Water Bill 2020: Will NASS continue consideration amidst protests?

Going by antagonisms expressed so far by some Nigerians against further consideration and passage of the Water Resources Bill 2020 by the National Assembly, will the federal lawmakers jettison it or forge ahead ? TAIYE ODEWALE reports.

History of the Bill

President Muhammadu Buhari had in 2017,  forwarded the bill to the National Assembly which seeks to concentrate the control of water resources under the Federal Government.

But while the Bill had smooth sail at the House of Representatives wing of the 8th National Assembly then, it ran into troubled waters in the Senate in May 2018 when it was presented for consideration at third reading stage by the then Senate Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan who is now the President of the 9th Senate .

Incidentally the major opponent against the bill then was Senator Godswill Akpabio who did so, in his capacity as Minority leader then but now in the ruling All Progressives Congress ( APC ) and now Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs.

The bill was stood down in the Senate then , when Akpabio led other senators mostly from the southern part of the country to kick against it .

Opponents of the bill had pointed out that if passed into law, it would further centralise power and the nation’s resources. This, they argued, would counter their agitation for devolution of powers.

The bill according to its antagonists in the Senate then, sought  to create new Federal Government bodies to take over the responsibilities of the states as far as management and control of water resources are concerned.

The second coming of the bill 

Though the bill is yet to be reintroduced on the floor of the 9th Senate but it had passed second reading stage in the House of Representatives with attendant public outcry against it.

Notable among those kicking against the bill are the Governor of Benue state, Samuel Ortom, the Nobel Laurette, Professor Wole Soyinka, as well as regional bodies such as Afenifere from the South West, Ohaneze Ndigbo from the South East, Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum etc .

While Ortom’s opposition against the bill was fuelled by constant clashes between herders and farmers in Benue state , that of Wole Soyinka is hinged on alleged move by the federal government to further centralize the Nigerian federation.

Specifically, Soyinka in a statement issued against consideration and passage of the bill by the National Assembly warned that the bill, if passed into law, would hand the President “absolute control over the nation’s entire water resources, both over and underground”.

The Nobel Laurette in the statement titled: ” MLK’s Mighty Stream of Righteosuness,’ in reference to the late Martin Luther King,  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”. 

On the part of the regional groups particularly , the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum led by Chief Edwin Clark, the bill should not be given any further attention by the federal lawmakers , since accordimg to the group, it “runs contrary to the need for Devolution of powers and restructuring , concerned citizens have been clamouring for” .

According to the regional leaders, “The bill will not be acceptable to millions of Nigerians who have, for years, advocated a return to true federalism, the only manifest agreement among our founding fathers on how Nigeria should live together in peace.

“Instead of putting measures in place to return the country to a federal system, the government is bringing measures that make ours look like a unitary system. 

“Therefore, the reintroduction of this bill, at this point in time, is insensitive and can also arouse suspicion of an underhand plot to bring the abandoned RUGA policy through the backdoor.

“We believe that there are, indeed, many reasons Nigerians are opposed to the contentious bill. Apart from its obvious contradictions, parts of the bill are so outlandish in intendment and purposes .

“Thus , the bill which apparently cannot be redeemed should be withdrawn forthwith before it strains the good relations between the executive and the legislature, and before it further divides the country”.

Some of the perceived controversial provisions of the bill which primarily seek to regulate usage of water resources in the country are: section
98 which states that “the use of water shall be subject to licencing provisions. Section 107 which states that a licence may be cancelled if the licencee “fails to make beneficial use of the water.

Also, Section 120 makes it compulsory for Nigerians to obtain a driller’s permit before sinking a borehole in their homes.

Other controversial provisions in the bill include: Section  104 which provides for  Emergency powers in case of shortage of water

(1) (b) 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 authorization.

Section 125 of the bill is also part of the proposed provisions being  kicked against by some Nigerians . Subsection ( 2) of the section states thus : “an  authorized person’ may, at any reasonable time and on production of their identity card or other instrument or certificate of designation if so required, enter a property with the necessary persons, vehicles, equipment and material in order to carry out routine inspections of the use of water or disposal of waste water under any authorization”.

But government officials from the Minister of Information , Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed to his counterpart in the Ministry of Water Resources, Engineer Suleiman Hussein Adamu, had tried in separate reactions to allay the fears of Nigerians on negative perception of the bill. 

According to the ministers , the  Bill is a consolidation of existing laws like  Water Resources Act 2004, National Water Resources Institute Act, River Basin Development Authorities Act  and the Nigeria Hydrological Services Act. 

Provisions,  management and supplies of portable water according to the Water Resources minister, will still largely be under the control of respective state governments.

In whatever way the arguments are viewed, either for or against the bill, the National Assembly and not the bill, seems to be in the eye of the storm . 

How it will get out of it is what is not known yet , whether by jetisioning the bill or forging ahead on its consideration , more so, when as far as July 2019, the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, called for its re- introduction by the executive arm of government.

Lawan in making the call after screening of Engineer Suleiman Hussein Adamu as Ministerial nominee then, said, “Actually, Water Resources Bill was turned down during the 8th Senate controversially through opposition led by a Senator who is now on the side of government.

“We tried to manage the situation then but  we couldn’t save the bill but if re- introduced, we shall surely give it better attention because the intended legislation , will lead to a better managed and regulated water resources environment in the country.”

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