GEORGE MUOGHALU: Water Transportation Can Ease Apapa Gridlock

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George Muoghalu

The economic potential of the Inland Water Transportation are enormous, and the employment opportunities are also enormous. These are some of the views expressed by the former National Auditor of the All Progressives Congress and newly appointed Managing Director of the Nigeria Inland Water Authority, Chief George Muoghalu, when he spoke to journalists on the vision and plans of the federal government to reposition water transportation in the country. Onyebuchi Ezigbo presents the excerpts:

How do you view your recent appointment as the Managing Director of the National Inland Waterways Authority?
I thank Mr. President for giving me the opportunity to serve the nation in another capacity with a firm commitment that I won’t fail the confidence bestowed on me; I won’t fail you, I won’t fail Nigeria and I am determined to leave a mark by the time I finish my tenure. As you are all aware I have just been appointed the Managing Director of National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) with headquarters in Lokoja, Kogi state but with offices across the country.

For me it is a very great responsibility and I want to be remembered at the end of my tenure for what I have contributed to build on successes and achievements from my predecessors. The important thing here is that I am amongst those Nigerians that believe it will always be well with our nation and what is required is real dedication. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to serving with commitment; we need to demonstrate our love for the country by the kind of service we render for the overall benefit of mankind and the great people of Nigeria. So, for me, it is a new dawn.

What should Nigerians expect from NIWA in terms of contribution to the growth of the economy?
Before I answer your question, I will like to send my gratitude to Rotimi Ameachi, the Minister of Transport and Senator Gbemi Saraki, the Minister for state of Transportation for finding me worthy to recommend to the President for this appointment. Having said that, as we all know, the National Inland Waterways Authority is more of a regulatory agency as its responsibility reflects its name – in-charge of the waterways.

I am one of the people, who believe that if we exploit the waterways of Nigeria, it has great potential in the aspect of transport. The simplest you can say now is that it is going to reduce the burden on the roads. If our waterways are opened, the channels are free and secure, you can even expand the scope of passenger traffic, using waterways, because it is economical and it goes round the country and most importantly, if you consider that a good percentage of goods that arrived at Lagos seaport today if one say it is about 50-60 percentage of the influx of goods into the country, one won’t be so wrong.

Most of them are going to the South East and these goods today are transported by road. Most of these containerised goods put a lot of pressure on the roads, but if we have a clear waterway transport system, all these goods can be received in Lagos and moved to the River ports. We have a completed River port today in Onitsha. We have an ongoing Jetty being built in Oguta. We have a completed River Port in Baro. Some of these goods that are going to the North can be moved by river port in Baro and others to Onitsha and the other areas where we have functional Jetties like Cross River, Port Harcourt and Warri.

First, we will open up the waterways and once these waterways are opened, you will see that communities, settlements will start to develop along these routes. It reduces tremendously the pressure you have on the roads. If the agency engages a critical stakeholder like Dangote for example, you can come to a point where cement rather than move them on the roads, you move them by the rivers and waterways and then the cement will still get to where it is destined to go to and will succeed in reducing the pressure on Nigerian roads which is key.

We can also develop it to a point where passenger movement can still be enhanced, which will also create alternative transport systems. The beautiful thing here is that it provides opportunity for massive employment. Yes, it is capital intensive, we have to make huge human capital investment to make it very functional but I think it is one area that if we make very functional and open it up, will help in developing our country.

It is my intention to engage critical stakeholders so that we all can discuss these issues, so that we all can come to a point of understanding and see the potential that lies fallow that we can explore for the benefit of our nation and get people to be involved. So, there is quite a lot we can do. However, as an agency, there are also some challenges, because it isn’t as easy as we are saying it. At times, you talk about the dredging of the channels, the security challenges on our waterways but these are issues that can be addressed and as we get along.

We will seek collaborations with sister agencies to resolve these issues and water transportation system will be the favourite of the Nigerian people, which I believe will help our economy quite a lot. For example, if you look at the gridlock we are suffering today in Apapa, if we had a very viable, functional waterway, a good number of these goods that are stuck there; building up demurrage, frustrating importers and what have you, the goods will go by the river ports.

I am aware if not 100 per cent or 90 per cent of the materials being used to construct the second Niger bridge, by Julius Berger are being brought in by the river port to Onitsha. So, if Julius Berger can do it why not the next person? You can engage critical stakeholders, who will now invest in that aspect of our economy just like how they are doing on road transport, you can get them to understand the potential in river transport, provide them the enabling environment, the required support and it becomes as viable as road transport.

What challenges are you likely to deal with to keep the sector afloat?
One of the things I observed within my few days in the agency is the fact that the agency is critically under-reported and you can’t get critical stakeholders to be involved, you can’t get them to buy into your vision if they don’t know the place. So, I have a clear assignment I have given to myself and my team is that you have to bring NIWA to the knowledge of Nigerians. Let them understand NIWA, understand our responsibilities, understand the potential that lie within and also make them see the challenge, because we can sufficiently get support, we can be encouraged, we can even get advice from unexpected sources if they know what you are doing.

