Senior lawyers, socio-political organisations and civil rights groups on Thursday described as unconstitutional, attempts by the House of Representatives to adopt the public hearing it conducted in the eighth assembly for the Water Resources Bill.
The legal practitioners and groups such as the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, and the Middle Belt Forum, in separate interviews said the National Assembly should jettison the plan.
Recall that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), had in 2017 presented the controversial bill to both chambers of the National Assembly. The bill seeks to transfer the control of water resources from states to the Federal Government.
The bill was not only rejected by the public in 2018, but it was also not passed by the eighth National Assembly, whose members were divided over it.
But on July 23, 2020, the current Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata, reintroduced the bill.
Despite the public outcry, he said a public hearing was held in the eighth Assembly on the bill, adding that no fresh one would be conducted.
He also lashed out at individuals and organisations that were opposed to the bill, saying inputs of civil rights groups were taken in the eighth assembly.
But two Senior Advocates of Nigeria said any attempt to reintroduce the bill, which was shut down by the eighth National Assembly without subjecting it to a public hearing, would be illegal.
In separate interviews, the SANs, Mr Tayo Oyetibo, Dr Alex Izinyon, and Chief Sebastine Hon, argued that the eighth National Assembly not being constituted by the same set of members of the current National Assembly, the bill must pass through all the stages of legislative process afresh.
Oyetibo said, “If the bill is being reintroduced afresh, they have to follow the normal procedure. They cannot continue with the old bill because it is not the same members that constituted the former National Assembly and the new National Assembly. So, if the bill is being reintroduced, then they have to go through the normal channel of law making.”
Izinyon said procedurally the end of a session of the National Assembly marked the end of the bills considered by that session that had yet to become laws.
He added, “That means, if a bill considered by the previous National Assembly must be reintroduced, it has to go through the same process.
“Even if it passed all the stages at the previous assembly and not assented to, it is not a law and it remains a bill. Not all the lawmakers in the previous session are in the current session. If the bill is re-presented, people have to express their views on it. It has to pass through the process. Without that process, it will be illegal.”
Water bill violates federalism –Senior lawyer
On his part, Hon said aside the procedural breach in the manner of its reintroduction, the bill was also “fundamentally wrong” on the grounds that it sought to infringe on the provisions of the Land Use Act.
He said, “Some members of the House of Representatives are saying that the bill was shut down by the last National Assembly and it cannot be reintroduced.
“This is a completely different National Assembly, although some members retained their seats. So it must come as a fresh bill. And if it is a fresh bill, given its importance, it must undergo a public hearing. It is not something that can be smuggled in.”
He argued that the bill constituted “a deep infringement on the federal super-structure established in the constitution.
“There is no way they can tacitly amend the Land Use Act without amending the constitution. By virtue of Section 315(5) of the Constitution and several decisions of the Supreme Court, the Land Use Act has constitutional flavour. So, for you to amend the Land Use Act, you must amend the Constitution
“Again, those Supreme Court decisions also say that any law that is contrary to the Land Use Act is null and void. In so far as the bill seeks to take state land and give it to the Federal Government, it is contrary to the spirit and tenor of the Land Use Act.”
On his part, a former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Monday Ubani, said the bill should be treated as a new bill by the ninth Assembly.
Ubani said, “It is a new bill, regardless that it first came before the eighth Assembly. It is a new bill entirely and it has to follow all the processes before being passed. The previous proceedings by the eighth Assembly will not be countenanced because it was introduced as a new bill. I don’t think the House is properly guided.”
Also, the immediate past President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Mr Malachy Ugwummadu, said the National Assembly had a duty to conduct a fresh public hearing, given the public outcry against the bill.
He stressed that the essence of a public hearing is to give validity to bills passed by the legislature.
Ugwummadu said, “It sounds a bit evasive for the National Assembly to say there will not be a fresh public hearing. Assuming, without conceding that it suits the convenience of their operation and they now hold the view that there won’t be a need for further public hearings, what about the public outcry? The National Assembly is constituted as a body of representatives of the Nigerian people and the Nigerian people are now crying loud that we need to revisit this issue. If you succeeded in the first instance by pulling the wool over our eyes, it is time to further interrogate this process, with a view to identifying the benefits of this bill that has been sufficiently attacked in the past, rejected and abandoned. Public hearings go to the integrity of the process.”
Opposing the lawmakers, the Middle Belt Forum urged the National Assembly not to deprive Nigerians their rights to determine the ownership and control of their land resources.
The National President of the Middle Belt ,Dr Bitrus Porgu, gave the advice while speaking to one of our correspondent in Jos.
Porgu, who condemned the reintroduction of the bill, described the House committee chairman’s stand as anti-people and insisted that Nigerians must be allowed to decide the fate of the bill through a public hearing.
Porgu said “The constitution vests land 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 .So we e are talking about an issue that affects the people.
“Since the objective of the bill is to transfer ownership of land from the people to the Federal Government, how can you say that the people should have no input on how the land should be utilised? Such a stance by the federal lawmaker is completely unacceptable. As far as we in the Middle Belt are concerned, Nigerians must be allowed to decide the fate of the bill through a public hearing and doing otherwise will amount to robbing the people of their constitutional rights.
“We have said it before that the bill is evil because it seeks to dispossess people of their land and hand it over to the Fulani. This is a great injustice which should not be allowed to stand. We will have nothing to do with the bill and we urge Nigerians to reject it for what it is –evil.”
It will signal Nigeria’s final disintegration –Ohanaeze
Also, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo described the insistence by the House on going ahead with the bill despite opposition by Nigerians as “a time-bomb.”
The President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, said that if the National Assembly passed the bill, “it will signal the final disintegration of the nation,” adding that “nobody will be ready to give up his ancestral land without a fight and the whole of the country will be embroiled in the resultant turmoil.”
Nwodo, who spoke through his Media Adviser, Chief Emeka Attamah, warned the Federal Government not to forget that no amount of force could subdue the people’s will.
He said, “This explains the refusal of Mr President to change the service chiefs and the posting of soldiers to strategic places in the South.
“Again, it is unconstitutional to carry over a bill of the eighth National Assembly to the present one without a public hearing. The Federal Government should jettison the bill for the unity of and peace in the country.”
Nwodo regretted that the rulers of this country were not concerned about the peace and stability of the nation.
He stated, “That is why they are pushing this obnoxious bill. It’s illegal, vexatious and provocative. They want to confiscate water ways and the surroundings and give to strangers in Nigeria.”
Bury the bill, Afenifere tells N’Assembly members
But the National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere, Yinka Odumakin, said the bill should be thrown away. He asked, “What public hearing are they going to conduct on a dead bill they surreptitiously revived against their own rules in the order to rubber stamp? They can’t hoodwink sensible Nigerians with such a promise of a hearing. They should just bury the obnoxious Bill.”
The President of Middle Belt Youth Council, Emma Zopmal, said, “We totally agree with Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State that Water Resources Bill is another Ruga policy. We urge all Middle Belt and southern lawmakers in the National Assembly to bury that bill on the floor of the House and the Senate.
“The North doesn’t have water resources so why are they interested in controlling water resources? The statement by the House committee chairman is too suspicious. All other burning national issues previously have been subjected to public hearings. That of water resources bill cannot be different because it’s of utmost importance to the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria. That bill shouldn’t be allowed to be smuggled into law.”