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Udora Orizu writes that the controversial national water resources bill which has resurfaced at the National Assembly is set for second reading at the House of Representatives
On June 29, 2022, a slight drama played out on the floor of the House of Representatives as concerned lawmakers frowned at the reintroduction of the controversial National Water Resources Bill slated for first reading.
The bill, which was initially introduced and rejected during the 8th Assembly, following public outcry, is believed by many to be Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) in disguise.
Specifically, the Bill as introduced in previous assembly and present 9th National Assembly seeks to empower the Federal Government to control all water resources in the country such as rivers, streams, lakes and underground water in all parts of the country.
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; National 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.”
Re-introduction of the Bill in 9th Assembly
Following the failure of the bill to sail through Eighth Assembly, the bill was re-introduced at the Ninth Assembly.
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. Speaking later in an interview, Fulata described the passage of the bill as a done deal, saying, the process would not be reversed.
According to him: “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 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, FG Differ
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) in a statement signed by its President, Ayuba Wabba, 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 also 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.
However despite criticisms the federal government on September 22, 2020 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 Legislative Coup Against the Bill
In September 2020, following the raging controversies, debate on the bill succeeded in pitting Southern lawmakers against their Northern counterparts.
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.
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.”
The Bill’s Reintroduction
At the plenary, two weeks ago concerned lawmakers again kicked against the reintroduction of the Bill, when it was presented for first reading.
The Bill was reintroduced, but this time sponsored by Chairman of the Committee on Water Resources, Hon. Sada Soli (APC, Katsina).
Shortly after the Speaker Gbajabiamila called on the Clerk to the House, Yahaya Danzaria to read out the short title of the Bill, a member, Hon. Mark Gbillah (PDP, Benue) raised a point of order, reminding Gbajabiamila that the bill generated lots of controversies last year and shouldn’t be brought back.
Gbillah said, “We wonder why this issue is still being represented on the floor of the House. Some of use are not comfortable nor in support of this bill.”
Responding, Gbajabiamila said the sponsor, Hon. Soli has assured him that contentious issues in the former bill which bothered many last year has been addressed in this new bill.
The Speaker urged his colleagues to talk to their respective state Governors to get their opinion on how it affects their states.
He said, “I asked the chairman the same thing this morning and he told me that the issues that were raised then have been addressed by all the Governors. Apparently this new bill all the governors of the federation both south and north have input in the new bill. I will take him by his word. We live in a diverse country and everybody’s sensitivity should be taken into consideration. The governors govern their states and they know what affects them. We should leave it at that, be very vigilant, talk to your governors and get their opinion on how it affects your states.”
But, Gbillah countering the Speaker’s advise said whatever the Governors may have agreed on is not acceptable, adding that he’s very sure his State Governor, Samuel Ortom, didn’t agree to this.
His words, “With all due respect to our governors, we are duly elected by the mandate in this house to represent interest of our people. We are also coming from the premise of that constitutional powers we have. Whatever the governors may have agreed upon may not be acceptable to us. It’s imperative that all of us collectively are given copies immediately of whatever this water bill says. The contentious issue is that the federal government will be taking ownership and possession of water ways. As much as the Governors may have discussed which is still subject to confirmation, because my Governor in Benue state has not agreed to this.”
Corroborating, another Benue lawmaker, Hon. John Dyegh said Governors can’t decide for lawmakers, and must consult them before taking a decision on the Bill.
Reacting to Gbillah, Gbajabiamila said, “He (Soli) specifically mentioned your governor’s name.”
In his response, Gbillah insisted that governor, Ortom has not agreed for the Bill to be reintroduced.
Agreeing that everyone’s voice must be heard regarding the Bill, Gbajabiamila however corrected the lawmakers assertion that he said Governors can decide on the way forward on the Bill.
He thereafter directed the Chairman Committee on rules and business, Hon. Hassan Fulata, to ensure every lawmaker gets the copy of the bill to study ahead of the second reading debate.
He said, “You can object to any bill at any stage. I get your point I’m not by anyway saying the Governors will dictate to us. I’m saying that we work in a symbiotic relationship with the CEOs of the states and sometimes they are in better position to know what’s good for the states. We are here to represent people and our voices must be heard, irrespective of what the governors say. I hope we can work in tandem with the governors on the water resources bill.
“Chairman rules and business, before this matter comes up for second reading, make sure every lawmaker gets a copy to digest, to consult wide. We cannot play the ostrich knowing that this bill almost threw this company in flames. Members should read it properly.”
Commenting after the Speaker’s ruling, the Bill sponsor and Chairman of the Committee on Water Resources, Hon. Sada Soli, said he will attach needed information for his colleagues to read through, vowing that if issues arise again he will withdraw the Bill.
“I will attach the comments of the governors forum, attorney general and that of the states too. They all commented. I assure my colleagues that I will not stand where a particular section of this country be shortchanged. If that happens I will withdraw the bill,” Soli said
Briefing journalists after plenary, the House Spokesman, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, said if the concerns raised by various stakeholders in the previous water bills had been addressed then it may pass, but if it’s a replica of the rejected bill, what happened two years ago will happen again.
His words, “If that has been cured and the title remains the same, the bill might pass if the concern has been cured. But if it is a replica of what was presented and rejected I am sure that what happened before would happen again. It is during second hearing that we debate bills and somebody mentioned a point of order that bills that have been rejected by a particular Assembly are not allowed to come back in that Assembly, until the next Assembly.
“I am yet to look at that that. But if that is the position of the law guiding us then it would stay. That you would not know until during debate. Let us wait. In line with Mr Speaker, who said that the sponsor of the bill is allowed to circulate the lead debate and bill contents to members before it is penciled down for second reading. So that means the presiding officer wants members to analyse the bill and now know whether it is the same like before or a different bill taking care of the issues but having the same title.”
Though Nigerians are yet to see the content of this new water bill, if the contentious sections which led to the controversies over the years is not addressed in this new bill, it will lead to another fireworks and possible eventual rejection by the stakeholders and Nigerians at large.