Ade Adesomoju, Leke Baiyewu and Olaleye Aluko
An executive bill sent to the Senate seeking to concentrate the control of water resources in the hands of the Federal Government has divided senators across regional lines.
While northern senators support the bill and its objectives, their southern counterparts are opposed to it.
Those opposed to it pointed out that the bill, if passed into law, would further centralise power and the nation's resources. This, they pointed out, would counter the current move towards devolution of powers, which is currently skewed in favour of the Federal Government.
President Muhammadu Buhari had sent the bill to the legislature in 2017, while the Majority Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, presented the bill as it is customary for executive bills.
It is 'A Bill 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 Groundwater Resources and for Related Matter.'
The summary of the bill reads, "This Act repeals the Water Resources Act, Cap W2 LFN 2004; River Basin Development Act Cap R9 LFN 2004; Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act, Cap N110A, LFN, 2004; NationaI Water Resources lnstitute Act Cap N83 LFN 2004; and establishes the National Council on Water Resources, Nigeria Water Resources Regulatory Commission, River Basin Development Authorities, Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency, and the National Water Resources Institute."
The proposed bodies, if established, will "provide for the regulation, equitable and sustainable development, management, use and conservation of Nigeria's surface water and groundwater resources."
The division occurred at the plenary on Thursday when the lawmakers considered the report on the bill by the Senate Committee on Water Resources.
The southern senators particularly criticised the move to create new Federal Government's bodies to take over the responsibilities of the states over the water resources within their territories.
The controversial parts of the bill are contained in Clauses 1 to 5.
The clauses read, "All surface water and groundwater wherever it occurs is a resource common to all people, the use of which is subject to statutory control.
"There shall be no private ownership of water but the right to use water in accordance with the provisions of this Act.
"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.
"As the public trustee of the nation's water resources, the Federal Government, acting through the minister and the institutions created in this Act or pursuant to this Act, shall ensure that the water resources of the nation are protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all persons and in accordance with its constitutional mandate.
"States may make provisions for the management, use and control of water sources occurring solely within the boundaries of the state but shall be guided by the policy and principles of the Federal Government in relation to Integrated Water Resources Management, and this Act."
The passage of the bill however suffered a setback when the Senate dissolved into the committee of the whole to consider the 152 clauses of the proposed law.
In a veiled persuasion of the lawmakers, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki said, "This bill has 152 clauses. This bill is the Leader's first bill. This bill is the President's bill, so we are going to have a very swift movement in passing this bill."
Unlike the normal process of taking the clauses one after the other, the Senate President put Clauses 1 to 50 to a voice vote at once.
Senator Yahaya Abdullahi (APC, Kebbi-North) however raised an issue with one of the clauses, asking the Senate to properly define 'bank' especially where it starts from and the distance it should be from a water body to the shore.
While he stated that he was not opposed to the bill, he noted that the clarification was needed for rivers that cross two or more states.
He likened it to a federal road which makes the government to acquire 50 metres from the centre of the road to both sides.
"Otherwise, a lot of conflicts are going to arise. River banks are much more contentious than roads because of agricultural and other activities," Abdullahi stated.
Senator Barnabas Gemade (APC, Benue North-West), however, dismissed Abdullahi's fears, saying that while the nature of the road was fixed, a river could increase or decrease in size.
Akpabio, Bayelsa, Ashafa, Adeola oppose bill
Opposing the bill, the Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio (PDP, Akwa Ibom North-West), who raised issues against Clause 3, warned against making a law that would lead to the Federal Government taking over the landed areas of riverine communities, especially communities where the water bodies dry off.
"When they dry off, they become residential. So, it will cause a lot of confusion. We really need to be careful," he noted.
Akpabio made reference to Lake Chad which used to have over 25,000 kilometres of water but had dried up to about 5,000 kilometres. He said it meant that the community now had 20,000 kilometres for farming and other activities, stressing that it would have been out of the reach of the people if the government had possessed the bank.
He said, "The kind of river we are talking about should be clearly defined. If we want to say that all waters in Nigeria must be legislated upon by the Federal Government, then we will cause a lot of confusion because there are a lot of communities that depend on small rivers to survive.
"If the banks now belong to the Federal Government, we are doing what we are not supposed to do; we are centralising power at the centre, we are not devolving powers. We are bringing Nigeria back to a unitary state. We are now making sure that even communities are now dispossessed of their land. Some of those places are natural elongation of the land."
Senator Emmanuel Paulker (PDP, Bayelsa-Central) backed Akpabio, noting that there was a need to define what a bank is.
He also pointed out that the Federal Government was about to take over resources in the states at a time when Nigerians were calling for devolution of powers.
