Before FG Throw another N34 bn into River Niger Dredging

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The dredging of River Niger, to say the least, has become a thorn in the flesh of Nigeria, nay Nigerians. This is not unconnected with the fact that huge amount of money running into several billions has been sunk into the dredging of River Niger project with little or nothing to show for it. In fact, successive administrations at the centre often see the dredging of River Niger as its cash cow.

For instance, former President Umaru Yar’adua spent not less than N34 billion on the same project during his tenure. What did Nigeria, nay Nigerians gained from the N34 billion out of the N44 billion Yar’adua sunk into the dredging of the River Niger? Even the multibillion naira Onitsha River Port is in ruins several years after it was formally unveiled with pomp and pageantry. Yet the Federal Government wants to spend more money into what it called “maintenance dredging” of the same river. If the former president can be excused for spending that huge sum of money into a project that has no timeline and definite date of completion at a time of boom, why should it put more money into what it called “maintenance dredging” in the wake of the recession in the economy.

The Federal Government revealed that it will save over N24 billion as it commences maintenance dredging of River Niger from Ajaokuta to Onitsha. The dredging exercise will cover a distance of 162 kilometres from Ajaokuta, Kogi State to Onitsha, Anambra State.

This was disclosed during the official flag off of the dredging exercise along Ajaokuta waterways channel. It expressed belief that the exercise which will be done by the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) will not only boost trade in Kogi State but also its environs.

The Minister of Transportation, Right Hon. Rotimi Amaechi who stated this at the ceremony said: “I was told that the last dredging exercise cost N44 billion and the federal government was only able to pay N34 billion. With the flag-off of this maintenance exercise that will be done by NIWA, the government will be saving that N34 billion. NIWA will use N10 billion and the remaining N24 billion will be channelled to other sectors of the economy like the construction of road from Abaaji to Lokoja.

The minister also ordered NIWA to include two items in the 2018 budget. These are the purchase of bigger dredger and allowance for staff of NIWA separate from their salary.

On the surface, the idea of embarking on the maintenance dredging of River Niger looks good. In fact, it is very attractive. Contracts will not be awarded but the dredger of NIWA and its staff will be used to carry out the maintenance dredging of the River Niger in the months ahead.  However, Nigerians, especially critical stakeholders in the maritime industry and beyond need to put their eyes and ears on the ground before this become another wild goose chase. If Nigerians did not care when Yar’adua spent N34 billion, they should care now that we are in recession. They should ask pertinent questions, otherwise Nigerians will be holding the short end of the stick. For instance, it is really true that the Federal Government will save over N34 billion in the dredging of River Niger? What is the cost benefit analysis of the project? These NIWA staff that will be involved in the project will they be able to look at their superior in the face and insist that the right thing should be done? Against the backdrop of the civil service rules, will they be able to look at the Managing Director of NIWA, Mr. Boss Mustapha or Amaechi and take the right decision without the fear of being redeployed, transferred or sacked?

Only long ago, this reporter had an exclusive interview with the Managing Director of Lagos Channel Management Limited (LCM), Mr. Daniel Fuchs. An Israeli, retired officer of the Navy and an expert in dredging, Fuchs revealed that the budgetary process in the government is not only very complex but also cumbersome to the extent that if not for its technical partners, the joint venture company which is saddled with the maintenance of the Lagos channels would not have attain set goals and objectives since its establishment.  Against this backdrop, how far can this NIWA staff go in getting approval for the maintenance dredging of River Niger? How many employees of NIWA are involved? What are the requirements for selecting these employees? What are the determinants for the propose allowance for the NIWA staff involved in the project? Is this project sustainable? What are the immediate, medium and long term gains of this initiative? Is there nothing to loss at all in embarking on this initiative as being painted by all the government officials who spoke at the flag off the event? These and many more questions are begging for answers.