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Engineering Controls And Dredging Investigations On The Niger And Benue

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  • Engineering Controls And Dredging Investigations On The Niger And Benue


Beginning in this edition, DDH shall publish series of articles in the line of understanding Nigeria’s destiny with the two rivers, especially with regard to how political history and administrative flaws affected a once-thriving waterway heavily used by the colonial forces for much economic leverage in exploiting all available natural resources. These series arise mainly from the lectures and papers collated during the 3 rd Nigerian Dredging Summit held at Rockview Hotel Royale, Abuja, Nigeria in September 2009.



Dr. S. G. Nyityo


“In the Niger and the Benue we have two of the great rivers of the world. Rivers and Creeks and deltas are temperamental things, as willful as living creatures, and their habits and vagaries must be carefully studied before we subject them to engineering controls”. (A address by The Hon. Minister of Transport, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to the Franco-Nigerian Technical Conference at the Hague, May, 1957. ) 

In just forty five words, The Hon. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the then Federal Minister of Transport of Nigeria pointed to the nature and character of the immediate hydraulic engineering works and controls `to be undertaken on the River Niger and River Benue at the Franco-Nigerian Technical conference at the Hague, May, 1957. Clearly, The Hon. Balewa had foreseen at the time, the relevance of today’s summit, exploring, among other things, the crucial component of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes. The Nigerian government then was not only determined to embark on engineering controls and dredging investigations, it was also anxious to lay the foundation of close cooperation with the efforts of other Franco-phone countries traversed by these two great rivers.

Navigation Difficulties

The one major difficulty that needed to be overcome then and now, was that of navigation. The Nigerian Government and that of the French Cameroon in particular had contemplated at least two solutions to the difficulty of navigation.

  • First, they had hoped to provide a kind of limited solution which was aimed at assisting shipping by means of buoys and possibly pilotage on the river in anticipation that a great deal could be achieved at a relatively small expense.
  • Second, there was the long term solution, the provision of a major dam in case of River Benue at Lagdo and in the case of the Niger at Kainji.
  • The one major drawback expressed then was the heavy capital expense that the entire work would entail. But the governments of Nigeria and the French Cameroon were not unmindful of the need to depend, as a last resort, on the enterprise of their merchants and trading firms whom they hoped would respond in full measure to the opportunities being provided for navigation on both the Niger and the Benue.


It is difficult to state categorically the volume and scale of river shipping on the Niger and Benue since the advent of colonialism. But when we come to the decade of the 1950s, we are able to obtain some patchy information on a certain number of river craft or rather river fleet that operated on the Niger and Benue. This decade could be referred to as the golden decade of river craft activity on the Niger and Benue.

  • First, in September 1956 for example, the Compagine de Transport ed de commerce of M. Gilbert started operation with a tug and barges providing a total cargo lift of 1,000 tons.
  • Second there was the first New John Holt Ship, the “AMCOTTS” which came into commission with a total lift of 1,000 tons. Third, the United Africa Company laid down its modern push-tows each having a total lift of 3,600 tons.
  • By 1957, there were speculations by the Nigerian Government that a Norwegian company was considering entering the field of river transport on the Niger and Benue.
  • These new craft, built on the most modern design with fully integrated tows capable of making three round trips to Garoua in a single, good river season – that is, a theoretical capacity of 18,400 tons of imports and exports on each round trip or an additional lift of 54,200 tons in each year. These sophisticated craft were mere addition and not a replacement to existing river shipping.

It was in the context of this constantly improved river fleets in the 1950s both in terms of figures and design types that provided good grounds for cautious optimism on the part of the Nigerian government. Accordingly government was promoted to enter the field of practical economics by embarking on a massive scale of engineering controls and dredging investigations on the Niger and Benue.


The organization and procedures of hydraulic engineering controls on the Niger and the Benue in the 1950’s was predicated on a number of factors and possibilities.

