Prof. Benjamin Okaba, Dean, School of Post-Graduate Studies, Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Nigeria
It is expedient to note from the onset that, in all civilised climes, epochs and human space, law making (a derivation of the passage of a bill) is predicated primarily on the need to guarantee the well-being, safety and protection of the citizens’ fundamental human (socio-environmental) rights against infractions from other individuals, groups, organisations and the State. In a democracy such as we practice, laws that regulate human actions should always be of the people, by the people and for the people (should be a reflection of the peoples will, aspirations, dreams, interest and goals). State laws should promote basic freedom – of speech, religion, association, survival, rights of ownership and control of a people’s natural endowments etc. The State is therefore, obliged to respect, protect, and take positive and decisive measures to establish and maintain an enabling environment – social and physical – for the unhindered exercise of ALL citizens’ human rights against domination, exploitation, molestation, oppression, alienation and exclusion as the case may be.
Unfortunately, according to social commentators and institutional analysts from within and outside the country, a vast majority of Nigerians seem not to be comfortable with the disposition and concerns of the present administration in the country for the protection of lives and property in addition to the violent clashes and reckless denial, violation and abuse of citizens’ human rights. The spontaneous outcry and protests that greeted the recent introduction of State sponsored Anti-social media, Hate speech, the Companies and Allied Matters, (CAMA) Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) policy, and the Water Resources Bill etc., seem to carry an implicit message of State insensitivity to the plights, yearnings and concerns for the safety, well-being of the masses and the peace and stability of the nation. The above mentioned policy initiatives rather tend to bestow undue massive discretion and impunity on State officials and (their cronies and primordial benefactors) to further trample on the rights, privileges and operations of socio-religious, professional, civil society groups, local communities, and the Common Man.
2. Our Focus
In this presentation, our focus is limited to an examination of the provisions of the Water Resources Bill (2020) vis-a-vis the tenets of true federalism and the identification of the extent to which the bill poses as a further threat to or a distortion to an already bastardised variant of federalism practiced in this country. We are also interested in an analysis of the negative impacts of the proposed bill (if allowed to scale through) on democratic consolidation, peaceful co-existence and stability of the Nigerian State on the one hand, and on the sustainable livelihood of the coastal and neighbouring communities within and outside the Niger Delta region, using the Ijaw nation as a reference point on the other. In the foregoing discourse, we also mindful of the context (spirit) of the bill in line with the general public perception of the character of Nigerian State against similar state policies and laws passed in recent times
3. The Water Resources Bill (2020) Nigerian Federalism and National Stability
Section 13 of the Water Resources Bill (2020) states:
“…in implementing the principles under section 2 of the Water Resources Bill, the institution established under the Act shall promote integrated water resources management and the co-ordinated management of land and water resources, surface water, and ground water resources, river basins, and adjacent marine and coastal environments and upstream and downstream interest”
Section 2 (1) states:
“All surface water and ground water, where ever it occurs, is a source common to all people”
The above and other contentious clauses in the Bill seek to vest non-challengable power to own and control water bodies in where ever found in this country on the Federal Government of Nigeria. By implication, citizens of the coastal/riverine communities would seek Federal Government of Nigeria’s licence to be able to drill boreholes, fish ponds, etc., in their homes, and engage in commercial agriculture along the river belts. Furthermore, the bill empowers the Federal Government of Nigerian to allow people from within and outside the country to move into coastal regions and possess the water resources therein without the consent of the local communities and aboriginal owners.
Inasmuch as federalism implies the sharing of powers and functions between the centre and the federating constituents in a manner that each constituent is constitutionally empowered to source for, own, control and manage the resources within her territorial jurisdiction and contribute an agreed percentage of the value of these resources to the centre, the Water Resources Bill in all intent and purposes, is a clear deviation from and violation from its basic principles and spirit. That the Federal Government of Nigeria could monster the effrontery in the midst of several ethno-regional agitations for resource control, restructuring, fiscal federalism and separatism to float this ill-fated bill, speaks volume of unseriousness it attaches to genuine complaints of the citizenry.