Have you asked yourself a simple question, because one thing with me is that when I am confronted with a responsibility I try to look inward, I try to look at our history. Before the civil war, our roads were few but even at that time, there was serious movement of cargo; the groundnut of the North, the oil palm of the East, cocoa from the West and things like that moving to Lagos and vice versa. Have you thought about the fact that a good percentage of these goods then were moved by river? So what happened?

Because the moment we laid so much emphasis on road transport, we lost interest in water transport, because I remember back then clearly that we used to see logs of woods being carried from Sapele, Bonny and those areas down to Lagos by the waterways. Most of the times, they hardly go by roads, because those weights then as no surfaced dressed roads could carry them. So you find out that these things can still be done again, in fact, we have the opportunity to improve on that.

The economic potential is enormous. The employment opportunities are also enormous. So, these are some of the challenges and prospects I have seen. Another challenge, which I have seen and which is not peculiar to NIWA, is that of funding. The volume of resources available to government today in all sectors has been reduced drastically and will continue to reduce so it requires every agency to think inwards and see to what extent you can partner the private sector, because once you can get the private sector to buy into what you are doing, then they can bring external investment which will reduces a lot of burden on you and they can only do this if they know what you are doing.

The issue of security, for example, a global summit just finished a few days ago in Abuja, which I attended with a lot of security agencies and a lot of other people. Over 79 countries were represented at the summit, because the issue of security for the waterways isn’t a peculiar Nigerian problem; it is an international problem and everyone was part of it; everyone was involved. So, at that security summit, the attendance, the calibre, the quality of persons that came goes to show you the importance attached to it and the importance of water transport within our sub-region.

How can NIWA partner key importers and industrialists in a way that they could mutually contribute towards developing that sector?
Let me give you an example. Today, I had a meeting with a very big industrialist from the East, who is into iron rod manufacturing and because of the Apapa gridlock and the challenges, he has many consignments tied up in Lagos to the extent that the few he has cleared he paid demurrage of N494 million and as we speak, some of his containers are still there. So, we discussed the issue of water transportation but these are people, who don’t know that they could partner NIWA and some of these challenges could be reduced.

His factory is located in Onitsha. So, if we can open up our channels, if we can partner him, for example, his consignment can be landing in Lagos and moved straight to Onitsha river port and all those challenges he has will be a thing of the past, because at the moment, he is being grounded, because the pressure on him was high. No industry can survive with such a pressure but a lot of people don’t know the potential and the capacity of NIWA in this regard and that is why I said we are under reported, so, we need to say who we are, we need to come to the front burner because if you don’t say who you are, nobody will sail that path.

By the time we come out, people will now elevate us, ask question and we will now create enabling environment to discuss with them and win their confidence for them to now think of investing in water transportation. But the basic fact here is that my team and I have come to terms with the fact that there is the urgent need to open up the Nigerian waterways.

You have enumerated the importance of the waterways to the Nigerian economy, what measures are you taking to ensuring that the waterways compete favourably in terms of movement of goods and services?
First of all, I have to do an on-the-spot assessment to be able to know the challenges and problems of each of these river ports. Yes, reports have been sent to me, which I am still reading and in a matter of days or weeks I intend to undertake a comprehensive tour of all these areas, where we have river ports, so we can be able to assess their status; so we can know how to put in them for maximum use.

My intention is not to compete with any sister agency but to complement each other. The important thing is that I am looking at the beneficiaries at the end of the day and they are the Nigerian people. So, if I can get the Nigerian people to benefit by making the waterways functionally effective and then running side by side with the rail transport that the government is investing in and the road infrastructure that is being further developed and repairs being made; I think each one will complement one another. Once these things are working hand-in-hand, I am sure we will be in a better state.

In what way can the drenching of River Niger and River Benue assist your plans?
It will assist a lot. When you dredge the river, it creates depth and allows bigger vessels to access the ports. Dredging is a very integral part of any waterways. You also talk about the river plane that has to do with silting of the channels and creating a pathway for the water to flow. These are all parts of the process. I am not saying that any project has been abandoned, not to my knowledge, because I am still going to look at my books. If I tell you that with one week of my appointment I have read all my books and files, then I have started by telling you a lie. I have not!

Reports are coming in. On Tuesday, I will meet with all the Area Managers in Lokoja, so, they can give me on-the-spot briefing and let them know I am coming to visit them because whatever you tell me I am coming to verify. By the time we meet, we will be able to assess individually and see all the challenges and put them on the table. It is a collective thing. Where we have security advantage we use it and where we have challenges we address it.

You are obviously on sabbatical as a member of the ruling party. But how is this not going to conflict your political standing?
It is all about politics, everything in life is about politics, because you are dealing with people. If you say yes, I am going to leave party administration for some time, you never can predict tomorrow. Don’t forget I have been in the party administration for over 20 years uninterrupted since 1999.

I started as national secretary of AP and I have remained there up till date. When we get to the bridge, we will cross it and what is on ground now is this responsibility that has been given to me. I want to make a mark. I want the government to say it did well by choosing me to run this agency. The moment I am able to achieve that, I am a happy person.