IMAGINE a Lagos, where in the height of Friday afternoon traffic you could make it from Victoria Island to Ikorodu in 20 minutes flat. Imagine a Nigeria in which a petrol tanker loaded at Apapa and was barged cheaply and efficiently to customers in Port Harcourt and Jebba. If the Federal Government and the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) can set the right policy tone, this Nigeria can be achieved.
All we would have to do is shift the car passenger traffic and the container transport which block up bridges and roads to cheap and swift water way transportation that could reach all the 36 states.
Almost every state could benefit substantially if we have policies that allow for an explosion in the amount of water transportation throughout the federation. Nigeria is blessed in that most of its states are surrounded by water or have extremely easy access to pliable waterways.
Bayelsa, for example, has an expansive coastline and vast network of creeks – this is just one example of a state that could see a proliferation of internal state transportation solutions. Water transportation within states is low hanging fruit, focusing on an area where deployment could be straight-forward and very quick.
At LASWA, we drove several initiatives to secure the waterway systems and to promote riverine transport in the state – we were partially successful in decreasing the threat of crime through the waterways and of easing road congestion by increasing utilisation of aquatic transport. These successes could only be partial however, because the federal body was supposed to drive them.
NIWA needs to lead the way
The large rivers NIWA can and should manage – what it cannot possibly do as one body sitting in Lokoja, is manage every navigable waterway in every state in Nigeria.
Any new NIWA leadership must come in with clear ideas of what policy it will take to enable the states and what its own priorities for action ought to be; in short, NIWA needs to lead the way.
The rejuvenation of the Nigerian waterways has to start at the Federal Level; the agenda must come from NIWA with an evaluation of what levels of regulation are still relevant and applicable – and what regulation should be consigned to the scrap-heap.
Of a comprehensive answer’s three segments, passenger transportation is almost the least important.
First, must come the drive to get more freight transportation off Nigeria’s roads and high-ways. In many, if not most countries, petroleum products and industrial goods are moved on barges and catamarans via water-ways. Refined petroleum products going from Lagos for transport to Warri have no business clogging up Nigeria’s overstrained roads. There are navigable waterways from Lagos to Warri.
The solution to the intractable Apapa grid-lock is actually NIWA; once the industry becomes developed there will be a secondary effect which is that other forms of commercial freight, containers and cattle will migrate to riverine transportation.
The third and last effect of NIWA functioning ideally will be the boom in passenger transportation via water.
The responsibilities of NIWA that it has not devolved are too expansive and leave no room for the states to take the initiative. The powers are too broad – they are to run cruise boats, undertake the acquisition of pleasure vessels and design all ferry routes.
The act itself doesn’t need to be changed, merely the way it is implemented by the Directors of NIWA and supervised by the Honourable Minister of Transportation. The regulation should allow every state to develop its waterways to a certain level – a cap designed by NIWA above which the federal agency will have the resources to apply strict- scrutiny and even take the initiative. NIWA should give the guidelines but every state should be able to take their own initial steps. It is not the abrogation of Federal powers, rather it’s utilising federal powers to support the states and enable industry.
What the federal body should do is simple: Nigeria has navigable national waterways that move from state to state. NIWA should develop routes such as Lagos to Warri and Port Harcourt; from Port Harcourt to Bayelsa, or Bayelsa to Warri; Warri to Lokoja.
These are akin to Federal roads, but all states should have the right to develop traffic on their internal waterways. This means that licences that have to do with moving from Lagos to Port Harcourt, would remain under NIWA’s primary authority, but there should be room for states to license and manage their own internal systems. This has the benefit of engaging the states and making them concerned about their own internal pollution, their water-way clearing and, their dredging issues. If the states cannot issue permits and take levies, they cannot raise funds to manage their rivers and creeks and this makes all Nigerians worse off in the long run.
When I was in Lagos State, we tried to lead the way, but the impetus must come from the centre. We were able to get the framework of draft-legislation in place, we were able to bring investors to the brink – but it takes NIWA to resuscitate the industry by getting rid of its obsolete regulation and thereby promoting growth and setting a new direction for the country.
If Nigeria is to grapple with its infrastructure challenges in the coming decade, we must realise that the low hanging fruit is the enormous opportunity that utilising water transportation for passengers and goods represents. To do this, we need NIWA to lead the way with a few key national projects, a broad policy and the devolution of the details to the state government agencies.
• Omoua Alonge Oni-Okpaku LL.B, B.L was an Executive Director and the Company Secretary of the Lagos State Waterways until August 2015. She lives in Lagos.