One would appreciate the above fact against the background that the Water Resources Bill (2020) is a re-branded version of RUGA policy, designed to grasp people’s ancestral settlements and resources to set up grazing reserves or cattle colonies to inadvertently address the challenges of desertification, terrorism, insurgency and other clandestine Hausa-Fulani nomadic interests without recourse to how this impacts negatively on others. This poses yet another worry about the status of Nigerian federalism.
The Bill, if allowed to be passed into law, shall violate one of the basic ethos of democracy as it patterns to the appropriation of the customary powers and functions of the State governors to hold land and water resources in trust for the people of the State. This would multiply the sustainable resource-use challenges already created by the Solid Mineral Act in respect of issuance of licences control and proper management of the environment.
We must also note that major conflicts and wars in ancient and modern historical epochs have their origin in disputes over land and associated resources. Drawing from the happenings in Jos, Southern Kaduna, Borno, Katsina and other areas engulfed by the incessant landlord/herdsmen violent conflicts, the bill gives some “stranger elements” unfettered access under the State illegal protection, to infiltrate the land, and adjourning creeks, springs, dams, lakes, lagoons and the coastal precinct which over the years have been the only source of livelihood of the locals. For sure, this incursion will be resisted by the locals with their last blood.
Niger Deltans generally foresee a situation where the implementation of the water resources bill would rekindle several bloody confrontations similar to those created by the oil and gas exploitation induced State versus local/ militants/ agitators, inter communal, intra communal and between the management agencies of the law and the host/target communities. What a senseless ways of provoking avoidable clashes in the country that is already bedevilled with too many internal upheavals and confusion.
A cross section of Nigerians are genuinely weary of the possibilities of the Water Resources bill becoming another State strategy to further deprive the Indigenes of Niger Delta and other oil bearing communities of their little source of livelihood, having be so dispossessed in the past by the Federal Government of their land, oil/gas and other mineral resources through the mechanism of the Land Use, Petroleum and Solid mineral Acts and other obnoxious laws respectively. Many will ask, how would anyone trust or entrust their future to a government that could brazenly seize ownership of peoples’ heritage such as the oil wells domiciled at their backyard and allocate (over 90%) same to their private enterprises and those of their friends and cronies who are non indigenes of the oil bearing communities? Worst still, the exploitation of this oil blocks impact untold misery of various magnitude including wide spread of diseases, environment devastation, soil infertility, mass impoverishment/conflict on the same locals whose wealth is forcefully taking away without any form of compensation. Nigerians have not also forgotten how the well conceived River Basin Authorities sooner or later became political avenues and schemes for self-enrichment by the political gladiators of the time.
I agree with many commentators, who view this bill as a recipe for disaster. The crises and bloodshed that the Water Resources Bill (2020) will cause, would be more devastating than anyone can imagine. I repeat, the aborigines would not sit down and watch their God-given source of existence be taken away by some faceless and disgusting extortionists. They will put up a fight that might be endless.
I also support the view that the proponents and protagonist of the Water Resources Bill are the real enemies of Nigeria’s national unity, stability, peace and prosperity. Their desperation to push through this self-seeking predatory bill from the back door, a second time, must be checked by the true stakeholders of Nigerian nation and lovers of democracy.
4. Impacts on Local Communities and Ijaws in Particular
The Ijaws are the fourth largest ethnic nationality and the dominant group in the Niger Delta region. They are the most ancient, aboriginal and autochthonous indigenes of the Niger Delta. The Ijaws occupy the most deltaic riverine and coastal belt of Nigeria. They have large community-city original settlements in Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Ondo and Rivers States in Nigeria.