  • To begin with, there was the need to ascertain a whole lot of measurements and observations as well as acquire an elaborated knowledge of the hydrological regime of the rivers and their main tributaries. The primary concern to the investigators was their water levels, discharges of water sediments and their inter-relations as well as some information on rainfall and evaporation.
  • The general characteristics and problems of navigation during the Benue and Niger shipping seasons in 1956/57 were to be analysed. Recommendations were to be given on the establishment of a number of permanent river-gauges and on the organization of their readings. Consequently an experimental system of buoyage and channel patrols was to be inaugurated on the upper part of the navigable Niger.
  • It was generally envisaged that the results of all these investigations would be both interesting and encouraging. But the overall benefits of these investigations to both the Government and NEDECO based on the fact that it would allow the provisional selection of methods that might be considered for improving certain parts of the rivers, including studies of a topographical, geological and hydraulic nature that were to be made on the feasibility and advantages of a storage reservoir on the River Benue above Yola.

Similarly, studies on the relative advantage and cost of training works on local dredging for improving parts of the River Niger and the Niger/Benue confluence were also undertaken.

  • Finally a study and reconnaissance was made on of the upper section of the Niger within the territory of the French West Africa. Based on these investigations, it could be stated that the French dam and irrigation works near Sansanding (Sudan) had no deteriorating effect on the Niger below Baro. Yet the investigators were able to envisage that “only in a distant future of (25-50 years) may the Sudan river works threaten to affect the navigability of the Niger”.


Establishment of NEDECO

It would be recalled that, NEDECO had first entered Nigeria in 1953 to undertake some investigation of the Western Delta and since been able to provide some illumination with regards to our knowledge of Nigerian rivers. The Nigerian government was particularly appreciative to the Dutch consultants of the tremendous knowledge and new skills that NEDECO had provided for the control of air inland water ways.

Government – NEDECO Partnership

Government was able to announce that its partnership with NEDECO had enabled it “to keep our administrative planning in step with our mounting scientific knowledge and to match the advance of science to public service. Accordingly, it went ahead to provide a statement of policy on navigation in the Niger and Benue and also in the ports of the delta”.

Port Facilities and Rights of Navigation

Judging by such an enthusiastic and positive disposition, government immediately offered the needed opportunity to provide assurances that it will ensure equality of treatment for river craft irrespective of nationality, and this equality will be extended to cover port facilities as well as rights of navigation. Beside these assurances, some basic administrative measures were adopted by the Nigerian government to promote the navigation on our inland waters.

Administrative Instruments

The administrative instrument for the execution of Government project was the Inland Waterways Department (IWD). It appropriated the sum of £383,000 for consideration and approval by the Federal House of Representatives for the financial year 1957 – 58. This was a large sum for Nigeria’s purse, especially for a department only one year old.

IWD Plans

Plans were also underway to increase the IWD in future years to provide for the hydrological and hydrometric engineering sections of the Department until such a period that the NEDECO investigation of the Nigerian Waterways would have handed over its task to the then young department.

River Patrols

Provision was also made by the buoyage programme and river patrols on the Benue especially during the shipping season. An experimental buoyage was established between Lokoja and Baro. Even at this experimental stage, with occasional disappointments, the buoys proved their work and were able to render some service the moment they were mastered.

In addition to the buoys, there was a standard organization of patrols – all of which rendered important assistance to river shipping. Future patrol services were extended to all the more difficult stretches of our rivers and creeks.

Human Factor

The actualization of all these plans and programmes – both scientific and administrative – depended not just on financial considerations but on the human factor. Nigeria in the 1950’s had no staff trained in the specialist skills of hydrology and hydraulic engineering. The one way out of the problem was to attract and train competent staff that would man those sections of our Inland Waterways Department for the immediate future. The Nigerian government was quite prepared to partner with the Netherlands to train her indigenous work force in these critical sectors of the maritime industry.


With the increasing number of river fleets on the Niger and Benue, there was every need to attend to important matters dealing with the flow of the Benue above Garoua by means of a dam. Such line of thinking was propelled by the need to bring about radical changes in the shipping channels at the confluence of river Benue and Baro. It was discovered that the Baro carried a heavy discharge of sand during the rains and any major reduction in the flow of the Benue by reason of the dam may well alter extensively the regime of the river at that point. Realizing that such speculations could be mere guess work, the government embarked on a decision to establish the facts by a scientific enquiry.

