The matter is grim! Every patriot is deeply worried. Whether in Lagos, Yauri, Sokoto, Shiroro, Kebbi or the Niger Delta waters, the increasing loss of lives on the nation’s inland waterways is frightening and can no longer be tolerated. Who actually stands to blame? Who is contributing what to perpetrate what ought to be an exception rather than the rule? Is the carnage persisting because waterway users stubbornly neglect safety measures the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) has been championing for years? What is the level of government empowerment to NIWA to address this matter? Is government allocation sufficient to frontally address such a gargantuan problem? IZUCHUKWU OZOEMENA examines the issue following fresh appeals by the inland waterways regulator recently for all hands to be on deck to check what is becoming a national embarrassment.
August 12 – 14, 2014, the National Inand Waterways Auhority (NIWA) hosted her first-ever International Conference and Exhibition (ICE) in Lagos. Tagged NIWA ICE, it was part of continuing efforts to draw global attention to Nigeria’s huge waterway potentials and efforts the agency was making to harness them not only for the benefit of inland waterway users in-country but stakeholders from contiguous nations and even beyond.
From all indications, the theme of the conference, “Modernizing Inland Waterways Infrastructure and Vessels for Safe and Sustainable Inland Waterways Transportation”remains as relevant and apt, eight years after. This is because it falls in line with the imperatives of the moment and present concerns about increasing safety lapses on the waterways and loss of lives being experienced.
The NIWA ICE focused on safety while vigorously projecting the agency’s strategies to compel boat operators and passengers alike to give topmost priority to safe sail on the inland waterways.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Among other responsibilities, the NIWA Act CAP N47, 2004 of January 1, 1996 which established the agency, vested in it the task to “provide regulations for inland waterway navigation.” Unambiguously spelt out in this task is safety on the inland waterways. To what extent has the agency gone to satisfy public expectations in this regard? What role is stakeholders’ attitude of non-compliance to safety rules playing in making it impossible for NIWA to make substantial strides in ensuring safety on the inland waterways? Does NIWA really stand to blame for continuing loss of lives on the waterways when boat passengers, boat drivers and others blatantly flout safety regulations while plying the inland waters?
The present leadership of NIWA under Dr George Moghalu has been facing scathing criticism for what appears an inability to tame the scourge of numerous boat mishaps. This is despite all efforts by the agency to enforce extant safety regulatory measures. However, some stakeholders say that considering the very wide area whose inland waterways it is overseeing, the agency deserves to be adequately empowered to tackle all tasks including incidences of disobedience to safety rules and regulations. For now, the agency lacks what it takes to adequately prevent or preempt some of these deadly occurrences. It can only react to some of them depending on her capability level which reflects the level of empowerment at her disposal.
Shortly after appointment as NIWA Managing Director, Dr George Moghalu undertook a familiarization tour to coastal states and communities to re-assure all and sundry that contrary to negative notions about travelling by water, it remains the fastest, safest and economically-rewarding means of transportation.
At an enlarged media interaction in Lagos early August, Moghalu was at his best when he made efforts to assure stakeholders that much as it may be humanly impossible to achieve absolute perfection, the agency remains committed to ensure an enduring, secure and safer inland waterways. On recurring boat accidents, he commended the media for reporting this at least to increase awareness on the possibility so that operators can caution themselves on the need to comply to safety regulations at all times. However, he blamed a section of the media for not verifying facts before publishing news on the frequency and casualties. He condemned some boat operators and passengers who treat safety matters with levity.
Without doubt, the greatest challenge NIWA is yet to overcome is deviant acts that result to avoidable marine accidents. Majority of accidents occur at night. The agency has to devise a far-reaching monitoring and enforcement strategy, night or day, to remain ahead of boat operators who ply the waterways at unholy hours. Strict enforcement of safety precautions, though already in place, is yet to meet expected standards. This is the reason boat accidents still persist even to a frightening proportion being experienced presently.
Jide Okunola, an Apapa-based freight forwarder stated this recently. Okunola who resides in Igbede riverine area of Ojo, told Falcon Watch that most boat drivers who operate along the Badagry-Ojo-Liverpool-Apapa corridor always have a field day because Police patrols take place during the day only. Therefore, he suggested that NIWA must redesign her strategy by engaging local ‘agboros’ and those he described as ‘repented hoodlums’ because “it takes a thief to catch a thief”. According to him, they are already familiar with the terrain and can be very useful in monitoring who is doing what on the waterways especially at night.
These people can be offered incentives to volunteer information because they are on ground more than the Police. Night journeys are common. Nobody checks what happens along the waterways at night”, Okunola regreted. He said that along the stretch, intensive fishing happens in the night; movement of smugglers also take place at night and nobody is available to question those involved. People involved in this act care less about light, wrecks and other obstructions that can cause mishap. Of course, they understand the local geography and can avoid obstacles even in the dark.”
He advised NIWA to realize the need to obtain valid information about what goes on along this stretch through devising a subtle means to identify and befriend some of these night operators so as to have access to needed intelligence on unauthorized night voyages. If this strategy works out on this corridor, he explained, it can be replicated in other areas.
