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Furore over unending reintroduction of rejected Water Resources Bill

By Chijioke Iremeka
30 July 2022   |   2:41 am
The latest reintroduction of the rejected Water Resources Bill to the 9th National Assembly is arousing a lot of curiosity among Nigerians and has resurrected the sharp criticism of the proposed law

The latest reintroduction of the rejected Water Resources Bill to the 9th National Assembly is arousing a lot of curiosity among Nigerians and has resurrected the sharp criticism of the proposed law that led to its rejection by the 7th and 8th assemblies, CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes.

When news of the reintroduction of the rejected Water Resources Bill in the 9th National Assembly broke out, a lot of Nigerians from across the country received it with disbelief and became more curious about the intention of the sponsors.

Those who discerned that the proposed law is meant to ensnare some parts of the country for the benefit of other parts cautioned the lawmakers and the general public, including civil society organisations, against giving any consideration to the bill which they described as obnoxious and a serious threat to the corporate existence of the country.

Socio-political analysts argued that the rejected Water Resources Bill promises to achieve what an earlier rejected Rural Gracing Area (RUGA) settlement policy could not achieve, warning the country, especially Southern lawmakers and governors, never to consent to the bill.

They expressed worry that at a time when Nigerians are earnestly seeking power devolution to make the 36 states and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) viable, the executive arm of government is looking for a way to further deprive the states of their power to own and control the resources in their domain.

According to them, President Muhammadu Buhari, who has appeared desperate about the bill, under the guise of effective use of water, has a plan to seize the natural resources in the states and control the surface and underground waters with their contents if the bill sails through.

Wondering how the idea of such a “sinister bill” was conceived and presented to the National Assembly in the first place to be passed into law, the stakeholders described whoever originated the bill as an enemy of the country and very insensitive to the mood of the nation.

They lamented that the country is still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it by herdsmen who are allegedly bent on capturing farmlands across Nigeria and turning them into grazing fields for their livestock at the expense of the masses and food security.

On Wednesday this week, governors of the 36 states of the federation unanimously declared opposition to the controversial Water Resources Bill, describing the proposed law as unconstitutional.

The governors, in a statement issued at the end of their 5th teleconference meeting, under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), on Tuesday argued that “the bill does not adequately address the interests of the states and is inconsistent with provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” They sought a review of the bill to accommodate the concerns of all the states.

A lawyer, Ikwuemesi Duncan, said “when this is done, the water and the river banks would automatically be in possession of the herders for settlement, gracing and full occupation which was the intention of RUGA policy, thereby denying the states the rights to control the resources within the state in accordance with the country’s Land Use Act.”

By so doing, he noted, the locals would be living with killer herdsmen to their detriment as evident in regular and senseless killings, burning of houses and farmlands, and raping and maiming of innocent citizens across the country.

Barely a week before Buhari’s first term cabinet was dissolved in May 2019, the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, said that the president had approved the RUGA plan.

According to a statement released by the presidency on Sunday, June 30, the implementation of RUGA settlements was to curb the open grazing of animals that continued to pose a security threat to farmers and herders.

The conflict, most notably over land access and resources, has led to the death of thousands of Nigerians in the past few years, with herders usually blamed for the majority of the attacks.

The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mohammed Umar, announced on Tuesday, June 25 that the settlements would house nomadic herdsmen who breed animals.

“We felt that to do away with herders-farmers conflict, we need to settle our nomads and those who breed animals. We want to put them in a place that has been developed as a settlement, where we provide water for their animals, pasture, schools for their children, and security among others,” he said.

But the National Assembly members and a lot of other Nigerians found the plan as a cover-up by the Federal Government to take control of the resources belonging to the states, including land and water bodies, the reason RUGA was defeated.

“Don’t be deceived, what the Federal Government wants to do is to take over the water resources from the states and local governments, while anyone who wants to sink a borehole in his village must go to the Federal Government to get permission and this comes with a cost,” a lawyer, Lawrence Ndukwe, warned.

Obsessed by the controversial Water Resources Bill, the presidency introduced it to the National Assembly, seeking its approval to enable it to take regulatory control of all surface and groundwater resources in the country.

The Bill was titled ‘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 Ground Water Resources and for Related Matter.’

The proposed law reads: “The right to the use, management and control of all surface water and groundwater affecting more than one state pursuant to Item 64 of the Exclu­sive Legislative list in Part l of the Second Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, and as set out in the First Schedule to this Act, together with the beds and banks, is vested in the Government of the Federation to be exercised in accordance with the provisions of this Act.”

