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 river in West Africa and eleventh 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. To the surprise of all, users of waterways 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.
With increased patronage of water transportation in the country, there has been a corresponding rise in fatal accidents on her waterways. Official records indicate that 22 out of the 36 states in the country use water as a means of transport.
And recently, NIWA reported that 80 % boat operators in Lagos travel at night and also operate without passenger manifest. It was also found out that some boats were ‘over-boarded’ beyond their designed capacity. These are manifest violation of safety guidelines as spelt out by the agency itself, a clear invitation for accidents.
The daily occurrence of boat accidents on Nigerian waterways has reached a disturbing crescendo ; so many people have lost their lives in boat accidents which have become so rampant that hardly a fortnight passes without a boat mishap being reported across the length and breadth of the country. From Lagos to Niger to Cross Rives, Rivers, Kaduna, Bayelsa, Sokoto and Delta states, the stories of boat accidents reverberate.
Apart from the cause that NIWA uncovered in its report, statistics have shown that overloading, careless driving, negligence, turbulent weather and presence of derelicts and wreckages in the channels have also contributed immensely to the ugly trend.
We are sure that, the various associations of ferry operators are aware that most accidents are caused by a combination of the factors mentioned above. The regulatory agency; NIWA is aware too.
The NIWA should get more serious about enforcement of safety regulations; it is not enough to identify the problems as has been done by its Lagos Area Office, where it was found out that most of its most vibrant jetties are nothing to write home about in terms of safety.
Apart from this, in the report, NIWA also passed a vote of no confidence on nine major boat operators for their noncompliance with onboard safety measures such as: gadgets, passenger manifest, fire extinguisher and anchor.
It is worrisome that for many years, NIWA has been shouting about noncompliance, yet it has not done anything about it, beyond going to jetties to educate passengers and operators. We believe that, after education and enlightenment, NIWA should have commenced enforcement.
The regulations are there, so why is it difficult for NIWA to make it mandatory for all the ferry operators to always comply with all the rules and regulations that guide the subsector?
Without necessarily sounding judgmental, what these mishaps and attacks imply is that NIWA has failed in its statutory duties of safeguarding navigation through the nation’s inland water channels.