•The looming showdown in NASS
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
The re-introduction of the Water Resources Bill in the House of Representatives smacks of an obscene and controversial cord. The air is heavy with apprehensions. A day of gloves might just be afoot in the parliament should Hon. Sad Soli, the Katsina State born politician and APC lawmaker, insist on pushing the bill through second reading. Sunday Vanguard recounts the trajectories.
Trouble is in the offing. It’s sure to happen, perhaps, in some staggering dimensions too if caution is not heeded. No thanks to the re-introduction of the controversial Water Resources Bill in the House of Representatives on June 29, 2022.
The signs of imminent showdown came too early, even on the day the bill resurfaced. Like before, strong opposition ensued swiftly.
Of course, Nigerians have been served this meal before as the bill is not new to them. But then, it’s a meal of controversy. First, it came as an executive bill in 2017 in the 8th Assembly and was perceived as RUGA in disguise. RUGA means Rural Grazing Area which itself came under serious public scrutiny and, then, the overwhelming rejection.
Recall that while the proponents of the bill pushed hard within certain fiat and tenacity, the opponents declared it draconian, obnoxious, impish and undemocratic. For all critics cared, grazing routes or areas, as the case may be, which resonated amidst heighted clashes amongst farmers and herders with concomitant deaths are old fashioned in the 21st century Nigeria and they must not be allowed.
But this is not about RUGA now. Far from that! It is about the Water Resources Bill which suddenly staged a comeback to the chagrin of many Nigerians.
Intrinsically, the proposed piece of legislation seeks to transfer the control of water resources from states to the Federal Government.
The bill then was titled: ‘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.’
However, the bill failed to fly in the previous assembly and was therefore re-introduced in the current 9th House by the Chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata, who hails from Jigawa State and of the ruling APC extraction.
On July 23, 2020, he moved a motion that 11 bills, including the Water Bill, should be re-introduced.
Yet, opposition mounted against the bill and conquered. It was later withdrawn.
But at the plenary, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, the Chairman of the Committee on Water Resources, Hon. Sada Soli, a member of the APC from Katsina, the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, tried to test the waters by reintroducing the bill. An interest invigorated. Perhaps!
This time, the bill had just a slight addition to the short title.
It now reads, ‘A Bill for an Act to Establish a Regulatory Framework for Trans Boundary Water Resources in Nigeria, Provide for the Equitable and Sustainable Development, Management, Use and Conservation of Nigeria’s Inter-State Surface Water and Groundwater Resources; and For Related Matters, 2022’.
Powers and Functions of Minister under the bills
Exclusively obtained by Sunday Vanguard, the re-gazetted copy of the bill in its Part III, Housing Section 10, has appropriated some powers and also distilled the functions to the Water Resources Minister under the would-be law.
The bill provides that the Minister shall, among others, discharge the following functions:
“10.-(1) It shall be the duty of the Minister to promote the protection, use, development, conservation, and management of inter-state water resources throughout Nigeria and to ensure the effective exercise of powers and performance of duties by institutions and persons identified under this Bill and in the Constitution.
“(2) The Minister shall have the power to make regulations, policies
and strategies for the proper carrying out of the provisions of this Bill and
functioning of the Ministry in accordance with this Bill as well as in accordance with other directives he may receive from the President and any guidance from the Council.
“(3) The Minister shall have and exercise reasonable powers as are
necessary and required in furtherance of the duties and functions conferred pursuant to this Bill, the directives of the President, or any other Law.”
Drama at plenary
Hardly had Speaker Gbajabiamila asked the Clerk to the House, Yahaya Danzaria, to read out the short title of the Bill than a member of the House from Benue State, Hon. Mark Gbillah, raised a point of order, reminding the Speaker of the controversy that trailed the bill in the last assembly.
Gbillah later quipped that the bill be withdrawn.
He said: “We wonder why this issue is being re-presented on the floor of the House. Some of us are not comfortable or in support of this bill.”
But Gbajabiamila informed the sponsor, Soli, assurance to rid the bill of contentious issues, pleading with members on the need to get the buy-in of their respective governors.
He said, “I asked the Chairman the same thing this morning and he told me that the issues that were raised then have been addressed by all the governors.
“Apparently this new bill that all the governors of the federation, both South and North, participated in.
“I will take him by his word. We live in a diverse country and every sensitivity should be taken into consideration. “Governors govern their states and they know what affects them. We should leave it at that. Be very vigilant, talk to your governors and get their opinion on how it affects your states.”
Meanwhile, Gbajabiamila’s explanation did not assuage Gbillah who further intoned that whatever was the decision of the governors could not have been accepted by his home state Governor Samuel Ortom.
“With all due respect to our governors, we are duly elected with the mandate in this House to represent the interest of our people:, the lawmaker said.
“We are also coming from the premise of the constitutional powers we have. Whatever the governors may have agreed upon may not be acceptable to us.
“It’s imperative that all of us collectively are given copies immediately of whatever this bill says. “The contentious issue is that the Federal Government will be taking ownership and possession of water ways.
‘As much as the governors may have discussed which is still subject to confirmation, my governor in Benue has not agreed to this”.
Another Benue lawmaker, Hon. John Dyegh, said governors can’t decide for the House on legislative matters.
In his reaction to Gbilla’s position, Gbajabiamila said, “He (Soli) specifically mentioned your governor’s name.”
The Speaker, however, said advance copies of the bill must be made available to every lawmaker to know the details, directing the Chairman Committee on Rules and Business, Hon. Hassan Fulata, to do the needful.
He said, “You can object to any bill at any stage. I get your point. I’m not by anyway saying governors will dictate to us.
“I’m saying that we work in a symbiotic relationship with the CEOs of the states and sometimes they are in better position to know what’s good for the states.
“We are here to represent the people and our voices must be heard, irrespective of what the governors say. I hope we can work in tandem with the governors.
“Chairman, Rules and Business, before this matter comes up for second reading, make sure every lawmaker gets a copy to digest, to consult wide.
“We cannot play the ostrich knowing that this bill almost threw this company into flames. Members should read it properly.”
In his remarks to the Gbajabiamila’s ruling, Soli promised to withdraw the bill should another circle of controversy erupt.
“I will attach the comments of the governors’ forum, attorney general and that of the states too”, he said.
“They all commented. I assure my colleagues that I will not stand where a particular section of this country is shortchanged. If that happens I will withdraw the bill”.
The bill will only fly again if… – Kalu, House Spokesman
In his weekly briefings the next day, Thursday, June 30, 2022, the House spokesman, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, told journalists that the bill could only fly if the concerns had been taken care of.
“If that has been cured and the title remains the same, the bill might pass if the concern has been cured”, Kalu said.
“But if it is a replica of what was presented and rejected, I am sure that what happened before would happen again.
“It is during second hearing that we debate bills and somebody mentioned a point of order that bills that have been rejected by a particular Assembly are not allowed to come back in that Assembly, until the next Assembly.
“I am yet to look at that. But if that is the position of the law guiding us, then it would stay.
“That you would not know until during debate. Let us wait in line with Mr Speaker, who said that the sponsor of the bill is allowed to circulate the lead debate and bill contents to members before it is penciled down for second reading.
“So, that means the presiding officer wants members to analyze the bill and now know whether it is the same like before or a different bill taking care of the issues but having the same title”.
But for good or bad, the bill, like any other, is interest driven. Will it be killed allowed to fly eventually? Who wins the argument? Is the bill prompted on hegemonic stance or common patrimony? Will Nigeria be better off for it?
Your guesses are as good as mine and the answers are still wobbling in the womb of time.