The reintroduction of the bill raises reasonable concerns

The return to the National Assembly of the executive bill seeking to take over the control and ownership of various waterways in Nigeria by the federal government is curious and already generating controversy. Critics of the bill that did not survive the Eighth National Assembly are asking questions about why it was returned by President Muhammadu Buhari. While we do not want to impute motives, we reiterate our earlier position that the federal government should steer clear of issues that have the tendencies to generate acrimony and further divide the people.

Initially tagged “A bill for an act to establish a regulatory framework for the water resources sector in Nigeria, provide for the equitable and sustainable development, management, use and conservation of Nigeria’s surface and ground water resources and for related matters,” it generated so much heat in 2018 that the National Assembly had to drop it. Now retitled “National Water Resources Bill, 2020,” it has survived for third reading and final passage by the House of Representatives.

Like the earlier proposal, section 13 of the bill states that “in implementing the principles under subsection (2) of this section, the institutions established under this Act shall promote integrated water resources management and the coordinated management of land and water resources, surface water and ground water resources, river basins and adjacent marine and coastal environment and upstream and downstream interests.” Meanwhile, section 2(1) of the bill, stipulates: “All surface water and ground water wherever it occurs, is a resource common to all people.’’

We recall that in 2018, the bill had initially passed the second reading in the Senate and was consequently sent to the committee stage for further legislation. However, after the committee brought back the bill for final passage, it generated a controversy that prompted the upper legislative chamber to constitute another ad-hoc committee to further look into some of the controversial provisions.

During a clause by clause consideration of the bill, then Minority Leader and former Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio who is currently the Minister of Niger Delta, had kicked against the provision seeking to empower the federal government to take control of all waterways and their banks in Nigeria. The provision vests large pieces of land adjoining the river banks across the country, which have been the exclusive preserve of state governments, to the federal government. It is the same bill that has now been reintroduced with a different title. If it sails through, it will alter the critical provisions in the Land Use Act which vests the ownership of the land in the state governments except in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) where the federal government holds sway.

We do not understand why the federal government would want to take a substantial part of the powers of state governments on land particularly at water fronts. We therefore share the view of many stakeholders that it is a ploy to deprive people living along riverbanks of their basic livelihood as they will lose ownership of such land to the federal government. Despite the rhetorical question, “is this not the same bill that generated controversy in the media?’’, House of Representatives Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, has given tacit endorsement.

Coming at a period many Nigerians are calling for a restructuring of the federation so that more powers and resources are devolved to sub-national units, the idea of the federal government appropriating the waters is ludicrous to say the least. Whatever may therefore be the motivation for the bill, we urge the federal government to have a serious rethink about issues that are very polarising and could easily be misconstrued.

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