Enhancing Inland Waterways for More Efficient Transportation

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David-Chyddy Eleke writes about the twin challenges before the Director General of Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority, George Moghalu, in his effort to make the Onitsha River Port functional

On October 6th, Onitsha, Anambra State and the entire South-east business community came alive with excitement over the arrival and reception of a barge conveying containers in Onitsha River Port from Onne Port in Rivers State. The barge landed with several containers belonging to businessmen in the commercial city of Onitsha Anambra State and other South-eastern states. It would be the first time in over 40 years that such ever happened.

The implication of this is that, the trauma businessmen face in going to Lagos to clear their containers and now hire trucks at very exorbitant rates to bring them down to the east, the high cost of settling security men on the road and the risk of accidents involving the truck and loss of wares would be a thing of the past, if this continued.

In Anambra State, the excitement soon snowballed into a political argument, as some supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari veered off, praising him for doing what no past president has done, while those against him dug deeper to report that the barge was not a full cargo vessel sailing into the port from outside the country, but a barge carrying containers, which were moved from Onne Port to Onitsha.

Recently, the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) called together the business community in Onitsha for an interactive stakeholders meeting. The event which was also attended by the Managing Director of NIWA, Dr. George Moghalu afforded him the opportunity to clear the air about the state of Onitsha River Port and the plans of the authority towards making the Nigeria waterways navigable and the benefit inherent in it.

The president of Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, Mines, Industry and Agriculture, Mr. Chris Ukachukwu, who presented a paper at the event set the tone, by raising various questions that had agitated the minds of the members of the business community in the south-east about the Onitsha River Port.

“Onitsha chamber of commerce as the foremost city chamber in Anambra State has remained in the forefront of proactive policy advocacy on issues relating to the port and its effect on trade and commerce for the Onitsha business community and the south-east zone. At various fora in the past, the chamber consistently engaged various stakeholders to seek ways to fast track the possibility of achieving the full utilisation of the Onitsha River Port.

“Therefore, it was with great excitement that we welcomed the arrival of a barge from Onne Port to Onitsha on the 6th of October, 2020. We must commend your management of NIWA for this historic achievement.”

As much as he commended the MD for his proactiveness, Ukachukwu raised some very pertinent questions about the state of the Onitsha River Port.

He asked, “Is the Onitsha port gazetted as a port of final destination? If so, when will the port commence full ports operation? What is the state of the concessioning of the port? Can goods be cleared in Onitsha port, or people have to travel to Lagos to do the paper work? What is the security architecture on the ground to ensure safety of vessels on arrival? Given the navigational challenges associated with dry season, are there plans for channel managers to see to the dredging of the waterways, thus guaranteeing navigability all-round the year?” These and many more questions he raised about the Onitsha sea port.

Moghalu since assuming the leadership of NIWA has garnered accolades with his efficient management of the organization, but here at the stakeholders meeting, he was confronted by his own people, who though acknowledged that he had done a lot, but were seeking more from him, and expect not just the usual rhetoric that politicians offer as explanations to issues, but were waiting for how whatever plan he had could be achieved.

Taking the questions one after the other, Moghalu did not only allay their fears about the Onitsha River Port, but stated that he as the Managing Director of NIWA is saddled with a greater responsibility, which is making the waterways in Nigeria navigable, adding that they are inherent benefits in decongesting the roads by using water transport.

“We are greatly encouraged by the reaction generated by the maiden flagging off of the haulage of cargo from Onne Port to Onitsha River Port penultimate week. This no doubt to my mind marks another milestone achievement for the intermodal transport system in Nigeria. I am optimistic that this epoch revival will generate substantial business activities and create employment through its operations. Other transport agencies will have a boom in Nigeria and South East in particular.

“Besides, creation of jobs to our youths, movement of cargoes will help greatly in reducing the congestion in our roads and sea ports through effective transshipment to our River Ports in the hinterlands, thereby reducing the incidences of road mishaps.

“We are now determined than ever to make more waterways navigable to facilitate marine transportation across the country. In view of the growing transportation needs, particularly moving bulk commodities, containerized produce into the hinterland, our country needs to focus on the development and harness the benefits of inland waterways.”

