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By: Jerome-Mario Utomi

It is a common knowledge that the National Water Resources Bill is before the Nigerian Upper Legislative Assembly-the Senate. But what is uncertain to the vast majority and the watching world is in whose interest the bill, if passed, is meant to serve/protect, and whether it will herald into our political geography a  just or an unjust law.

As we are now, a just law is ‘a man-made code that squares with moral laws or the laws and uplifts human personalities, while an unjust law on the other hand is a code that is out of harmony with moral laws’.

Adding context to this discourse, the Bill which emanated from the Executive arm and, among other things seeks: 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 water, groundwater resources and for related matters’

Arguably noble but following the controversy and worries already raised, it becomes a moral duty for all to collectively and objectively take a disciplined look at it in order to –adjust, adapt, incorporate or otherwise.

Without labour, the most telling evidence about the bill’s good intention is signposted in the Federal Government’s resolve to promoting judicious management of the nation’s water resources in addition to the possibility of the bill if passed, acting as an enabler to the nation’s attainment/achievement of the orchestrated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) as preached by the United Nations (UN).

But somewhere along the line lies a set of inherent challenges/consequence arising from its nature, impact, and strategy- a feat that has since mirrored the entire document (bill) as a body without a soul.

Going by the content of the bill, it is easy to situate without labour that the greatest ill associated with it lies in its tendency to disenfranchising, and separating Nigerians from ancestral ownership of their water rights and handover same to a set of federal technocrats by confusing Nigerians with the fallacy that ‘’ownership rights to water’ is the same as water use rights’’

Also working against the bill is the accompanying belief by Nigerians with critical interest is that the urge to have the bill passed is driven not by love for having the nation’s water resources judiciously managed or for the nation to develop agriculturally as claimed by the lawmakers, but by sectional and parochial interests such that some pro bill senators are using barefaced inaccuracies to mislead the Senate and drum up support for the bill.

For example, it has been claimed on the floor of the Senate that the World Bank is waiting on passage of the bill into law to “grant” trillions of naira to develop Nigeria’s irrigation infrastructure. This cannot be further from the truth. The World Bank would never and cannot ask a nation to dispossess her citizens of their inherited and cultural rights to water as a condition for granting loans.

Another obstacle that confirms the bill as plagued however seems not to raise so much dust but could be costly in economic and political terms if ignored, is the asymmetrical support structure given to the bill. It is barefaced that virtually all the senators that queued behind the bill were from water-poor states and regions that stand to gain from the passage of the bill when passed.

Interpretatively, this lopsided support given to the bill looking at commentaries was fuelled not by the burning desire for the public good but for sectional gain. Glaringly as it stands, this trend no doubt has become a pernicious problem embedded in our administrative culture that will be too difficult to eradicate.

And has also necessitated the question as to how the nation can redistribute lands from land rich states to land-poor states since the bill if passed as it is without amendment could conceivably make inter basin transfers of water to be undertaken by the federal Government without consent from or even consultation from indigenous communities…exactly like crude oil and associated problems of mean, wicked and evil inequities.

The bill in the writer’s views has justified the fears by Nigerians with discerning minds that the Federal Government by this move to acquire more power may not be interested in the devolution of power as currently demanded by Nigerians or may be paying lip service to the imperativeness and urgency of having this country restructured.

Accordingly, the whole argument by the FG becomes even vaguer variable and ungraspable when one remembers that some of these items will be better handled and serves the greater good to the greater number of the people if left in the hands of the state, the local government or private owners.

From what Nigerians are saying, what has caused serious concern is that the bill viewed from a wider spectrum stands as a telling proof of the present administration’s insensitivity to the people of the Niger Delta and other water areas.

This fears expressed by the coastal dwellers cannot be described as unfounded as it was a similar Decree 101 of 1992 which is now incongruously dressed up as an act of the National Assembly (Water Resource Act Cap W2 LFN 2OO4) that robbed every Nigerian of their water rights as it was hurriedly signed into law by the then military Ibrahim Babangida as his parting gift to Nigerians.

Lamentably this and other sordid laws from the Federal Government in the past has particularly left the Niger Delta/coastal regions in social difficulties with no good record for survival as their environment is daily devastated/destroyed, with their teaming youths unemployed while the communities are periodically dispersed by the flood.

To put it differently, environmental experts and development practitioners are particularly not happy that the FG proposed such a bill in the face of an endless list of actions not taken to better the lots of the Niger Deltans and other coastal dwellers.

In case after case, the FG has become reputed for pursuing policies chosen in advance of facts, policies designed to benefit some sections of the country- making global watchers to conclude that there is something troubling in this administration.

With these facts in mind, it is the writer’s views that our nation is in the process of quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a disastrously mistaken decision on the issue of the National Water Resources Bill.

Allowing this bill signed into law, will not just usher in an unjust law but set the table to truncate the nascent peace currently enjoyed in the region while ushering in another round of hostility as the people are committed to peace by any means necessary but may not be committed to becoming the victims of peace.

To succeed in this assignment, the Federal Government must be holistic in approach and practice ‘deliberative democracy. This, in the writer’s views, will entail halting the ongoing debate on the National Water Resources bill in order to pave way for other stakeholders such as the Civil Society groups, Water experts as well as  the southern states to fully make their inputs- submit memoranda and possibly given the opportunity to make a presentation as it relates to this bill.

And at a broader perspective, the Government must desist from the current non-participatory approach to development in the Niger Delta and other coastal areas and embrace a broad-based consultative approach that will give the people of the region some sense of ownership over their own issues.

Above all, this is an auspicious time for the federal government to come up with steps that will aggressively address the issues of youth unemployment in the region, weak regulation on the parts of its ministries and agencies, tackle the oil companies lackadaisical handling of the environment, and ensure compliance with the implementation of the Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU) so entered with host communities.

Jerome-Mario is with the Centre for Research in Environmental Resource Management (CREMA), Lagos.

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