He said, "Most of these rivers dry off, they are seasonal rivers. If we say banks are owned by the Federal Government, definitely it will create a lot of problems. We should look at it closely before we pass it. Most of the waters are drying off, so how do we define the banks?"
The Majority Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan (APC, Yobe-North), however, countered Akpabio, stating that the lawmaker was arguing in error.
Lawan noted that the clause was in reference to waters like River Benue and River Niger which flow through several states.
He urged the Senate to ignore the issues raised by those opposed to the bill. According to him, the Federal Government is not interested in water within a state.
Akpabio, however, insisted on his earlier position, saying, "I am saying that the essence of making a law is for the law to stand the test of time and not bring more confusion."
He cited the example of a small river in Akwa Ibom, a part of which is in Abia State. He noted that such rivers would be affected despite being small.
He also cited the example of the Cross River which has its source in the Cameroon Mountain and passes through Cross River State to Akwa Ibom and into Abia states.
Akpabio therefore asked that the rivers to be taken over by the Federal Government should be listed in the bill.
He said, "This is going to lead to a lot of legal confusion and rumblings, and we are further depriving our citizens of the right to make use of the resources within their communities. If we can deny our people a small water in their area because the water touches the next village which is in another state, automatically we are over-legislating."
Other lawmakers from the South, like Senators Gbenga Ashafa (APC, Lagos-East), Solomon Adeola (APC, Lagos-West), also spoke against the bill.
Adeola particularly cited the example of Lagos State which is currently in a legal battle with the Nigeria Inland Waterway Authority over the control of water resources. The case is already at the Court of Appeal.
It's a bill we've been waiting for-Aliero, Gemade, Garba
But Senators Ibrahim Gobir (APC, Sokoto-East), and Binta Masi Garba (APC, Adamawa-North) spoke for the bill.
Before the Senate dissolved into the committee of the whole, the lawmakers had differed on the clause proposing two per cent withdrawal from the Ecological Fund for water resources management.
Senator Adamu Aliero (APC, Kebbi-Central) described it as "a straightforward bill," saying, "It is a bill we have been waiting for,
for quite a long time."
Noting that he is a member of the committee which worked "seriously and diligently" on the bill, Aliero said the World Bank was waiting for the passage of the bill "so that they can bring in money to improve irrigation facilities in Nigeria."
He added that over $1.5bn had already been earmarked to be utilised by the global bank in the country's agricultural sector, stressing that it would encourage private sector's contribution into the sector.
Also commenting, the Deputy Minority Leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha (PDP, Taraba-South), expressed his support for Aliero's comments.
Although Paulker said the bill should be passed, he asked that some part be expunged from it and treated separately.
While Senator Francis Alimikhena (APC, Edo-North) said he agreed with Paulker's position, he stated that it was the law establishing the Ecological Fund that should be amended to allow the release of two per cent to water resources.
Saraki (APC, Kwara-Central), asked that the bill be passed while the Ecological Fund be amended later.
He said, "If we all agree that this (bill) is important and this is a priority, nothing stops us from passing this today and bring the Ecological Fund bill and pass it too. Doing it the other way (Ecological Fund law amendment) might be correct but I don't think it shows the importance and the seriousness that this deserves."
Lawan backed Saraki, saying nothing should stop the lawmakers from passing the bill.
To douse the rising tension, Saraki cut the debate short, ruling that the bill be stepped down and be reviewed.
The Senate President referred the bill to the Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen of the Committee on Water Resources and Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Director of Legal Services and Gemade "for further legislative action."
They are to report back on Wednesday.
Water bill negates restructuring -Ijaw youths
Meanwhile, the Ijaw Youth Council has kicked against the bill, noting that it was against the clamours of Nigerians for restructuring and state control of resources.
The IYC President, Pereotubo Oweilaemi, said, "That is unacceptable to us. Sending such a bill to the Senate is a tactical plot to control resources in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria is at a time when there are agitations for restructuring and resource control, but the President is seeking a bill that will enforce more federal control over the state resources.
"It is wrong and it doesn't go well with us as a people. It is a plot to further embarrass the people of the Niger Delta."
It's a mockery of federalism, restructuring agitation - Falana
Also, a human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), said the executive bill was a mockery of the principle of federalism and the agitation for restructuring which seeks the devolution of powers at the centre to the federating units.
He reiterated that the National Assembly could not legislate on "just any water" but only water that passed through more than one state.
Falana recalled that there was a judgment in which the Court of Appeal made the pronouncement when the court nullified the licences given by the Federal Government for dredging of some Lagos waters.
He said, "It is a mockery of the principle of federalism. It also makes a mockery of the widely accepted agitation for the devolution of powers from the centre to the federating units.
"The Court of Appeal has ruled that the National Assembly cannot legislate on just any water but only waters that pass through more than one state."