The contractor to undertake such a study was not far-fetched. On the 21 st August, 1954, an agreement was signed by representatives of the Government of Nigeria and of the Netherlands Engineering consultants (NEDECO) to undertake the Niger and Benue investigations.

Consequently, several measurements and observations were made and elaborated and the knowledge and hydrological regime of the rivers and their main tributaries were considered satisfactory for the following purposes.

  • Water levels
  • Discharges of water and sediments
  • Water –sediments interaction
  • Some information on rainfall and evaporation


The background story of the Inland Waterways Department (IWD) now transformed into the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) has been very impressive. However, the experience of the IWD during the civil war years 1967 – 1970 and that of NIWA has been rather unimpressive. Yet the predicament of NIWA is generally not of its own making. The organization has been confronted by several challenges as shown below.

The Nigerian Civil War

To begin with, it was the Nigerian civil war that triggered off the beginning of the decline in the water transport system in Nigeria. The war no doubt complicated he task of the well established water transport companies who plied River Niger and River Benue, to evacuate agricultural produce to the seaports. Consequently, the agricultural export trade which sustained these companies suffered a major decline during the civil war-leading to the closure of some of these companies.

Again, there was the abandonment of the conventional thinking in pre-civil war era regarding the extensive use of the river and rail systems in the transportation of bulk goods. The manner of the prosecution of the war, made river and rail transportation extremely unsafe, thus leading to the abandonment of the use of the river Niger that transverses sections of the Eastern region which, as we all know, was the theatre of war. At the end of the war, there was some renewed interest in the river system especially in regards to the transportation of construction materials to the Ajaokuta Steel Project. But unfortunately, this renewed interest was not sustained.

The Oil Boom Years

The end of the war left Nigeria awash with petro-dollars. Government embarked on extensive high way development. This was more so that industrial goods, unlike agricultural produce, are not seasonal and as such could not fit into the seasonal nature of the largely abandoned and therefore undeveloped water system. The result was the relegation of the water system to the background.

Other challenges of NIWA from the onset include:

  • Non-release of statutory take-off-grant
  • Non-acceptance of Decree No. 13 of 1997 by stakeholders.
  • Conflicts with Federal Government Ministries, Parastatals, States and Local Governments
  • Insecurity on the waterways
  • Disruption of operation of river transport companies and oil and gas service companies
  • Piracy and kidnapping
  • Illegal bunkering
  • Pipeline vandalization
  • Grounding of socio-economic activities in riverine communities
  • Water hyacinth infestation nationwide
  • Blocked water transport routes
  • Dilapidated and under-equipped workshops
  • Dilapidated staff quarters
  • Few old vehicles
  • Backlog of staff allowances
  • Shallow access channels
  • Non-functional slipways and dockyards


The problem of shallow access channels has, no doubt, prompted government to embark on the dredging of the lower River Niger from Warri in Delta State to Baro in Niger State. The decision by the Federal Government to embark on capital dredging and more importantly the maintenance dredging of navigable waterways, neglected for quite some time now, deserves to be applauded.

The dredging of the lower river Niger is bound to result into the following benefits:

  • Safety and security
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Agriculture, water supply and Irrigation Development
  • Flood Relieve Programme
  • Cheaper Mode of Transportation
  • Less energy requirements
  • Lower maintenance cost
  • Higher carrying capacity
  • Job opportunities and poverty Alleviation
  • Tourism
  • Fishing

Besides capital and maintenance dredging government plans for the future development our inland waterways include:

  • Extensive shore development including
  • River Ports and Jetties
  • Construction of Navigational Locks, Dykes to make River Niger navigable all the year round
  • Development of both the River bed and port on the Benue at Makurdi
  • Development of distributaries and tributaries
  • Regular patrol of the waterways to ensure safety and security
  • Extensive clearing of wrecks and weeds on the waterways
  • Establishment of Inland Water Transport data bank
  • Promotion of private sector driven Inland Water Transportation

Dr. Saawua G. Nyityo is a senior lecturer at the Department of History, Benue State University, Makurdi. Nigeria.