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Water Resources Bill of Controversy

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A bill – National Water Resources Bill, 2020 (HB 2024) introduced in the House of Representatives on June 29, is evoking memories of the dictator, General Sani Abacha’s controversial Lands (Title Vesting, etc) Decree No. 52 of 1993. The National Water Resources bill was first introduced in the 8th Assembly in April 2017 during President Muhammadu Buhari’s first term. The bill passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate and was jettisoned after the Senate Committee on Water Resources to which the bill was referred, could not report back on it before the 8th Assembly came to an end in June 2019, as a result of the controversy around the bill.

On July 7, 2020, the National Water Resources bill was re-gazetted and reintroduced in the 9th House of Representatives by its sponsor, Hon. Sada Soli (APC: Katsina). It was then referred to the Committee of the Whole and eventually passed and forwarded to the Senate for concurrence. Following its failure to pass in the Senate, the 9th House of Representatives has introduced the bill again.

Several prominent Nigerians, including legislators have expressed their reservations on the bill. Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom who addressed the most recent reintroduction of the bill, said that his State would not be a part of it. According to him, “The Federal Government’s insistence to take over control of water resources across the country is tantamount to the suppression and enslavement of indigenous people of this country.”

The National Water Resources bill seeks to provide for the nation’s water resources to be ‘adequately protected from degradation and pollution’ and to enhance citizens’ rights of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. It also seeks to create the following establishments: a National Council on Water Resources, a Nigeria Water Resources Regulatory Commission, River Basin Development Authorities, a Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency and a National Water Resources Institute. The bill will empower the Nigeria Water Resources Regulatory Commission it seeks to create, to issue licences.

There are several concerns about the bill. First, it seeks to create in one fell swoop, four new agencies of government. For a country crying over excessive numbers of regulatory agencies, several of which are redundant, underfunded or unfunded and inefficient, this seems to be going over the top. Secondly, it seems to be creating an added layer of licensing simply aimed at generating money rather than any added value. With government agencies well reputed for collecting funds and fees from the public and unable to apply these for the benefit of the citizens, there is the question whether this does not add to those concerns. With boreholes being dug across the country, mostly because of government’s infrastructural failures, this licensing regime can only add to the burden of citizens rather than address any important public concern.

The bill as stated earlier, points to reminders about the late dictator, General Sani Abacha’s Lands (Title Vesting, etc) Decree No. 52 of 1993, which clearly defined land within 100 metres of the shoreline of Nigeria and any other land reclaimed from any lagoon, sea or ocean in or bordering Nigeria as belonging to the Federal Government. Under General Sani Abacha, this decree was used to appropriate prime land in some coastal States. Of particular note, was the acquisition of lands in Ikoyi Foreshore, Banana Island and the Atlantic coast. These lands were appropriated by the Abacha regime and shared to friends and business associates without any national interest value.

The fear regarding the National Water Resources bill is that it also has provisions similar to General Abacha’s Decree No. 52 of 1993. It has provisions that gives the Federal Government powers ‘over water affecting more than one State’, including water beds and banks of such water bodies. This particular provision is bound to be controversial and raises questions about the intent of the bill. Indeed, questions will be exacerbated by the fact that the 1999 Nigerian Constitution by virtue of the Land Use Act incorporated in it, may be violated by this bill.

Given the calls for devolution of powers, federalism and even calls to shed the long Exclusive Legislative List, there is no doubt that this bill will encounter strong opposition from States and experts that have for long, advocated for true federalism in Nigeria. With the 9th National Assembly left with only a few months before dissolution in June 2023, it will be interesting to see the pace, if at all, that this bill travels before the 9th National Assembly winds down.