Nigeria’s Inland Waterway System: Can Dredging Alone Do the Magic?

Three critical elements inappropriately understood and coordinated, in my estimation, have helped to frustrate the effective and efficient utilization of Nigeria’s over 3,000-mile artery of inland waterways system.

  • People – Especially policy makers, bankers and the general public have a critical weak understanding of the commercial safety and exciting viability of utilizing the inland waterways, first as a good alternative to road transportation, a very good investment portfolio and as a recreation and relatively safe tourist attraction.
  • The other aspect is the culture of fear and ignorance about safety and navigational challenges on the relatively non-conventional freighters, canoes and other boats being used to ferry goods and passengers.
  • The last and by no means the least is the belief that once the Niger and Benue Rivers are dredged, every other things will fall in place; not knowing also that river vessel management and logistic coordination – the construction of piers, jetties, river terminals, vessel surveillance and security imperatives against armed robbery and piracy attacks - are equally daunting pre-occupations that require continuous proactive frontal attacks.

The Challenges

Most administrations handling the inland waterways have been baffled at the challenges posed by this otherwise seeming lucrative venture. Where are the investors? The colonial periods saw the Royal Niger Company and their French counterparts utilizing the Rivers Niger and Benue to freight hundreds of thousands of tons of well-packaged cotton and groundnuts (in elaborate jute bags), cocoa, logs, palm kernel, etc from the hinterland – including exports from northern Cameroon to the markets of London in Europe or to the Americas. What is happening to our inland waterways now?

The common palliative by so many pseudo experts is that you just need to dredge the river beds and people will start utilizing the rivers!


But that perception is totally wrong. The financial services sector are not quite sure of investing in river transportation. The numbers don’t seem to add up. Low draft barges and ferry boats are imported using Euros, dollars and pounds while freight is collected in non-convertible local Naira. The mismatch requires so much financial balancing and currency conversions for effective repatriation and for meeting loan obligations, and these could be tedious.

The second aspect is that over the years the culture of shipping has been fast eluding Nigeria. Whether we are talking of manning sea-going vessels, cabotage freighters or operating low-draft ferry services, the fundamentals require good ship captains, good engineers and highly efficient and proficient deck hands, not to talk about shore-based managerial staff, strategic thinkers and other blue-collar staff condiments. The reality is that over the years, the “oil curse” has done a lot of damage to other non-oil strategic sectors of Nigeria’s aggregate economy. A near complete shut down of non-oil export became the norm.

Without exports moving by the rivers and with the liquidation of the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) and other vessel operating indigenous carriers, the tradition of seamanship bequeathed by the Tafawa Balewas and the senior Ojukwus was thrown to the dustbin of history. How can the elephant be tamed? Baro Port is wasting somewhere in Nigeria. Ibi-Donga route, which could cut journeying time from the north east to the eastern and south-south regions by over six hours, is grossly under-utilised. Onitsha River Port that could be dredged, its river trimmed and made to take off heavy containerized traffic from the infamous Benin-Ore road is lying fallow. Come to think of it, of recent, Prof. Badejo, the Lagos State Commissioner of Transportation has identified over 20 ferry routes for the emerging Lagos mega city.

What do all these entail? It means therefore that a time has come for us to work at the rivers and coastal waterways systems as veritable tools for multi-modal transport integration. Each administration hitherto holds onto one leg of the elephant to prescribe solutions to the leviathan disease. But this sub-optimal approach cannot tame the elephant. There is just so little that Lagos State alone can do to evolve a viable water transport system to kick-start in Lagos. The Nigerian Ports Authority needs to wade in to help in charting the waterways. The question is, does this lie within their official mandate? The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) headquarters in far away Lokoja would want to wade in to dredge the river! But where are the funds? The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) may wish to take a bite of the action as cabotage enforcer but legalities involved may scare her off encroaching into NIWA mandates. Then you have the Ministries of Environment zealously guarding their environmental impact assessment programmes. The local communities will like to eat their cakes and have it: Only local indigenes can be investors, as if other Nigerians are not locals. The bankers – short-termists are profit takers; medium-term and indeed long gestation riverine traffic development funding and management are hazy investment avenues. Where are the securities and collaterals? Who will bell the cat?

 The PPP Model

The answer seems to lie in the new private-public partnership (PPP) initiative. Nigeria must move forward. The first step is for the government as the custodian of our national common patrimony to realize that they must sit down and fashion a comprehensive win-win strategy for water transport services development. What is the way forward? The way forward is simple. The water transport services are derived demand. The services are needed to move freight and passengers from point A to point B. If that is the case, it would be important to overall demand situation. Where are the commodities, especially exports? What volumes of freight are we talking about? With respect to passenger movements, what have to be identified are viable routes, riverine, coastal, lakes, etc. What types of ferries and freighters could be deployed? Doing simple cost-benefit analysis, simple feasibility studies, simple pay-back period and return-on-investment analysis with realistic numbers, the government and interested private entrepreneurs would have identified viable routes. There are some elements – indeed major elements – that are to be classified as public goods and services. The government as a verifiable magnanimous partner must wade in to provide the infrastructure and utilities. I am talking about huge costs in the form of dredging, development of the river ports, provision of security, water, electricity, landing jetties, mapping of routes and giving the necessary guarantees.

The catch-22 situation is that Nigeria’s government has other urgent competing claims on funds. They must therefore come up with amenable funding mechanism such as build, own, operate and transfer; renovate, operate and transfer; build, own and operate; etc. Where there is a will, there must be a way. This involvement is critical as no private investor will be interested in projects such as river ports and river navigation businesses without government involvement.

Mississippi River System

In proffering solutions, the government must have long-term view. Investment in the US, particularly in the Mississippi River system, the Canadian St. Lawrence Waterways system and the Rhine in Germany, etc, require long gestation commitment by governments and the private sectors. For long, over 20 to 30 years, they toiled and struggled, driven by vision. Today, Duidsburg in Germany is a major river port with private investors running low draft containerized traffic and posting good returns on investment. Everybody who has gone to the beautiful city of Amsterdam knows the contribution of their river channels to national coffers from tourist cruise shipping.

Lagos is an idle water city – all the relevant agencies and private investors and entrepreneurs must sit together on one table and work towards fashioning a win-win strategy. We need the dredgers, we need investment equity financing, we need the likes of Prof Badejo, the Dosunmu’s of NIMASA, the NPA, NIWA, and we equally need the ferry service operators, not to talk about foreign expertise and technology. Every one of us needs to throw away our narrow empires for the greater good of Nigeria’s water transport development. It is this comprehensive, holistic, persistent approach rather than a stop-gap, hit-and-run guerilla strategy that needs to be applied to greatly tame the elephant of river navigation in Nigeria.

If Nigeria is to ever reach her vision 2020 of being one of the top 20 world economies, the issue of transport integration requiring robust investment in roads, rail, inland waterways, air, marine-ports multimodalism must be properly conceptualized and implemented. It should be obvious by now that all these preoccupations must be done to satisfy effective customer demands – domestic and indeed global. This will not only enhance local capacity but the export fillip will then help to generate the much-needed forex for continuous viability and for national prosperity.

Editor’s note: Alh Liman was the presidential candidate of the New Nigerian Peoples’ Party in the April 2007 Nigerian presidential elections.



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