Nigeria's natural endowment in inland water transport system stretches across more than10,000km of navigable waterways. This water wealth comprises of rivers, creeks, lagoons and lakes, and intra-coastal waters. The main rivers are: Rivers Niger and Benue. Both rivers form a confluence at Lokoja, in Kogi State.
Available facts indicate that River Niger is the longest in West Africa and 11th longest in the world. The river and its main tributary (which is River Benue), the Delta Creeks as well as the lagoons bordering the coast form the principal navigable waterways in Nigeria.
It is also instructive that these principal navigable waterways are the major transportation routes linking Apapa, Tin Can, Warri, Port Harcourt, Onne and Calabar seaports and the numerous river ports and jetties. Through the lagoon and delta creeks a transport route is established between the hinterland and urban centres of Nigeria on River Niger. This goes as far as Niamey in the Republic of Niger and Garua in Cameroon on River Benue.
Even though the longest are the Niger River and its tributary, the Benue River, the most used waterways; especially by larger powered boats and for commerce, are in the Niger Delta and all along the coast from Lagos Lagoon to Cross River.
To oversee these and activities pertaining to them, the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) was established by Decree No. 13 of 1997 with a clear mandate to manage Nigeria's vast inland waterway resources.
The Decree vests in NIWA the power of exclusive management, direction and control on the Nigerian inland waterways. This power is exercised on Nigeria’s 3000km of navigable waterways from the Nigeria/Niger and Nigeria/Cameroon borders to the Atlantic Ocean. Nigeria is blessed with a river configuration very suitable for North-South movement of people and goods. It is therefore the responsibility of NIWA to ensure that there is safe navigation. But it can not be said that navigating through the thousands of Nigeria’s inland water channel is safe.
Users of Nigeria’s waterways for transportation face the uncertainty of safe arrival every day. This is the most glaring demonstration of the failure of NIWA to deliver on its mandate. The undoubted confirmation of the fact that our waterways are not safe is the rate at which accidents occur on these waters across the country on daily basis.
Accidents occur routinely on the nation’s waterways, while serial incidences of attacks by sea robbers have also compounded the nightmare that water transportation has become. From Lagos to Niger to Cross Rives, Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta states, the stories of accidents and robberies reverberate.
Without necessarily sounding judgmental, what these mishaps and attacks imply is that NIWA has failed in its statutory duties of safeguarding the nation’s inland water channels, including the River Niger which runs through almost nine states.
While it is true that government, in 2009 came up with dredging of the river ports channels, especially leading to the dredging of of the lower River Niger (Warri-Baro) a distance of 572 kilometres.
The rivers and channels are not being dredged any longer, leading to difficulty in navigating the two main rivers; this is hampering social mobility. The rivers which crisis-cross the nation’s hinterland could encourage social and economic activities if dredged.
If rivers Benue and Niger had been dredged, they would have aided transportation across the country, the yet-to-be-concessioned river ports in Onitsha and Baro would have attracted a lot more patronage, they would have contributed more to the economy of the nation.
We agree with those who have postulated that, inter-state transport and communal trade along the coastal lines which transverse over six states of the country can promote national integration and foster ties. Certainly, the dredging of our waterways will take pressure away from our roads as commodities from the coastal communities can get to city centres through the sea.
In the words of the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council; Mr Hassan Bello, with good navigation lines across the states ferrying of persons, goods and services could be attractive as investors would be sure of returns on investments.
He added that the provision of alternative means of movement in the waterways would further provide jobs for the teeming idle seafarers that would likely take up transport jobs in the sector.
These observations by the CEO of Shippers’ Council aptly capture the deficiencies of NIWA. The only addition here is our earlier position that the nation’s waterways are not safe for navigation.
There is still much to be done in the areas of the quality of the crafts, the in-sail safety measures and safety from attacks on robbers. One other big headache that NIWA has is the frequent friction between it and similar agencies in some littoral states on the issue of jurisdiction. A clear fall-out of this is the state of water crafts, safety gears and other paraphernalia of water transportation. In states where there is a water transport agency, such as Lagos, the friction often arise from which agency has the right to superintend operators of water transporters. This conflict has always left the operators with no one to run to.
The recent appointment of Senator Mamora as the substantive managing director of NIWA is another case of political patronage. How does a medical doctor fit into the position of head of an inland waterways agency?
For an agency with enormous challenges as NIWA, it is our belief that the Federal Government should have been more conscious of these challenges. But, now we are saddled with a chief executive who will have to ‘learn on the job’.
With a myriad of problems such as insecurity, shallow channels and face-off over jurisdiction with some states, would it not have been better if NIWA got a CEO with relevant cognate experience?