The feud between Lagos State and NIWA is unnecessary

The face-off between the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the Lagos State Government over the constitutional power to control the waters in the state is rather unfortunate. The latest controversy is coming barely a year after the state and NIWA resolved their differences spanning over 10 years, with the signing of a mutual agreement on modalities for waterways’ regulations and control. Before that resolution was brokered, Lagos State had instituted a legal action against the federal government seeking judicial interpretations on the matter before it was settled out of court. Whatever may have been the resolution arrived at is now in jeopardy.

At issue is a move by the Lagos State House of Assembly to challenge the regulatory powers of NIWA and stop the activities of dredging companies. This, to NIWA is an affront to its authority. In fact, the federal agency recently described the attempt by the Lagos lawmakers as overstepping their mandate on the extant mining laws in the country which vest such oversight powers only on NIWA.

To the extent that the management of inland waterways is under the purview of federal authorities in many climes, we believe that NIWA is on firmer grounds. In the United States of America for instance, the Marine Highway, an initiative of the Department of Transportation (DOT) was designed to use the country’s 47,000 kilometres of navigable waterways to alleviate traffic. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), a federal establishment, is responsible for 19,000 kilometres of the waterways. Besides, most of the commercially important inland waterways are maintained by the USACE, including 18,000 kilometres of fuel-taxed waterways.

After evolving from Inland Waterways Department (IWD) of the Federal Ministry of Transport into an Authority vide an act of the National Assembly in 2004, NIWA’s primary responsibility includes improving and developing Nigeria’s inland waterways for navigation. By the enabling act, other functions of NIWA are to undertake capital and maintenance dredging; undertake hydrological and hydrographic surveys; design ferry routes; survey, remove, and receive derelicts, wrecks and other obstructions from inland waterways; operate ferry services within the inland waterways system; undertake installation and maintenance of lights, buoys and all navigational aids along water channels and banks. NIWA is also vested with the power to issue and control licences for inland navigation, piers, jetties, dockyards; examine and survey inland water crafts and shipyard operators; grant permit and licences for sand dredging, pipeline construction, dredging of slots and crossing of waterways by utility lines.

Given the foregoing functions, NIWA appears to be operating within its scope, particularly in the instant case of dredging activities. While it is not clear why the Lagos legislature would choose to drag the agency to court less than a year after an amicable resolution was reached with the state government, we are not opposed to testing the law where there are contentions. But while a resort to judicial solution is okay, there are pressing issues that should be the focus of attention by both NIWA and the Lagos authority, especially at a time like this.

Hardly does any month pass within the Lagos waters without report of a boat accident and often with heavy casualty figures. And the reasons are very clear. According to estimates from the United Nations (UN), there are more than three million shipwrecks in the ocean floor worldwide and Nigeria is one of the countries where numerous of such wrecks are said to be lying under the water bed. Therefore, if this issue is about public good, what is needed between NIWA and the Lagos State government is collaboration on the enforcement of safety standards rather than fighting over turf.

It is not too late to begin to tread that part.