Boat operators cannot close at 6pm

Gani Balogun is the Managing Director Gani-Tarzan Marine Enterprises Limited. He is also the President Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Water Transportation of Nigeria (ATBOWATON). Addressing journalists at the recent National Inland Waterways Agency (NIWA) safety and awareness campaign held in Lagos, Balogun talked about the challenges his members encounter in their operations. He also talked about the impracticability of boat operators not operating at night. SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’S Uju Ozoeze was among the journalists. 

Excerpts: 

From the perspective of an operator, would you say our waterways are safe?

Our waterways are very safe. We have never heard that they robbed anybody on our waterways. What have been happening on our waterways are just accidents. Accidents can happen at any time but they can be prevented. If not for the wrecks littering our waterways, there won’t be frequent occurrence of boat mishaps. It is only when you pack your boat unsecured that sea pirates can come and cart away your boats and engines. That has happened to my own company. Last year I lost three boats and six engines and that is why there should always be patrol of the waterways.

What measures do you think would make the usage of our waterways safe?

There are a lot of things that can be done but the ones that should be tackled as matter of urgency is to remove the wrecks littering the waterways.  Also important is to build fuel stations around the waterways so that boat operators can easily fuel their boats. For instance, going to Badagry now, an operator needs to have in his boat fuel enough to take him to Badagry and back and that entails having twenty litres of fuel in your boat which is dangerous. But if there is a place you can buy fuel while making a trip, you won’t need to carry fuel in your boat. I also suggest that boat operators should have a visible color for their boats preferably white so that anywhere they are in the dark they can be spotted easily. This is one of the suggestions we have made to NIWA.

But NIWA has said that boat operators should not operate beyond 6pm?

But that is not possible because there are those who live in the riverine areas who close from work 6 o’clock and even later in the evening. And there is no other means of getting home aside boat transport so when they close from work and we are closed for the day what would they do? That is the reason why I say that it is necessary operators paint their boats white and to ensure that their navigation lights are on at night so that they can be visible. And also to have constantly on the waterways, like we have on the roads, Rapid Response Service and Marine Police Officers on ground to make sure that the boats do not overspeed. That is why it is important that there are spots where they can put signs, like marked routes, to indicate areas that are safe and dangerous so that boat operators can navigate wisely.

What is the association doing to check the frequent boat mishaps on the waterways?

We are working on getting our own taskforce boats to monitor boat operators especially concerning their speed but we need the assistance of the government and corporate organizations to fuel the boats because it costs a lot of money to run the boats around. We have been campaigning for this and discussing it in our meetings. The association has also mandated its members to disallow anybody that refuses to wear a life jacket from boarding their boats. Some customers can be very stubborn but the captain of the boat is in control and has the final say so if someone says he does not want to wear life jacket, do not allow the person to enter your boat. Return the person’s money if he proves adamant. Accidents can happen at any time but we all have to work towards to prevent them.

You talked about a bid for 300 boats for boat operators, could you throw more light on this?

Like on the roads we can see federal government assisted bus mass transit but there is nothing like that on the waters. That is why we are asking for assistance to get the boats. We have gone ahead to contact a company in Canada who is going to help us source for funds. There is a company called EAL that is going to finance it for us, as a very soft loan, and the Nigerian Navy to build boats for us instead of us to going to buy them abroad. If we get them here it will save us cost of transportation and duty. It will also provide employment for Nigerians to have the boats built here. The project has gone very far. We have met with the Navy. NIWA is with us on this and very soon we will start construction of the boats.

Does the disagreement between the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the Lagos State Government  affect your operations?

There is a saying that if two elephants fight, the grass suffers and indeed we the boat operators are the ones suffering. We are faced with paying multiple taxes and this ought not to be so. We have gone to court over this and the court says it is NIWA that is in charge and declared that we should pay to it but LASWA have gone for an appeal. We are still awaiting the outcome. We are ready to pay but all we need is to find a way to make sure we pay to one body. I personally, on behalf of the association, have been to LASWA office and spoke to them. I told them that there is no way this thing will work if you don’t work together. The federal and state governments have to work together; if they don’t there will be problems for those operating. We don’t have any preference of who to pay to as long as the waterways are safe and we the boat operators are charged moderately. For instance, if I have to invest three million naira in a boat and you are telling me to pay five million naira to operate it, it is outrageous. You are supposed to encourage me. And another thing is that the government has to provide infrastructures for the boat operators to encourage them. It’s like me asking a passenger to pay for a boat ride and I have no boat on standby. I need to have a boat for them to pay me to carry them across the water. So if we have to pay to the government, what are we paying for? What benefits do we enjoy paying to them? This is the situation we find ourselves and we are not really happy about it. The bottom line is that we are prepared to work with any one that is constitutionally set up and is working in the interest of the people.