He stated that efforts are at top gear for the concessioning of the Onitsha river Port, adding that it is now at an advanced stage, and only when that is achieved can the port be designated as a port of final destination. He said once this was achieved, what it meant was that from anywhere in the world, traders can channel their goods to Onitsha River Port, receive their goods there and also conclude the paper work in the port and take their goods. This elicited applause from the business community in Onitsha.

Speaking about security on the waterways, Moghalu asked, “Do you know that NIWA has its own police? Yes, we have NIWA police, whose duty is to ensure security on the waterways.

Besides that, we also have the Navy, which we are working closely with, and just recently, I met with the Police hierarchy, to see how they can also offer assistance to us, and they gave their words. So, so not be afraid of security once our waterways become very functional.

On the many benefits of making the waterways in the country navigable, he said, “You all know the high cost of moving a container from Lagos to the east. From Lagos to Onitsha, I know that you all spend between N800, 000 to N1million to move one container down here.

From Port Harcourt is about N300, 000. This also has effect on the goods you have brought in, in terms of pricing. While your counterparts in Lagos clear their goods and start making sales, you have to go through the trouble of paying additional cost to bring it to the east. There is also the risk of accident involved and also the many security checkpoints on the road.

“Also, we have the talk about the benefits of our roads lasting longer when these trailers are off the road. If a barge carries 60 containers to Onitsha by water, the tendency is that 60 trailers have been moved off the road, and this will help our roads to ease off a little. There are a total of 10,000 kilometers of waterways in Nigeria traversing 28 states of the country, but right now, only about 1,000 kilometers are navigable.

“We have the task of making all the 10,000 kilometers navigable, and we are working on that. We know that the economy of the country also depends on this, as wares will begin to move faster, and will also reduce the prices of goods, because water transport is also known to be very cheap. So, it is not only about the Onitsha River Port, but about the entire waterways in Nigeria.

“Presently, Onitsha River Port is nearing congestion, as you can see. This is an indication of the volume of cargo expected to be hauled on the inland waters. The port is currently undergoing continuous improvement. The route from Onne Seaport to Onitsha River Port are also undergoing similar improvement vide route update and improved navigation aids,” he assured.

For an average importer in Onitsha, the inability of the federal government to put the Onitsha River Port to full use has kept the people of the South East backwards, and its economy perpetually stagnant. This is because the people are predominantly traders. An importer, Mr. Simon Amaude, who deals in clothing materials in an interview with THISDAY lamented that, “My greatest challenge in business is not being able to clear my goods here in Onitsha,” he said.

“I sell jeans trousers and chinos in wholesale. My container lands in Lagos, and I now travel all the way there to do the paper work, and afterwards I still have to spend up to N700, 000 to N800,000 to transport the container back to Onitsha. Within that period, my fellow importer in Lagos who also imported the same products as myself has begun making sales, without additional expenses. The indication is that he sells lower than myself, who has incurred additional cost bringing the goods to Onitsha. I have not included the risk of the trailer being involved in an accident, in which I will be spending additional money to get another trailer for trans-loading. It is not fair.”

Another trader, Okwudili lamented that the trouble trailers undergo at Apapa after leaving the wharf was a story for another day. He lamented that once, his container spent two days, just for the trailer to move out of the Apapa area of Lagos, because of congestion. “Time is money in this business. Christmas is fast coming now, and the profit you make depends on the turn over. So how can you turn over when the roads are blocked, yet there are customers waiting to buy your goods,” he said.

However, with the assurances of the MD of NIWA, reprieve seems to be on its way to meet the business community in Onitsha and the South East. Moghalu who called for collaborative efforts to beat the challenges said, “At this point, partnership with private sector cannot be over-emphasised, hence this parley (the stakeholders meeting), which is geared towards sensitizing our business community in Anambra and the South East to tap into this lofty initiative s of the federal government.

“Your participation in this regard is a guarantee that this initiative will not fail. I therefore seize this opportunity to urge all the stakeholders in and out of the country, importers and exporters, maritime transport support companies to key into the federal government efforts in the development of water transport into the hinterlands,” Moghalu charged.