory for Nigerians to obtain a driller’s permit before sinking a borehole in their homes. Section 107 says, a license might be canceled if the licensee fails to make beneficial use of the water.
Section 2(1) of the Bill says, “All surface water and ground water wherever it occurs, is a resource common to all people.” Section 104 states addresses emergency powers in case of shortage of water. The bill will empower the government to “direct a person, who has a supply of water in excess of his needs for domestic purposes to reduce the amount he is permitted to abstract under the terms of any licence or general authorisation.”
Stakeholders’ Reaction to the Bill
Reacting to the reintroduction of the bill, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum, accused the federal government of clandestine moves to revive the rejected Water Resources Bill, warning that such agenda would be inimical to the growth and development of the country.
In a statement by South-south leader, Chief Edwin Clark; Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Adebanjo; Ohanaeze leader, Chief John Nwodo, and Dr. Pogu Bitrus for Middle Belt Forum said, “Buhari like Mobutu Sese Sekou of Zaire wants to be succeeded by chaos, daily manifests in its reckless conduct of our national affairs. This country has lived in peace for several years with its lands vested in the governors through the Land Use Act, which is part of the constitution.’’
On its part, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) said although the National Assembly is constitutionally vested with lawmaking, they should not ambush Nigerians.
In a statement signed by the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, NLC warned against legislative abuse or betrayal of Nigerians if the bill was passed without public engagement and scrutiny, adding that already, the sentiments expressed against the bill are too grave to be brushed off.
Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State alleged that the federal government was colluding with the National Assembly to allow herdsmen to grab land under the guise of the water resources bill.
Ortom said, “I am convinced that those pushing for the passage of the bill at all costs have a surreptitious motive, which is not yet clear to other Nigerians. The bill, in addition to its provisions, which are at variance with the Land Use Act, is a disguised land-grabbing legislation designed to grant pastoralists unhindered access to river basins, adjacent marine and coastal environments across the country.”
Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, also faulted attempts by the federal government to return the Bill. He said, “A roundly condemned project blasted out of sight by public outrage one or two years ago, is being exhumed and sneaked back into service by none other than a failed government, and with the consent of a body of people, supposedly elected to serve as custodians of the rights, freedoms and existential exigencies of millions. This bill – Bill on National Water resources 2020 – is designed to hand Aso Rock absolute control over the nation’s entire water resources, both over and underground.”
Executive’s Position on the Bill
Despite criticisms of the obnoxious bill, the federal government had on September 22, said there was no going back in the passage of the Bill.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had during a press briefing addressed with his Water Resources counterpart, Suleiman Adamu, said those criticising the Bill were either ill-informed or have not read it or do not understand its provisions.
He insisted that the bill was for the good of the nation and has no hidden agenda whatsoever, adding that it’s a deliberate mischief by some of those, who have been portraying the Bill as a new source of conflict.
A Clash of the Lawmakers
At the resumed plenary, last week, the clash over the bill began, when a first-time member from Benue State, Hon Bem Mzondu, raised a point of order, under Order 6 Rule 1(2) and (3), alleging that his legislative privilege was breached as the bill did not follow the due process and that a copy was not made available to him.
The lawmaker, who is a PDP member, recalled that on July 23, 2020, the House revisited the bill without following the standing rules. According to him, “I was deprived of my legislative privileges of sighting a gazetted copy of the National Water Resources Bill”.
The lawmaker added that he was denied being part of the legislative process on the bill, noting that while the rule says new bills must be gazetted for consideration and the old ones abandoned by the previous Assembly must be re-gazetted, he could not find any document showing that the water resources bill was gazetted.
“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,” Mzondu added.
The lawmaker also cited Order 12 Rules 16, 17 and 18 as stating that the bill, “has no life” until it is treated as an old bill; while stating further that a bill should either be gazetted or its copy be made available to members.
Contributing, Hon. Uzoma Nkem-Abonta (PDP/Abia), said the bill was against the provisions of the constitution, citing Section 315, Item 64 on the Exclusive List and various other sections of the constitution relating to the Land Use Act, saying “Constitutionally, we have no right to discuss that.”
Gbajabiamila, however, interrupted Nkem-Abonta and urged lawmakers to first speak on the issue of procedure.
In his submission, the Chairman of the House Committee on Water Resources, Hon. Sada Soli (APC/Kastina) argued that the bill had passed through the normal processes and did not breach any part of the constitution.
The lawmaker recalled that Gbajabiamila, as Majority Leader in the Eighth House, actually led the debate for the bill. “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.”
But the flawed process of the bill became clearer, when Fulata said the bill was treated according to Order 16, while he cited Order 18 earlier in July.
Fulata recalled that the bill was passed by the eighth House and went further to read out Order 12, Rule 16, which also talked about re-gazetting or making copies available and that an old bill should only be committed to the Committee of the Whole, noting thaqt, “By this rule, the issue of committing a bill to a fresh start is out of place.”
At this point, the Speaker asked Fulata if he felt Rule 16 was what was applicable and the lawmaker responded in the affirmative.”
Gbajabiamila said, “We have read Rules 16 and 18 and both of them have one thing in common and that is re-gazetting. Although Rule 16 gives an alternative to say ‘or copies be made available’, what we need to find out now is whether or not it was re-gazetted.”
Lending his voice to the debate, Deputy Speaker Ahmed Wase, recalled that members, especially those in the opposition, had once frustrated a consideration of the bill, alleging that they were attempting to change the rules to be applied midway.
“I know that there was no way we should have considered a bill without a notice,” Wase said, alleging that most of the antagonists might not have been in the chamber when the bill was earlier passed.
The Leader of the PDP caucus in the House, Hon. Kingsley Chinda, however, said most of the lawmakers aligned with the thought of Mzondu, adding that the procedure of the bill had to be addressed.
“What I believe our colleague (Mzondu) has raised is that his right as a parliamentarian has been infringed upon as a result of wrong procedure. And Mr. Speaker, a lot of us align with that position. Simply, we ought to re-gazette this bill. And the simple truth is if we fail to address the procedure, even if it is assented to by Mr. President, the court can set it aside.
“What is wrong in adopting in the proper procedure? He is not asking that the bill should be killed; let us re-gazette it. There are members, who were not in the previous Assembly, who did not have the opportunity of seeing that bill gazetted; give them the opportunity.”
Ruling on the matter, Gbajabiamila pointed out that matters of privilege were not to be debated but he allowed comments due to the sensitivity of the matter.
His words: “I want you to recall that I had a Bill on the floor of this House (the infectious diseases Bill), being sensitive to the rule, I stepped my Bill down and sent it for public hearing. On the issue raised by Hon. Mzondu, he has backed it up by clear language of provisions of our rules, which states that any such bill must be regazzetted.
“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 and 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.”
At the end of the day, the plot to get the bill passed through the back door was successfully thwarted through a parliamentary coup that was well executed.T