Water (and its associated marine resources) means everything to the typical Ijaw man. Its major occupations – fishing, gin production, canoe building, seasonal coastal farming, etc., are all aqua-dependent. Water is synonymous to air, to the Ijaw man. Therefore, denying him/her free access, and rightful ownership, control and management of the water resources around her, can be likened to pulling a fish out of the river onto a dry land. Worse still, due to government’s negligence and marginalisation of their environment that results in the lack of basic amenities for safe and sustainable livelihood, the locals drink from and defecate into the same source of water. Their deities and other spiritual entities of worship are marine based. The graves of the dead are dug along the river beds. In short, their entire extent and identity is aqua- cultural
One could imagine a scenario where the Ijaws and other coastal dwellers in and outside the Niger Delta living in similar circumstances, would cope with or react to the provisions of the Water Resources Bill that touches on the essence of their existence, identity and survival. Passing the Bill amounts to deliberately undermining their right to life. In summation, this vexatious and provocative bill would rather create more hardship, violent clashes and stress the the Ijaw struggle for self-determination and self-actualisation beyond the control of you and I.
5. Conclusion Remarks
I wish to remind those who envisage some merit in the envisaged law as regards the objectives regulation of Nigeria’s water resource, that Nigeria and Nigerians are unlike those countries like China, Canada, United Arab Republic, Australia, etc., that properly regulate their resources in the interest of all. Executive recklessness and lawlessness couple with the prevalence of double standards, are major obstacles to Nigeria’s development. For sure under the pretence of this bill, State actors will as they often time do, promote their personal gains and ulterior motives at the expense of overall interest of the masses and the nation. The joint press conference addressed by the Ministers of Information and Culture, and of Water Resources in Abuja on Tuesday, September, 2020 seem not to be convincing enough to address the various contentious concerns raised by critics of the Water Resources Bill.
It is obvious that the purveyors of this satanic bill are conscious of its evil manifestations and implications. They might be testing the will-power/resolve of the target population to resist its passage and eventual implementation. They might also be leveraging on lack of cohesion and the selfishness of the leaders of the affected areas who in the past have mortgaged the development of their constituents in return for favours and recognition to further their inordinate political ambitions.
The warning signals from the Visa-on-Arrival policy, massive southward movement of Hausa-Fulani during the Covid19 restrictions in connivance with State security personnel and the clandestine approach adopted in the processing of the Bill are visible, audible and audacious enough. Eastern Nigerians, Southern Nigerians, the Middle Beltans, and all coastal communities across the country, and lovers of Nigeria nation should arise and defend their rights now, before it is too late. The legislators in Senate and House of Representatives, Ministers, Governors, Civil Society groups, the Academia and Youth bodies in the above mentioned domains should be sensitised and mobilised not only to condemn but also to galvanise the support of all to resist the passage of the Bill. A synergy is demanded of all concerned to advertise the monumental genocidal damage ahead of the present and future generations of Nigeria’s coastal communities, if the bill is pass into law. All concerned must also adopt a common united strategy or strategies to deal with this evil.
I am constrained to beckon on other ethnic nationalities and civic society organisations to emulate this great gesture of the Ijaw National development group of stimulating public consciousness on this subject-matter and together come forth with a Credible Alternative to this bill that will address the fears and fate of the target population, if control and management is a necessity.
The Federal Government of Nigeria need to be reminded that its primary constitutional responsibility to the citizenry is to protect, safeguard and secure the fundamental human rights of the citizenry and promote their welfare and well-being.
It is sad to note that under a democratic dispensation that should be people-centred, the State is instigating violence by treating a section of the country as sacred cows and others as insignificant. This is what the Water Resources Bill represents and must be withdrawn immediately. The present administration of this country must strive harder to regain the peoples trust and confidence by ensuring that their will, aspirations, and right to peaceful and prosperous existence is not taking for granted in enactment of State policies and laws.
Thanks for your audience.
Being full text of a guest lecture delivered by Prof. Benjamin Okaba, Dean, School of Post-Graduate Studies, Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Nigeria at the Pan-Ijaw Zoom Conference organised by the Ijaw Nation Development Group on Sunday, September 20, 2020.