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Water Resources Bill and National Assembly’s Feeble Attempts

From Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi

Public Forum


 

 

If there is any event in recent times that amply demonstrates that nations succeed or fail and define their essential character by the way they challenge the unknown and cope with fears, it is the Senate’s recent and final rejection on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, of the controversial National Water Resources Bill, 2023, after it was listed for concurrence on the order paper for consideration and passage.

Very newsy is the awareness that despite wide condemnation, criticism and description by stakeholders as a code that is out of harmony with moral laws, the bill, which was first introduced in 2018, spanned both the 8th and 9th National Assemblies.

Adding context to this discourse, the bill as introduced in August 2018 emanated from the executive arm and, among other things, sought to establish a “regulatory framework for the water resources sector in Nigeria, provide for the equitable and sustainable development management, use and conservation of Nigeria’s surface water, groundwater resources and for related matters.”

Going by the content of the bill, it was easy for Nigerians to situate without labour that the greatest ill associated with it was its tendency to disenfranchise and separate Nigerians from ancestral ownership of their water rights and hand over everything to a set of federal technocrats by confusing Nigerians with the fallacy that “ownership rights to water” was the same as “water use rights.”

Also working against the bill at that time was the accompanying belief by Nigerians with critical interest that the urge to have the bill passed was driven not by love for having the nation’s water resources judiciously managed or for the nation to develop agriculturally as claimed by the lawmakers, but by sectional and parochial interests.

A typical example in support of the above claim was the fact that some pro-bill senators in the outgone 8th Assembly used barefaced inaccuracies to mislead the Senate and drum up support for the bill. For example, it was claimed on the floor of the Senate that the World Bank was waiting on the passage of the bill into law to “grant” trillions of naira to develop Nigeria’s irrigation infrastructure. This could not be farther from the truth, as the World Bank would never and cannot ask a nation to deprive its citizens of their inherited and cultural rights to water as a condition for granting loans.

After a very long and sustained outcry by Nigerians, the bill was stepped down.

But before the dust raised by the introduction of the an obnoxious bill could settle, another was brought up, as the 9th NASS, in September 2019, had the bill re-introduced.

Like the experience and reactions by Nigerians when it was first introduced, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) threatened that, if government reintroduce what they referred to as an inimical and controversial water resources bill, which was formerly stepped down by the 8th Assembly after much public outcry, southern Nigeria’s people would do everything lawful to resist the passage of that bill, which would colonise them. The group, in that statement, warned that the bill should not be another form of petroleum laws that have denied the Niger Delta people right to controlling the petroleum resources in their land and warned that the bill, if passed, was capable of causing a civil war in the country. This was in addition to more condemnation by Nigerians with critical minds.

What caused serious concern, going by what Nigerians were saying, was that the bill, viewed from a wider spectrum, stood as a telling proof of the federal government’s insensitivity to the people of the Niger Delta and other water areas. This fear expressed by the coastal dwellers cannot be described as unfounded as it was a similar Decree 101 of 1992, which is now incongruously dressed up as an act of the National Assembly (Water Resource Act Cap W2 LFN 2OO4) that robbed every Nigerian of their water rights as it was hurriedly signed into law by the then military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida as his parting gift to Nigerians.

After some moment of debate, protracted accusations and counteraccusations, the re-introduced bill went underground.

But in July 2022, the Federal Government, in its usual manner, confirmed that, in Nigeria’s leadership corridor, once a direction is chosen, instead of examining process meticulously and setting the right course, one that will allow us to overcome storm and reach safety before we can progress and achieve our goals, many obstinately persist with the execution of such plans regardless of a minor or major shift in circumstance, as it again made another feeble attempt to have the bill reintroduced.

This particular feeble re-introduction, coupled with other persistent inabilities on the part of the now outgone President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government to promptly respond to the socioeconomic needs of Nigerians adversely turned public affairs commentators, development professional and public policy watchers to a bunch that kept repeating one topic.

For me, aside from ushering in an unjust law and setting the table to truncate the nascent peace enjoyed in the country while ushering in another round of hostility, as the people are committed to peace by any means necessary but may not be committed to becoming the victims of peace, if the bill was passed and signed to law, it would have turned to be what future historians would certainly describe as a disastrous decision on the part of the 8th and 9th National Assembly.

To succeed in this assignment, the President Bola Ahmed Tinubu-led Federal Government must be holistic in approach and practice deliberative democracy.

Even if such or a similar bill is going to be introduced in the future, the NASS must pave the way for other stakeholders such as civil society groups and water experts to fully make their inputs, submit memoranda and possibly be given the opportunity to make a presentation as it relates to this bill.

As noted in a recent but similar intervention, the government must desist from the current non-participatory approach to development in the Niger Delta and other coastal areas and embrace a broad-based consultative approach that will give the people of the region some sense of ownership over their own issues.

Instead of taking away their resources, this author is of the view that this is an auspicious time for the federal government to come up with steps that will allocate more power and resources to the state and those at the grassroots.

Most importantly, it will equally be rewarding if the Federal Government aggressively address the issues of youth unemployment in the region, weak regulation on the parts of its ministries and agencies, tackle the oil companies’ lackadaisical handling of the environment and ensure compliance with the implementation of the Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU) so entered with host communities.

•Utomi writes via

Jeromeutomi@yahoo.com

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