Even Mungo Park will weep for these perambulators

River Niger dredging 

By Bolaji Akinola

When President Umaru Yar’Adua flagged off dredging of the lower section of River Niger on September 10, 2009, the euphoria that greeted the ceremony resulted from the belief that the project would open up commercial activities on Nigeria’s section of West Africa’s principal waterway.

Yar’Adua’s government expended a princely N43 billion to dredge the river ostensibly to open it up for socio-economic activities. The government also promised to build seven ports along the banks of the river. The ports were to be located in Agenebode, Idah, Yenagoa, Baro, Lokoja, Aguta and Ogbabe. Onitsha River Port was also to be rehabilitated and expanded to accommodate a river training institute. The River Niger dredging was to cover a distance of 572 Kilometres from Warri, in Delta State, to Baro in Niger State to ensure all year round usage.

The expectation was that there would be a lot of movement of goods and persons on the waterways, which was and still is under the control of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA). Nigerians also expected to see some modern ferries and tourist boats ply the river. They also anticipated cheaper and safer means of moving containers and other heavy goods using the waterways.

It was a move meant to boost intermodal transportation in the country with fewer trucks on the roads as goods could easily be moved intra-country on barges and small crafts.

The N43 billion expended on that project is money down the drain. Some white contractors and their Nigerian collaborators have made some cool money and disappeared into thin air. This has been the bane of Nigeria’s development. Even the Mungo Park expedition that traced the origin and terminal point of the river’s 4,180km stretch across West Africa did not consume, in today’s value, up to one per cent of the sum Nigeria decided to thrown into dredging a mere 572km portion.

The lower River Niger dredging has again become a victim of our culture of waste and profligacy. We must ask questions. Was the dredging, which started with so much fanfare completed? Did NIWA and the Federal Ministry of Transportation certify it complete? If the dredging was completed by the contractors and certified by the relevant arm of government, why was the river not put to use as projected? Why has even one boat not been seen trading on the waters? Where are the commercial activities promised by government?

A few days ago, the captain of a local boat, which claimed seven lives with more than one hundred others missing during a mishap on the river, said the craft ran into a stump while on a short voyage somewhere around Kebbi State. Would there be deadly stump on the waterway if the dredging had been well executed?

Nigeria’s national challenge are plentiful especially with regards to executive to plan. Take a look at the body known as the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) for instance. That body was set up ten years ago to regulate freight forwarders activities in Nigeria. Till this point, CRFFN has not got its acts right. It has failed in one decade to deliver on its mandate. The industry it was set up to regulate is still as polarized and unstructured as ever. The very people the council was set up to regulate are now the ones regulating it. Disorder, chaos and confusion have become the new normal for the council.

A couple of yeas ago, I also raised alarm over the monumental sums committed to the dredging of Calabar Port. In the case of Calabar, it was a cool $56 million down the drain, or perhaps down the pocket of some smart alecs. Money spent, project failed. The siltation has set in again and not one vessel targeted by the dredging has been able to sail to the port more than ten years after. Even the shouts of probe that followed my alarm have failed. Various arms of government promised to probe the dredging and bring the culprits to book. Perhaps that will happen in another life.

Is Nigeria a nation of abandoned projects, failed promises and squandered resources? Are projects initiated to siphon money rather than deliver the goods to the people? I am still in search of answers to these and many other questions but it certainly appears that, as the great Fela Anikulapo sang in 1983, the top is full of perambulators.

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