Return of obnoxious inland waterways bill – Punch

Unyielding in its morbid cause to extend its powers over the other tiers of government, the Federal Government, conspiring with the National Assembly, has reintroduced the National Waterways Bill in the federal parliament. Already, the National Water Resources Bill, 2020 is in the final stage of being passed in the House of Representatives. It re-emerged surreptitiously on July 23 in the House, but a Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has rightly raised the alarm over the vexatious bill. It provoked widespread outrage in 2018 when the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) initiated it. It is obvious that the Buhari regime is bent on seeing the dangerous bill pass.

Essentially, the intention of the executive bill is to control all the waters and their surrounding banks in all parts of Nigeria. It would give the President, through the Minister of Water Resources, the power to control the nation’s rivers (especially those that pass through more than one state). It states partly, “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.” Undoubtedly, this is fraught with tension and suspicion.

It is a direct assault on the 1999 Constitution, which protects the Land Use Act. Even as centralising as the Constitution is, it still acknowledges the powers of the constituent units to control their land. The Land Use Act vests all land in state governors. The act states, “An Act to Vest all Land compromised in the territory of each State (except land vested in the Federal government or its agencies) solely in the Governor of the State, who would hold such Land in trust for the people…” Therefore, legally, the bill is a nullity ab initio, by the provisions of the constitution in Section 315 (5) (d).

At a time when there is a relentless agitation for the restructuring of Nigeria into a true federal polity, the bill is a serious setback to the project to wean Nigeria from the divisive unitary hole it has been enmeshed. Currently, there are 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List in the 1999 Constitution, including police, insurance, copyright, mines and minerals, prisons and railways. Of course, this list is too anti-federalism.

By hindsight, the Eighth National Assembly threw away the bill precisely because of the tendency of the bill to divide Nigeria further. Land is a finite commodity, which was why the Land Use Act was wisely enacted in March 1978. The Water bill negates this. That means the Federal Government will take over land that belongs to state governments by other means. It is unjust, immoral and bodes danger.

Stripped of all pretensions, the bill seeks to further centralise power and resources in an already overwhelming federal government and further weaken and impoverish the states that are already reduced to beggarly clients of the centre. For regional and sub-national groupings and people, there is the conviction that it is an attempt to secure favourable land for Fulani pastoralists who this regime is bent on giving an unfettered right to graze their cattle throughout the country. It will be hard to dispel allegations by the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Ijaw Youth Council and Afenifere among others that this is not a land grab to smuggle in the rejected Rural Grazing Area settlements designed to secure land for herdsmen for cattle-grazing and grazing routes.

Like they did in 2018 when the bill was first presented by the regime and the similar opposition to the provocative RUGA scheme, all the states and geo-political zones should be resolute in resisting this latest assault and infringement on federalism and state property rights.

By vesting in the Federal Government the power “to protect, use, develop, conserve, manage and control water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner for the benefit of all persons,” the law strips the states of power to utilise water resources for their own benefit. It gives untrammelled control of the most basic natural resource of the federating states and just like in the control of mineral deposits, denies owners of resources authority over their environment.

The measure is cynical and reflects Buhari’s disdain for the concerns of other Nigerian ethnic nationalities. Here is a regime that has failed to rein in the murderous rampage of Fulani herders and their assault on farmland and communities: a regime that has brought up diverse ruses to secure land for cattle herders — RUGA, grazing reserves and cattle settlements — in the Middle Belt and Southern states. Moreover, the Court of Appeal has given a ruling affirming state rights in a suit between the Lagos State government and the National Inland Waterways Authority.

It seeks to exploit the ambiguities in the 1999 Constitution that in one breath under the Exclusive Legislative List, gives the centre power over water “from sources as may be declared by the National Assembly to be sources affecting more than one state,” and in another, limits its authority over fishing and fisheries from “rivers, lakes, waterways, ponds and other inland waterways within Nigeria.”

The bill consolidates the Buhari regime’s repudiation of its campaign promise to pursue pro-power devolution and resource control policies. The quirky and insensitive lawmakers enabling this offensive legislation appear benumbed to the restiveness in the Niger Delta rooted in the resource control issue, the killings in the Middle Belt and the South over land rights and the banditry in the North-West partly fuelled by the contest for control of gold mining in Zamfara. At a time greater power ought to be devolved to the states to run self-sustaining economies, Buhari and NASS are doing the opposite.

Nigeria must operate like a true federation or unravel. In-built injustices are conflating economic hardship, governance failure, corruption and impunity by the ruling class to push various groups to hostility verging towards war-footing. The Water Encyclopaedia says, “Under the United States’ federal system of government, no single governmental level has absolute sovereign authority over water. States have considerable authority to establish and implement water laws, policies, and programmes suited to their priority water concerns. State authority is especially paramount in allocating water rights.”

The US Federal Government has sovereignty over interstate or international bodies of water used for commerce; state or local governments govern intrastate water quantity and quality issues. “Between these extremes, each level of government vigorously guards its authority as the balance of power fluctuates to meet changing water priorities.” In India, the management of water resources is constitutionally a state subject save for international waters and disputes between states. Amendments in 1993 further granted local governments responsibility for local water infrastructure. Malaysia’s constitution clearly assigns water as a state matter “and this includes rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater.” The law however grants certain powers over hydropower power generation, ports and mining to the federal government. It can be nothing less in a federal polity.

Buhari is at it again, placing primordial interests over national interests. The infamy should be resisted by all lawful means

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