The bill was opposed due to some of its provisions such as those in clause 13 which provides that: “In implementing the principles under subsection (2) of this section, the institutions established under this act shall promote integrated water resources management and the coordinated management of land and water resources, surface water and groundwater resources, river basins and adjacent marine and coastal environment and upstream and downstream interests.”

Also, Section 2(1) of the bill provides that “All surface water and groundwater, wherever it occurs, is a resource common to all people’’ while Section 120 of the bill makes it compulsory for Nigerians to obtain a driller’s permit before sinking a borehole in their homes.

Beyond the surface provisions, there are causes for concern that the bill seeks to give full control of all waterways and their banks in Nigeria to Fulani herdsmen with their cattle, and subsequently to further their territorial expansionism ambition, under the guise that all Nigerians have fundamental rights to free movement.

Expectedly, the bill has jolted Nigerians and aroused deep suspicion. The Senate is split into two groups of supporters and opponents. While the supporters are mainly from the core north, the opponents are mainly from the Middle Belt and Southern states.

Looking at the division in the Senate, it is obvious that the bill was designed to rob Peter to pay Paul.

It appeared that the southern lawmakers realised that the intent of the bill is for the federal authorities to take control of the water resources of the south to compensate the north. This truth is self-evident from the way the Senators addressed the bill along regional lines.

It’s on record that since the Nigerian democracy in 1999 to date, no southerner has been made the Minister of Water Resources. All those that have occupied the position have come from the north. This is considered to be deliberate since the north is arider and needs more water for irrigation and dams, among others, than the humid south.

Apart from the discontent in the Senate, some groups and states have promptly rejected the bill in its entirety and asked the presidency to withdraw it.

The Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) flatly rejected the bill, describing it as portending danger to the zone and national unity.

The Guardian learnt that the overriding objective of this bill is to vest in the Federal Government the total control of all the freshwater resources across Nigeria. The implications are numerous. If the bill is passed into law, the rights of citizens over freshwater resources – ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and springs among others will be eroded. It will be illegal, under the circumstance, for any person, anywhere, including in remote villages, to sink a borehole, for instance, without a permit from the Federal Government.

Curiously, this is the third time President Buhari is introducing this suspicious bill to the National Assembly. In 2018, during his first term in office, under Bukola Saraki as President of the Senate and Yakubu Dogara as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Buhari brought the bill to the National Assembly and it was rejected.

Thereafter, in 2020, shortly after being sworn in for his second term, Buhari re-introduced the bill and again, it was rejected. Now, this latest attempt coming barely10 months to the end of his tenure is seen as an indirect bid to alter the provisions of the Land Use Act that entrusts state land to governors.

“This is a blatant attack on federalism that Nigerians badly need, besides constituting a heinous evil against the indigenous peoples of Nigeria. Clearly, the bill is part of the larger Fulanisation agenda, of which the President is seen as encouraging,” Luke Onyekakeyah said.

According to an article titled That Obnoxious Water Resources Bill by Onyekakeyah, published by The Guardian in 2018, at a time when state governments are being urged to embark on massive agricultural production that would require water for irrigation in some cases, it would not be possible for state governments to irrigate farmlands from streams, lakes, ponds or earth dams without first getting permission from Abuja.

“The bill will clip the wings of state and local government authorities as well as individuals from making use of the water in their backyard without a permit from Abuja. This development will engender serious contentions across Nigeria. The result would be water wars, which would be more devastating than the contentions over grazing land and even oil,” Onyekakeyah argued.

He noted that the explanations being offered by the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu and the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to President Muhammadu Buhari on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Solomon Ita Enang, that the bill was misunderstood by the lawmakers who kicked against it, are spurious.

He insisted that there is no lawmaker who does not understand that if the Federal Government takes over the control of freshwater resources across Nigeria, it is tantamount to suppression and enslavement of indigenous peoples across Nigeria.

“Besides, the argument that the new bill is meant to consolidate existing water laws doesn’t make sense. The Water Resources Act; Cap W2 LFN 2004; the River Basin Development Authority Act; Cap R9 LFN 2004; the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act; Cap N1100A LFN 2004 and the National Water Resources Institute Act, Cap N83 LFN 2004 have been there without denying the people the right to exploit their freshwater resources, which the new bill seeks to achieve.

“Since cattle herding is not possible without water, somehow, the bill was designed to give herdsmen and their cattle unfettered access to freshwaters all over Nigeria. The River Basin Development Authority Act, which came into effect in 1976, has not served any useful purpose other than being a drainpipe.

“Let no one is deceived that the law would promote equity and fairness. There is no equity or fairness in the way nature distributes its resources. Nature is selective. That is why a country like Saudi Arabia has enormous oil resources while Israel has nothing. There is Lake Chad in the Northeast while there is none in the south.

