A New Dawn Awaits Water Transportation in Nigeria

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GEORGE MUOGHALU
The Managing Director of the Nigeria Inland Water Ways Authority (NIWA), Chief George Muoghalu, recently marked his first year in office with an interactive session with top journalists in Abuja. Onyebuchi Ezigbo presents the excerpts:

What actions are being taken on the dredging of River Niger and to also develop other inland waterways in the country?
The question is a familiar one. Talking about the dredging of the Niger like you asked and expressed concerns as regards to security on the waterways, I would like to let you know that we also share your concerns as regards the issue.
If you recall in 2012/2013, there was capital dredging in Nigeria and this line of business is capital intensive but what we are concentrating on now as an organisation is focusing our attention on maintenance dredging.
We have undertaken some procurement processes so that we can own dredger ourselves, so that we can deploy our staff, who are experienced so that we can be doing regular maintenance dredging, because one thing about movement of smelt is that you can’t determine the volume or the capacity; it is a continuous thing.

So, for you that is why we considered maintenance dredging as the best option. But the major thing to be done is river trailing and we all acknowledge that fact. There was a meeting we recently attended where we were looking at how we can deal with this issue of flooding and then the issue of dredging now came up.
So dredging has been done once, not too long ago – 2012/2013 – capital dredging. But now, there is need for it and we acknowledge that fact. As an agency, we are putting emphasis on maintenance dredging so that we can be working within the limit of resources that are available to us.

How about security concerns?
On the concerns you expressed with regards to security, it is there and I am sure you know that it isn’t only limited to the waterway; we have general security concerns but the beautiful thing about it is that government is also very concerned and every effort is being made to address this challenge. If you recall, last year, there was an international conference here about security that brought in about 179 countries, because we are looking at a situation where there would be a holistic approach to the issue of security.

Let me also commend the security agencies for what they are doing. So, within us here in the country and within the sister agencies in the maritime industry, we are all collaborating, because we identify this challenge and the navy is quite supportive, the army, police, everybody is supportive and everyone is concerned, because besides the negative image it gives us generally, it hampers our economic growth.

So it is a major challenge and it is being aggressively addressed, because we know that if we don’t do it, it will create more problems for us that we can solve. So, we are concerned about it and it is being addressed. The beautiful thing about it is that there is determination; there is commitment to address this challenges but one thing is to identify what your problem is and the other is for you to look for solutions to address it.

How are you dealing with paucity of funds for the execution of projects?
You know, the truth must be told. Even before this administration came into being, Nigeria was a one-product economy and our resources are a consequence of international reaction to the price of oil and petroleum products. So, that is a major issue and we know that.
I don’t speak for government but that is why from what the leadership of today said from 2015 that there is a need for the diversification of the economy and as you know today, there is a lot of emphasis on solid minerals sector, on the agricultural sector and today we can pride ourselves that we don’t import rice like we usually did before.

Agricultural products we are not importing them like we used to do before, because what happened is that we are now looking inward, we are investing aggressively in agriculture and with time, the benefits we will start ripping and all of us we see it. One of the things today that is very clear is the fact that we don’t import rice again and very soon, we will hit self-sufficiency and the money we have been investing in rice importation will now be diverted to other aspect of infrastructure and development, which you know has been in a state of serious decay before this administration came on board.

So, we are diversifying the economy. There is a lot of investment in the solid mineral sector and that alone is a major way we are addressing the situation today. I agree with you that there is paucity of funds, but that is also the time you will appreciate the ingenuity and capacity of the people running the administration. For us in NIWA, we are now looking inwards to see how we can block all possible loopholes so we can increase our IGR.
We are looking at ways to generate resources that are self-sufficient. We mustn’t always depend on the central purse. We are working towards that and the results are encouraging and all we need to do is sustain it and I know that if we keep doing what we are doing, in no distance future, we will get to our desired destination. So, that funding challenge we know. It is there and because we know it is there, we are conscious of this fact and we are working towards it.

What are the priority areas you are focusing on?
Yes, you may not have all the cash you need but the important thing is that you need to prioritise your needs and look inwards and see where you can invest money that has the capacity to help you in improving your internally generated revenue (IGR). We are managing like any other agency. It is not limited to NIWA. Every agency is managing within the resources that are available to them but the important thing here is that we have to invest in those areas that will help you to generate more income.

That is how we are managing but the important thing is that we are doing what we are supposed to do and meeting our obligations. On the issue of our staff, talking about staff remuneration and welfare, I think this question is better answered by a staff of NIWA, because they will tell you all things being equal, we are doing very well. We are not lagging behind; we do not owe any staff and we don’t take for granted anything that has to do with the welfare of staffs.

Those retiring and retired are getting their benefits, those who are in office are getting their benefits; their medicals are being taken care of, even during this Covid-19 period, we provided palliatives for our staff, because we believe very strongly that when the staff are happy, their productivity is always high.
So, we laid emphasis on it. We have not had any reason why any of our staff will complain and that is why I said it would have been better you ask the staff themselves this question and if you ask them, they would be able to tell you but for us in management, we have done our best, we are making sure we are not lagging behind in any of our obligations to our staff.

What is the level of participation of the private sector in the development the nation’s inland waterways?
Yes we are doing that and we are exploring all the opportunities and like the documentary you just watched, you heard where I was talking about investment by some private sector players. I talked about the two jetties in Lagos that are being developed by private sector participation. I had engagement like this on the test run we did in Ontisha port. It was because we partnered a private sector player, the badges used were not our badges, it is owned by a foreign operator, who agrees or sees it from our perspective that the business can be open.

It is viable and not only is it going to grow the economy, a lot of people are going to benefit. So, he saw this with us and we agreed to take the bull by the horn. We tried it and it worked. So, we are involving the private sector; we are engaging more. There is an American firm that is interested in bringing ferries and we are in talks with them. There is also an American firm that we have signed MoU with that have started supplying life jackets to all the jetties so that people can have modern, unexpired life jackets, because a lot of people don’t know that life jackets expire and when it expires it is as good as not wearing anything.

What is the state of work at Baro port?
Like I have said a few times, I have granted interviews on the issue of Baro port. Baro port is a world-class port fully completed and commissioned by the President. In fact, the first facility I visited after my appointment was the Baro port and I went by water from Lokoja to Baro; spent some time there and came back to Lokoja on the same day. It is a world-class port. The biggest challenge there today is access road to Baro but I am happy to say that the federal government project as regards providing road to Baro is ongoing.

I have also engaged the Niger State government and they have also demonstrated their commitment, determination and desire to have a road leading to the Baro port, so very soon, I am very confident that all effort we have made and the synergy we have built, the issue of road to Baro will be a thing of the past. That is a major challenge and I am not aware of any other challenge that we have in Baro. Then you asked me what people should expect in the future. Like I said in the documentary, I have a vision and the vision I gave to myself is that by the time I leave office, water transportation becomes the choice means of transport of both cargo and personnel.

That is my determination, that is my dream and that is what I am working towards, because by the time we open up our waterways. In fact, it is that stage that we will appreciate the enormity of what God has done for us. We have over 10,000 Km of waterway in this country and you can access 28 states of this country out of 36 by water. It is only unfortunate that slightly only over 3,000 Km that is all year round amicable.

So by the time I leave office, if we can make it possible for people to access most of the states by water, so we can move both cargo and people like it is done overseas. In fact when you look at water transportation, we haven’t taken time to look at the tourism potential, which is very massive and can generate a lot of resources apart from direct and indirect employment opportunities that comes with it. So, there is quite a lot we can gain and I have a vision.