Okunola regretted that all talks about life jackets means nothing to the locals. “In fact, as they rush out to fish at night or scoop sand during the day, life jackets do not matter. For smugglers, the motive is to make it quick. Nothing else is relevant.”
Falcon Watch recalls that at an enlarged stakeholders’ meeting in 2020, Dr Moghalu stated that his cardinal objective was to make water transportation a transport mode of choice. He reiterated this in Lagos recently. “We have tried to provide the needed environment for operators, including training programmes, to expose them to operational standards. Yet, some have chosen the path of desperation and dangerous behavior leading to loss of lives and property.”
MENACE OF WATER HYACINTH
The menace which water hyacinth, the stubborn weed constitutes on the waterways is enormous. This directly impedes navigation for all kinds of vessels. In areas where she has supervisory statutory responsibility, NIWA clears this stubborn weed, Moghalu says.
Following the seasonal embarrassment this weed causes to navigation, NIWA and Lagos State Waterways Authority, LASWA, in 2017, concluded plans to promptly clear it at all times.
At a 2017 joint stakeholders’ meeting with members of the Association of Tourists, Boats and Water Transportation of Nigeria (ATBOWATON) in Lagos, then NIWA Lagos Area Manager, Engr Muazu Sambo admitted that water hyacinth was a critical problem hindering the Agency’s operations. Muazu Sambo who is the current Transportation Minister disclosed that NIWA had acquired equipments to clear it on a permanent basis. “We have acquired equipments to clear water hyacinth; we will deploy them for the purpose,” Sambo said.
INTERVIEW WITH DR GEORGE MOGHALU (in-box)
Q: Frequent boat accidents have become NIWA’s greatest challenge. Does it mean your safety arrangements are not working?
A: We’re doing all what we are expected to do to manage the waterways. But it is sad enough that you find that either by acts of commission or omission, people do not do what they are expected to do. For example, we have placed protocols that vessels don’t move in the night; they don’t move in the early hours of the day. From statistics and reports we receive on accidents that happen, 90% of such accidents happen in the night or early in the morning. What that goes to show is that these vessels don’t have navigational aids. Therefore, they should not move in the night or when it is dark. But people still move in the night. They will avoid the right jetties. At times, they don’t even move from jetties at all; they don’t move at river banks. They move from their vessels, get into the water and expose people to danger. You can’t just leave any of our jetties on your own without being tracked. These jetties are monitored and there are rules that must be obeyed. You cant just get onboard any of our jetties without being fully kitted among which is wearing the right life jacket. Most people don’t even know that these jackets expire. You can’t have an expired life jacket from any of our jetties. You can’t ply from any of our jetties when you are not properly kitted. But to avoid all these, they take people and put them on vessels and expose them to unnecessary and avoidable danger when they are not properly kitted.
Q: People say this is happening because NIWA has not been stringent in punishing offenders by catching and prosecuting them…….
We’re getting them….. We arrested people and tried them. Some people have been convicted. We are still doing that. Even we impound substandard vessels that shouldn’t be on the waterways. We get such vessels; some are destroyed. We keep doing that because every lfe is important to us. We don’t want the waste to continue.
Q: NIWA’s ex-top Manager, Engr Muazu Sambo, is now the Transportation Minister. Do you expect an improved treatment of NIWA matters especially strict enforcement of safety regulations which he championed in the past?
We are always serious and concerned about enforcement of safety standards. We are doing verything to push and actualize them. But don’t forget that much as he was our former staff, he is now the Federal Minister of Transportation and other paratatals are under him. It is not only NIWA that he is overseeing.
Q: The Onitsha River Port was recently concessioned. What is the position of this very large parcel of land and vegetation in the channel directly overlooking the port?
It’s an island; it’s not a bush. We have one or two Chinesecompanies discussing with us on the possibility of developing it.
Q: Still on safety and standards and the need to curb recurring boat mishaps. Any plans on waterway transport codes and standards?
We are putting up transport codes and standards; setting up a task force. Any defaulter we catch we hand over to the Police to prosecute. We are not leaving anything to chance because this is embarrassing. Every life is important to us. The rules area made to be obeyed.
Q: What is the place of technology in all these?
Like you heard me say, boat registration is now done online. We are trying to use technology as much as we can. The next stage is to station cameras to be able to monitor activities on our waterways. So, technology has a key role in all we do.
Q: You brought out some patrol vehicles as well as instituting a task force. What are you doin g to ensure that rules are not only adhered to but operators are abreast of the law?
We are engaging operators. We have created fora where we meet and discuss. A lot of sensitization is going on across the country. Like you said, we bought and distributed patrol vessels .We are empowering and giving all the support to our Police department. We are also setting up task forces that are working across the country to effect protocol when it has to do with boat management.
Q: It appears managing the long stretch of inland waterways across Nigeria is a daunting task for NIWA. Do you support views that it is time the agency is unbundled into three or four zones for easy surveillance and monitoring?
Why unbundle it? We already have too many agencies. We have departments in NIWA that are living up to their responsibilities and expectations in this regard. So, I don’t see why NIWA should be unbundled. I don’t think it is necessary.