“The drainage density is high in the south than in the north of Nigeria. Crude oil is in the Niger Delta and not in the Sokoto-Rima basin. The only way to make these things equitable is by force or through laws and regulations, which is what the Federal Government intends to achieve. Let there be laws, but not draconian laws as the bill portends,” Onyekakeyah said.

Reacting to the development, a global self-determination group, United Indigenous People of Africa (UNIPA) and a Southwest socio-political organisation, Yoruba Ronu Leadership Forum, encouraged the federal lawmakers, especially those from the Southern and Middle Belt regions to stand their ground against the reintroduction of the controversial bill.

Warned against the danger inherent in the bill if passed into law, the two organisations said it would further subjugate the economic powers and independence of the Southern states to the Federal Government.

In a statement, the Co-Convener of UNIPA, Ms Jean May, from New York, described the moves by the Federal Government to take over the control of all water banks, including its streams and all resources therein, as an attempt to completely take over assets of the already oppressed indigenous people in the country.

The group described the newly re-introduced bill seeking to place the control of all resources accrued through water on the surface or on the ground under the control of the central government, as a mockery of Nigeria’s already quasi-federal principles.

UNIPA described the bill as an attack on universal federalism and an exhibition of wickedness on the part of the Nigerian government, which it said if passed, would further weaken the states and local governments that are already in bankruptcy due to usurpation of their functions by the Federal Government.

The group, which insisted that there is no sense in the bill, further explained: “For the sake of ordinary people who may not understand the danger ahead, the implications of the Water Resources Bill is that Osun-Osogbo River; Erin-Ijesha Water Fall; Asejire Water and others, which are tourist sites that generate millions of naira monthly to Osun government will now be administered by the Federal Government.

“Specifically, it means that the Federal Ministry of Water Resources in Abuja will now determine the administration of the Osun-Osogbo Festival. Part of the implications of the bill is that the administration and control of Ipole/Iloro Water Fall; Ikogosi Warms Spring; Ado-Ekiti Water Works; Ero River; Ogidigbi Stream, and Iyemero Water, all in Ekiti State and across the south, would now belong to the Federal Government.”

President of Yoruba Ronu, Mr Akin Malaolu said the bill portended great danger for the Southwest states, in particular, urging the leaders in the south including political, traditional as well as religious heads not to be silent on the matter.

He encouraged the leaders to speak out before the entire country is put at the mercy of those who believe that Nigeria is their sole property and other ethnic groups are slaves. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, has faulted the claims by the ministers of Water Resources, and his Information counterpart that the bill was not rejected by the Senate.

Abaribe was said to have vowed to mobilise his colleagues whose interest would be jeopardised with the passage of the bill, to oppose the proposed law if it is brought to the floor of the red chamber again.

He was quoted as saying: “When a bill comes for concurrence to the Senate from the House of Representatives for us to either agree or not, and we do not concur, it means that it was rejected. So, trying to come up with such a story is very unfortunate. The minister should first get his facts right before fielding the public with incorrect information.”

The National President of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr Bitrus Porgu, reminded the Buhari-led administration that it would not stay in power forever, hence to be mindful of what he does in the country.

The spokesperson of the House of Representatives and Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, while addressing newsmen in Abuja recently, said the lower chamber could reject the bill again if the contentious provisions for which it was rejected earlier, are still in the reintroduced version.

When the new bill sponsored by Sada Soli (APC, Katsina) was read for the first time, a lawmaker, Mark Gbillah (PDP, Benue) promptly raised a point of order, reminding the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila that the bill had generated a number of controversies previously and shouldn’t be brought back.

“We wonder why this issue is still being represented on the floor of the House. Some of us are not comfortable, or in support of this bill,” he said.

But Gbajabiamila said the sponsor and Chairman of the Water Resources Committee, Soli assured him that those contentious issues in the former bill had been addressed in the new one.

“I asked the chairman the same question and he told me that the issues that were raised then have been addressed by all the governors. 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,” he said.

Kalu told journalists that there must be something that made the governor’s forum ask their representatives not to support the bill.

“The bill may 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,” the PDP lawmaker said.

The fear is rife particularly because Buhari has always voiced his belief in grazing routes and the nomadic rights of his Fulani kinsmen without voicing a corresponding concern about the havoc on farmers and their farms across the country.

There are reasons to fear that if the law sails through, natives will be rooted out of their indigenous land, which is akin to handing the country, or parts of it over to the Fulani through the back door. The situation could lead to an internecine war. This informs the wide condemnations trailing the re-introduction of the bill.