Exactly two years ago, the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi tasked the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) on delivery of its mandate. The minister was talking specifically about some ongoing projects within the purview of the inland waterways authority. He was prodding the Authority to ensure the completion of these projects, which are critical to the development of inland water transportation in the country. These projects include: the dredging of the River Niger, concession of Onitsha River Port, and the construction of new river ports across the country. He also urged NIWA to ensure the completion of work on the river ports in Baro, Lokoja and Oguta before the end of President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration.
Amaechi made this demand from the Authority at the 2017 edition of NIWA International Conference and Exhibition, which had the theme “Improving Navigability and Inland Port Development for Sustainable Investment on Nigerian Waterways.” The event was held in Lagos.
The Transportation Minister had explained at the event that funding was not the problem as budgetary appropriations had been made to ensure the completion of the Baro, Lokoja and Oguta River ports. But two years after, and with the Buhari administration in the process of winding up his administration, only the Baro Port has been completed and commissioned. The commissioning of the river port however, according to critics, was more or less a political event, having taken place at the heat of the last presidential election campaigns. To lend credence to the popular notion that it was part of President Buhari’s re-election campaign strategy, the port is yet to see the commencement of port activities. It is now queuing behind the Onitsha River port for a concessionaire that would manage it.
It is recalled that at the NIWA event, the transport minister had raised hopes concerning the concession of Onitsha River Port, saying that the process would be completed before the end of that year (2017). But two years after, the port is yet to be concessioned to anyone. The effort to conclude the process last year ended in bitter disputes, petitions and litigations as bidders challenged the integrity and fairness of the process. The bidders accused NIWA officials of flouting court orders and disregarding ministerial directives to cancel the entire exercise when infringements were observed. The action of the NIWA officials compelled the Ministry of transport, the supervising ministry, to halt the process, accusing the Bid Evaluation Team constituted by NIWA of failing to adhere to the evaluation criteria, and for inexplicable discrepancies in the application of the scoring matrix established by the Evaluation Committee.
NIWA later said it had concluded the process, but up to now, nobody knows who the winner is. It is more than one year now. The inability of NIWA to ensure open, free and fair concession exercise means that the port that was commissioned in 2013, and whose concession began the same year will have to wait much longer for a concessionaire. Meanwhile, the plant and equipment and the entire port infrastructure continue to rot away.
In addition to the messy concession process, there is still the question of the dredging of the lower Niger River. Many stakeholders have been accusing NIWA of bogus claims that the river has been dredged while the entire channel to the Onitsha River Port is not navigable. The dredging of the lower River Niger, which was flagged off by the federal government under President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010, was expected to harness the massive economic potentials of inland waterways transportation in Nigeria. But nine years down the line, this massive investment has not made any impact on either public transportation or economic activities in the country.
Similarly, important jetties under construction by NIWA along the course of the River Niger and other inland rivers appear to have been abandoned. These jetties are located in Lokoja, Oguta Lake, Degema, Onitsha, Owerrinta, Ndoni, Pategi, Burutu, Yenagoa, Baro, Igbokoda and Ondo waterways.
Nigeria has the second longest length of waterways in Africa, with over 8,600km of inland waterways and an extensive coastland of about 852 kilometers cutting across 28 states. All these are under the control of NIWA. Unfortunately, these vast potentials are yet to be harnessed by NIWA to the benefit of the nation’s economy and its people. Experts have stressed that for there to be sustainable transport development, there must be a modal shift, and inland waterway navigation must get a higher share of the total transport plan.
That NIWA has not been able to deliver on its mandate cannot be attributed to the non-passage of the NIWA amendment Bill. Though, the amended bill will go a long way in helping the agency to fulfill its mandate, what is paramount is professionalism, patriotism, diligence and tenacity of purpose.
One recalls, most poignantly, the disclosure of the out-going Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, on why inland water transportation in Nigeria is comatose. The speaker who was exchanging views with the managing director of NIWA, Senator Olurunnimbe Mamora in his office had said:
“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.”
Continuing he said, “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.”
This disclosure by a highly placed government official evokes the questions: Are those people who do not think that we need inland water transportation in Nigeria unknown to NIWA? Who are those people in government who are working with the opinion of the Chinese? Could these people who are sabotaging the dredging of the River Niger be officials of NIWA, since it is the government agency responsible for executing the project? Whatever might be the answers to these questions, it is clear that the Authority has some explanations to make, including why rehabilitation of old river ports and building new ones, and dredging the lower River Niger has become an endless venture.
Another observable lapse in the operations of NIWA is seen in the extent weeds and water hyacinth ravage the nation’s waterways periodically. These weeds impair navigation, and sometimes cause accidents. This has been the situation over the years even with NIWA acquiring Aquatic Weed Harvesters (FX-IIB) and Vegetative Cutters (AVC) – Swamp Devils I, II and III. Every acquisition usually comes with the same assurance that water hyacinth on the waterways, especially in the Southern part of the country would disappear. But in due season, one sees the waterways covered with these waterweeds.
With unfinished projects littered here and there, NIWA should wake up from slumber and face its mandate. The advantages of inland water transportation over other modes of transportation can never be over-emphasized. Heavy and bulky goods are best transported by water. It also provides more flexible service than the railways, and can be adjusted to suit individual requirements.
Waterways are so critical to the transportation of people and goods throughout the world that countries without this natural endowment spend a fortune in creating artificial canals and waterways. Can Nigeria then continue to toy with her waterways, being so richly blessed?