By Oseloka H. Obaze
The essence of public policy is to serve public interest, not to suffocate the public. Any public policy, which evenwith the best of intention becomes punitive, must be repudiated. Lagos State with all its developmental strides and accomplishments is treading precariously close to foisting some egregious and illiberal public policies, in the name of good governance – but in actuality, simply to fulfill its fixation on raising its internally generated revenue (IGR). This trend does not represent the seeds of change, since the reality is contrary to what seems natural.
Lagosians are exemplary and proud. But Lagosians are moaning. Gov. Akinwumi Ambode’s government is developmentally proactive. He continues to build on the solid and massive infrastructural foundation of the Tinubu and Fashola administrations. That trajectory should be applauded. But the Lagos State government under his watch has also gone into a self-destructive governmental overreach, with the enforcement of its illiberal water abstraction policies that focuses singularly on one phrase in the extant law; “regulate allowable returns.”
It needs recalling that it was a famous Lagosian, Fela Anikulapo Kuti who presciently produced and sang the song, “Water No Get Enemy”. Yet it Gov. Ambode seems bent on making water enemy of Lagosians. Water in Lagos is already fraught with ironic contradictions. Water everywhere but none to drink. When rain water comes to Lagos the deluge follows. Barbeach water rising is fun but mostly pain. Lagos rain water contains the sewer system, not the other way round; and because Lagos water table is high, Lagos is afloat.
One shared commonality for those living in Lagos -an ever expanding megapolis – is the scarcity of potable water, a basic requirement for modern civilization and living. Supply of clean and potable water was an MDGs target, which Lagos like other Nigerian States failed to meet within a fifteen-year timeframe. As an alternative to the government’s dismal failure to provide clean potable water for its population, most Lagosians, from Agbara to Ipaja; from Isolo to Ikorudu; Ajah to Epe, and from erstwhile Maroko to Ajegunle, have long resorted to self-help of private boreholes and water wells. Many Lagosians fall within the ranks of numerous Nigerians determined recently to consume water tainted by feces. Now, Lagos State insists that abstracting water, which it does not supply to its citizens, is suddenly a highly taxable luxury. That is policy overkill as well as balderdash.
Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission is unapologetically doling out huge water bills, not for services rendered by the Commission, but for services Lagos State has failed to render. Enforcing the extant law under the Lagos Water Sector Law No. 14 of 2004, the Commission, seems to have come alive to its mandate responsibilities, which inter-alia, is to “regulate the production, supply and use of water, quality of service and charges payable to ensure viability of the sector and regulate allowable returns.” Regrettably, the Commission seems fixated on the last three words of its functions, “regulate allowable returns.” This sort of policy attitude makes democracy draconian, and has the capacity of triggering civil disobedience. After all law is made for man, and therefore, should be compassionate
At last check, Lagosians who are already drooping under a huge tax burden, are now expected to pay for registering to source borehole water privately; for license to abstract borehole water; for constructing treatment plans for borehole water; and for waste water treatment plants. These charges are all renewable annually. It’s ironic, that were Lagos State to meet its statutory responsibility of providing clean potable water to all and sundry, this multiplicity of individual efforts at sourcing water will not arise. The State would simply charge “water rate” and “sewer rate” based on consumers’ actual usage.
Four years before I re-entered government in 2012 as a policymaker, I had advised Gov. Peter Obi of Anambra State against pursuing a similar public policy of charging Anambra citizens for abstracting water. I warned about the futility of such a public policy that would amount to double jeopardy; a government that failed to meet its obligation to the people, turns around to penalize the people for its failings. Thankfully, Gov. Obi heeded my advice. A decade later, the matter has resurfaced in Lagos State. It’s either that enforcing the policy in the extreme was not well debated by Lagos policymakers or that the government feels it can get away with murder, in the name of development. Such counterintuitive thinking in the policy realm is defeatist.
The downside of this faux policy is not just that it’s ill-advised, but that it’s hare-brained, despite its huge revenue generation attraction. What after all is the strength and role of government? The strength of government derives from its delivery of good governance and public services. It lies not in generating internal revenue (a necessary evil) by any means, but I providing basic services. Those who crafted the Lagos law were smart but impetuous. They understood fully that under scrutiny, some of the envisaged “returns” would not qualify as “allowable”. So they opted for a fishing expedition modality, to see how much they might get away with.
The present policy has one salutary side: it offers Lagosians, public policy watchers, consumer advocates and Nigerians at large, a compelling threshold to test the constitutionality of such illiberal public policies in court. Unchallenged, Lagos State will get away with everything. If also left unchecked, Lagos will have the impetus to start charging for air rights, electric generator noise nuisance fees and taxes on installation of eco-friendly solar panels in homes, and for water displacement fees payable by the legion of Lagos slum dwellers who defecate into the Lagos lagoon due to lack of public toilet facilities. With a successful legal challenge, Lagos and other States will soon enough learn from the court ruling that such illiberal policies are unfeasible.
The vexatious upshot is that Lagos State is willfully enforcing a public policy that amounts to governmental overreach. For a State with the highest tax regime in the nation, LASG ought not to punish Lagosians for its inability to meet its statutory responsibilities. Such governmental excesses must be checked. Meanwhile, Gov. Ambode should be advised to rethink this water abstraction policy. Water a life’s necessity, cannot constitute a taxable luxury whimsically. Also, Governor Ambode should be mindful that globally, water is already listed as a major source of conflict. He does not need water pitting the people against the State government ahead of general elections in 2019.
Obaze, is MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult Ltd.