By Enyeribe Anyanwu
The comatose state of inland water transportation remains a sad commentary on present day Nigeria. During the colonial era, inland waterways transportation was the mode of transport that moved the economy. The colonial masters used the river ports of Baro, Lokoja and Onitsha to move raw materials down to Apapa Wharf for shipment to their country. The Baro Port was the first colonial port. Used for both local and foreign shipments, the river port was linked with rail and good roads, which made movement of agricultural raw materials from the hinterland to the river port seamless.
The efficiency of inland water transportation during this period was a beauty to behold. As Geography students in the early seventies, our textbooks described to us the efficiency of these river ports – how they made movement of people and goods very easy and enjoyably down the course of the lower River Niger. How most of Nigeria’s export commodities that comprised groundnuts, cotton, hides and skins, rubber, cocoa and palm produce were shipped to the Apapa Port via the inland waterways. Groundnuts, cotton, hides and skins moved seamlessly from the North down to Apapa Wharf for export while imported goods travelled back the same route.
Sadly, after independence, inland water transportation and these river ports started a gradual decline as a result of negligence. With time, the river ports started decaying until they fell into disuse. The river channel, that is, the lower Niger River, could not be dredged even when the colonial masters already had that on the cards before leaving the scene.
Only a few years ago were contracts awarded for the dredging of the river. But from all the claims and counter-claims, accusations and counter-accusations, it is clear that the huge contract sums have been swept into the river. Up to today, the dredging of the River Niger is still mired in controversy as no one can really say that the river has been dredged. While government officials and their contractors claim that the river has been dredged, people living along the course of the river who should know better debunk the claims. Whatever the contention, the only indicator of the dredged river is increased business activities on the river and movement of vessels from one river port to the other, down to the seaports in Lagos, Warri and Port Harcourt. If capital dredging was done and maintenance dredging did not follow up, it means no work has been done since navigation down the entire course of the river is not possible.
That inland water transportation played such a significant role in moving the nation’s economy during the colonial era only to become moribund after independence is, indeed, very sad. It speaks volume of the competence and sound judgment of the economic planners of successive administrations. It is even sadder to hear that there are individuals who do not want the revival of inland waterways transportation in Nigeria.
If the neglect and shabby treatment of inland water transportation over time is sad and regrettable, recent revelations that there are people who are sabotaging this mode of transportation in the country, is preposterous. It is difficult to believe that there are Nigerians in their right frame of mind who would not want inland water transportation to thrive in Nigeria, even with the rich waterways network God has endowed the nation with. Worse still is when such people collaborate with foreigners in this ignoble enterprise.
Some time ago, the Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, let the cat out of the bag when he lamented that there were some Nigerians who were sabotaging inland waterways transportation in the country. During a chat in his office with the Managing Director of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Senator Olurunnimbe Mamora, Dogara said there are some people in the sector who do not think that inland waterways transportation is important or useful to the economy. He said he was told by some government officials that the Chinese had handed down a negative verdict on the project, saying it was not feasible and useless. Said Dogara: “I am aware that some people in the sector are of the opinion that we do not need the inland waterways transportation in this country. I have had discussions with some of them. Like I said, I have been an advocate of this for long, and they said that the Chinese said it is useless, even if we develop it. But that’s the irony; if you look at other countries, which do not even have this potential for inland waterways transportation, they have even done man-made inland waterways and even lakes. They have created artificial ones, while in this country, having been blessed with these wonderful resources by mother-nature, by God, we tend to look the other way and believe they will not serve any useful purpose.
“There are some people within the sector who do not want some of these initiatives to see the light of day. But because I’ve converted myself so if they are fighting against you, they are fighting against me, and it would be very difficult for them to succeed because of the goodwill that propels us.”
Dogara couldn’t have put it better. Yes, there are some people who are collaborating with the Chinese to sabotage inland waterways transportation and multi-modal transport in Nigeria. But who are these people? And what is the motive behind such sabotage? What will such people lose if inland water transportation thrives in Nigeria? What would they lose if the sector begins to contribute substantially to the economy? Does an action such as this not constitute economic crime? Isn’t it high time such people were apprehended, their heads first examined by psychiatrics, before handing them over to the Financial and Economic Crimes Commission (EFCC)?
For goodness sake, when did the Chinese start running the economy of this nation? When did their opinion become the basis for the country’s economic decisions? Why should people at the highest level of government buy this barefaced sabotage? It is gratifying to note that there are people like Yakubu Dogara in government who find the Chinese opinion absurd. The cartel that is sabotaging the dredging of the River Niger and inland water transportation in Nigeria should be identified and dealt with accordingly. Their action amounts to economic crime and should be treated as such. Everything that will support the development or revamping of inland waterways transportation should be done, including the dusting up and implementation of the national transport master plan. Those who are making the implementation difficult for selfish interests should be seen as enemies of the nation. The glorious past of the sector must be restored. We should not continue to fritter away all the bounties that God has endowed us with.
As the present administration of Muhammadu Buhari winds up its first tenure and prepares for the second term, it should make the revamping of inland waterways transportation a matter of priority. The navigability of the river Niger from Baro to Onitsha and to Warri should be accomplished. The claims and lies about the dredging of the river should be laid to rest. All the river ports that have been under construction should be completed and made functional.
One can recall that in July 2017, the Minister of Transport, Mr. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, tasked NIWA on the delivery of its mandates, which he said included the dredging of the River Niger, concession of Onitsha River Port and the completion of Baro, Lokoja and Oguta river ports. All these projects he directed must be completed within the lifespan of the Buhari administration. The transport minister gave this mandate at the 2017 NIWA International Conference and Exhibition in Lagos. Interestingly, the theme of the Conference was “Improving Navigability and Inland Port Development for Sustainable Investment on Nigerian Waterways”. At the event, Amaechi said that the budgetary appropriations had been made to ensure the completion of the Baro, Lokoja and Oguta River ports, urging the private sector to make maximum use of the network of rivers, creeks, lagoons and lakes in the country. He also gleefully announced that “tremendous progress on the concessioning of Onitsha River Port” had been recorded and expressed optimism that the process would be completed before the end of the year.
Nearly two years after and with the administration winding up, what is the situation now? What is the extent of the navigability of the River Niger and why has the concession of Onitsha Port not progressed beyond what it was two years ago? The river port was commissioned in January 2013, and since then, concession of the port has been ongoing. However, has the navigability of the access channel, which remains a disincentive to prospective investors, been addressed? All these questions must be answered by this administration. Luckily, its mandate has been renewed, giving it the opportunity to clear any mess and finish any unfinished business.
History will not spare the administration if after eight years of shouting about past administrations’ neglect of inland water transportation and the maritime sector in general it still leaves the sector in a comatose state. The same history will also judge the National Assembly for not passing the new NIWA Bill which has been pending for many years. The bill, which has gone through third reading at the Senate, has not received enough attention at the House of Representatives. It is hoped that the House will support and endorse the bill. When passed and it becomes an Act, the law will enhance the capacity of NIWA to enforce rules and regulations on inland waterways, resolve the present crisis with her sister government agencies, boost the revenue profile of the Authority, and perhaps, deal with the saboteurs of the nation’s inland water transportation.
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