On May 24, 2018, the Senate witnessed another divisive session over the evaluation of an executive bill seeking to regulate the management of water resources in the country and transfer most of the regulatory powers to the federal government.
The bill was 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 Ground Water Resources and for Related Matter”.
Not unexpectedly, its introduction on the floor of the Senate elicited a heated debate and a divide among the senators. Support for the bill and those that want it thrown out was drawn along regional lines. As it were, the majority of the bill’s supporters were mainly from the core north while their counterparts from the south and sections of the middle belt rose against it.
The bill provides that “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.”
Another contentious clause is the declaration that, “All surface water and ground water wherever it occurs is a resource common to all people, the use of which is subject to statutory control.
The thought that the entire water resources, both above and beneath the ground, will be under the control of the federal government was enough to trigger suspicions of a “hidden agenda” in the introduction of the bill by the Presidency.
In fact, some groups, organisations and states have quickly intervened, asking the Presidency to withdraw the bill. The Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), the umbrella body of the people of South-South geo-political zone, said it portends danger to the zone and national unity.
In a statement, the group denounced the bill, saying “it is obnoxious and could trigger an unimaginable crisis. It must be rejected.” Similarly, some state government have been unequivocal in their rejection of the bill.
Whatever may have been the intention of the Presidency in tabling the bill, it seems that this time may be the most inauspicious for its introduction.
With the toxic atmosphere generated by government’s feeble effort to rein in the murderous campaign of cattle herders who have been wreaking havoc on many farming communities across the country over access to land, the dead on arrival bid to introduce cattle colonies in every state and the seeming impunity with which Fulani herdsmen have been taunting and killing unarmed people across the country, the bill could not have come at a worse time.
Access to land and water are two sensitive issues in the country. The controversy surrounding the Land Use Act which was introduced by the military is yet to be resolved as the law tampered with customary beliefs on land management and ownership.
At a time components of the country are seeking a review or outright scrapping of the law and against the backdrop of the deepening clamour for a review of the structure of the federation with more powers devolved to the states, enacting a law to hand over the ownership of water resources to a distant central government is ill-timed and unimaginative.
The bill is not consistent with the state of affairs in a country in search of a new identity and discovery. Even if there was a compelling need for such a bill to be enacted, the sensitive nature of water management and ownership should have driven the Presidency to consult extensively in order to enlighten the people on what the bill seeks to achieve.
A situation where the Presidency which is being viewed with suspicion over its handling of issues that border on national cohesion and equitable distribution of resources unilaterally tabled such a bill with wide implications could only have attracted heated debate and negativity.
Even in the heat of the debate, the Presidency has not ventured any explanation on the objectives of the bill and how the concerns of the people contiguous to the bodies of water will be addressed.
It is clear that a continuation of the evaluation of the bill is inadvisable. Under the circumstance, the logical thing for the Presidency to do is to withdraw the bill and initiate wide ranging consultation with all stakeholders. A detailed explanation of its objectives bill and why the people have no cause to worry should be made.
It is only after the various groups may have bought into the venture that the bill can be represented. If, however, there is overwhelming opposition to the contentious clauses of the bill or the entire text, the logic of democratic governance dictates that the bill be dropped outright.