At a time when Nigerians are clamouring for proper federalism that entails devolution of powers to the states and local authorities, the introduction of a Water Resources Bill by President Muhammadu Buhari, to further alienate the people from their God-given surface and ground fresh water resources is unfortunate, most uncalled for, repulsive and disgusting. The president should withdraw the bill in the public interest. Whoever originated this bill is insensitive to the mood of the nation at this material time. Who is it that is in this country and does not know that the nation is bleeding from wounds inflicted by rapacious herdsmen who are bent on expropriating farmlands across Nigeria and turning them into grazing fields? Hundreds of people have been killed while homes and properties worth billions have been destroyed. The trauma of affected communities across the Middle Belt and the southern states is unabated. If anything, Nigerians are not happy with the state of affairs in the country.
President Buhari ought to capture the mood of the nation and do something to make people happy. But to show insensitivity by coming up with another anti-people bill is regrettable. The Water Resources Bill amounts to adding insult to injury. The National Assembly should put the interest of the ordinary people at heart and reject the bill. The sharp division of the lawmakers in the Senate over the bill shows that it portends danger to the country. Reports say the presidency introduced the National Water Resources Bill to the National Assembly (NASS) seeking its approval to enable the Federal Government take regulatory control of all surface and ground water resources in the country. Titled, “An Act to Establish a Reg-ulatory Framework for the Water Resources Sector in Nigeria; Provide for the Equitable and Sustainable Redevelopment, Manage¬- ment; Use and Conservation of Nigeria’s Sur¬face Water and Ground Water Resources and for Related Matter.” It 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 Exclu¬sive 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.” Expectedly, the bill has jolted Nigerians and aroused deep suspicion. The Senate is split into two groups of supporters and opponents.
While the supporters are mainly from the core north, the opponents are mainly from the Middle Belt and Southern states. The question at this moment is do we need this sort of bill that divides rather than unite the country? Looking at the division in the Senate, it is obvious that the bill is designed to rob Peter to pay Paul. The southern lawmakers realised that the intent of the bill is for the federal authorities to take control of the water resources of the south to compensate the north. This truth is self-evident from the way the Senators addressed the bill along regional lines. Take note that southerners are not made the Minister of Water Resources in Nigeria. Since 1999 to date, all the Ministers of Water Resources are from the north. This is deliberate since the north is more arid and apparently needs more water for irrigation, dams, etc than the humid south. Apart from the Senate discontent, other groups, organisations and states have promptly rejected the bill in its entirety and have asked the presidency to withdraw it. The Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) flatly rejected the bill describing it as portending danger to the zone and national unity. A close look at the bill shows that its overriding objective is to vest in the Federal Government the total control of all the fresh water resources across Nigeria. The implications are numerous. If this bill is passed into law, the rights of citizens over fresh water resources – ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, springs, etc, will be eroded. It will be illegal, under the circumstance, for any person, anywhere, including in the remote villages, to sink a borehole, for instance, without permit from Abuja, the Federal Government. Borehole permit would have to be obtained from Abuja and getting it would be most difficult.
Moreover, at a time when state governments are being urged to embark on massive agricultural production that would require water for irrigation in some places, it would not be possible for state governments to irrigate farmlands from streams, lakes, ponds or earth dams without first getting permission from Abuja. The bill will clip the wings of state and local government authorities as well as individuals from making use of the water at their backyard without permit from Abuja. This development will engender serious contentions across Nigeria. The result would be water wars, which would be more devastating than the contentions over grazing land and even oil. The explanations being offered by the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu and the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to President Muhammadu Buhari on National Assembly matters (Senate), Senator Solomon Ita Enang, that the bill was misunderstood by the lawmakers who kicked against it are spurious. There is no lawmaker who does not understand that if the Federal Government takes over the control of freshwater resources across Nigeria, it is tantamount to suppression and enslavement of indigenous peoples across Nigeria. Besides, the argument that the bill is meant to consolidate existing water laws doesn’t make sense.
The Water Resources Act, Cap W2 LFN 2004; the River Basin Development Authority Act, Cap R9 LFN 2004; the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act, Cap N1100A LFN, 2004 and the National Water Resources Institute Act, Cap N83 LFN 2004 have been there without denying the people their right to exploit their freshwater resources, which the new bill seeks to achieve. Since cattle herding is not possible without water, somehow, the bill is designed to give herdsmen and their cattle unfettered access to freshwaters all over Nigeria. The River Basin Development Authority Act, which came into effect in 1976 have not served any useful purpose other than being a drainpipe for corruption. Let no one be deceived that the law would promote equity and fairness. There is no equity or fairness in the way nature distributes its resources. Nature is selective. That is why a country like Saudi Arabia has enormous oil resources while Israel has nothing. There is the Lake Chad in the Northeast while there is none in the south. The drainage density is high in the south than in the north of Nigeria. Crude oil is in the Niger Delta and not in Sokoto-Rima basin. The only way to make these things equitable is by force or through laws and regulations, which is what the Federal Government intends to achieve. Let there be laws but not draconian laws as the bill portends.
• Dr. Luke Onyekakeyah is a member of the Editorial Board and Columnist of the Guardian Newspapers Ltd., Lagos.