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Water Bill: Greater good or Trojan horse?

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When the Eighth National Assembly rejected the National Water Resources Bill (Water Bill) in 2017, it was partly but probably mostly because the bill divided them along party, religious and ethnic lines. Although that assembly was much criticised, they seemed adept at standing their ground in the face of executive pressure. Somehow, the presidency has pushed the same nuisance bill on to the Ninth National Assembly. Many commentators hope the current assembly will display at least the same grit and mettle of its predecessors.

The bill claims that it “seeks to establish a regulatory framework for the water resources sector in Nigeria, provide for the equitable and sustainable development management, use and conserve Nigeria’s surface water, groundwater resources and related matters.” But does it?

The embattled Minister of Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, who was at the time in the senate, led other ministers to vehemently oppose the bill. He is, these days, weathering a storm of his own and is not in much of a position to save the day. The legal framework for the bill asks many questions. Section 2(3) of the bill proclaims that, “The right to use, management and control of all surface water and ground water affecting more than one state pursuant to item 64 of the exclusive list in Part 1 of the Second Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, 1999 and as set out in Schedule 1 to this Act, together with the beds and banks thereof, is vested in the Government of the Federation to be exercised by the Government of the Federation in accordance with the provisions of this Act”. Item 64 of the Exclusive list in the Second Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, referred to as a framework for the bill reads thus, “Water from such sources as may be declared by the National Assembly to be sources affecting more than one state.” The bill goes further to attempt to derive a legal framework for itself from within itself by quoting its own first schedule. That should be a nullity. The only valid legal framework the Bill should rest upon is from a higher statute  in this case the constitution. And, going by the provisions of the constitution, it remains to be seen how groundwater in a person’s plot of land affects ‘more than one state’.

Section 3(1)(a and b) of the bill provides that a person may, without a license take water from a water source for the use of his household or for watering domestic livestock. The wisdom of this bill in a country that is fuming at what its citizens have described as incursion and trespass of herders remains unclear. Already, public commentators see the bill as nothing more than a legal perambulation to grant herdsmen access to water areas in their lands. Their fears are justified. If a person no longer owns the water bodies in his land, and the owner has permitted everyone to use the water for watering livestock, then the person must keep spectrally quiet if a herdsman enters his land to access the water body. The rejection of the RUGA bill not too long ago and the plethora of accusations, ranging from tribalism to despotism, that followed remains a blot on the federal government’s reputation and image. Now this.

If Nigerians feel that the proposed bill is a bit too thick, they cannot be blamed. Many Nigerians blanch with horror at the adverse impact of the federal government’s takeover of the crude oil resources in the Niger Delta. They were inclined to let it slide because the mineral resource in question affected only a particular region. The same is not the case now. Nigerians have threatened to rise in their numbers to combat the suspected attempt to deprive them of their rights to own the water bodies in their lands.

More than the people, however, the governors may also find it in the best interest of true federalism to denude the centre, not cede more power to the federal government. Nigeria has long been suspected to be hovering dangerously on the brink of operating a unitary government even though it claims to be federal. The issue of restructuring constantly arises because Nigerians complain that the federal government controls far too much. If the state governors can muster the same courage that helped them vent their objections against executive order 10 of 2020, which granted financial autonomy to the state legislature and state judiciary, surely they can address this even more pressing and truly vexatious issue.

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