By Frank Odinukaeze and Chioma Akabuogu
The month of July,2022 will go down in the history of NIWA as a very remarkable one, though not in the positive. It will be remarkable because it’s a month in which boat mishaps: Two in Lagos and one in Niger state happened, claiming lives in all cases; leaving tears, sorrow and pain in the hearts of the victim’s families.
Inland waterways play an important role in the socio-economic life of any nation. It provides alternative mode of transportation. It is cheaper and most times faster than the road transportation.
And that explains why National Inland Waterways Authority(NIWA) has been having sleepless nights, trying to fashion out strategies to make the Inland waterways safer. Despite its efforts to make the water ways safer, NIWA has continued to record boat mishaps, in what has left the regulatory agency almost in a state of confusion.
The recent incident in Niger State has further put the agency’s efforts to scrutiny. Observers are however worried that NIWA as a regulator of the inland waterways must come up with measures and policies that would address the frequent loss of lives arising from boat mishaps.
Speaking to MMS Plus, NIWA Lagos Area Manager, Sarat Lara Braimah noted that many things are being done to address boat mishaps: Some of these include, training of boat drivers and licensing of some to properly equip them to drive professionally. She noted that NIWA is already doing this particularly in the southern part of Nigeria.
“We are about commencing same in the Northern parts. We also hold regular safer awareness and sensitization campaigns across parts of the country. We carry out regular security and compliance patrols on the waterways “she said.
She added that NIWA has established nine Search and Rescue stations, and will establish three more this year, across various locations in Lagos, Lokoja, Port Harcourt, Yauri, and New Bussa, among others.
According to her, these stations are intended to prevent but also respond immediately and provide timely rescue. She stressed that the authority also ensures that Inland river craft are inspected for standards and safety compliance: that is, seaworthiness, before such boats are registered and authorized to operate as passenger boats or even private use.
It is baffling that in spite of these measures NIWA has put in place and even more, boat mishaps have continued to occur.
Speaking to MMS Plus,Paul Ndibe, Ag.,National Executive Director Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) Nigeria suggested that NIWA should standardize or come out with standardization of boats or ferries for the different inland waterways. He said the separation of boats or vessels is key to addressing frequency of boat mishaps.
“The various rivers have different speeds, therefore, NIWA is expected to look into all that and then come out with a specification of the vessels or boats that should ply on each of those rivers in other to have resistance for whatever situation around the areas concerned. Secondly, there should be a closer monitoring and licensing of those who operate those boats, standardize the boats by having a specification and ensure that those who ply or operate those boats are licensed and those licensed are renewed regularly”
Ndibe added that the state of mind of the operators is important, and therefore expects NIWA to look into that.
On sailing at odd and unfriendly hours, Ndibe submitted:“They should not have scheduled for the boat if there are high tides, heavy wind or when it is late. They should be strict to the obedience of time of sailing in the water. That is the only way safety on our waterways can be restored and then confidence of passengers would be there and they can offer increased services to the numerous travel needs which people have for their choice in the waterways transportation mode.
On suggestions as to NIWA not doing enough to ensure safety of waterways, Ndibe has this to say: “If it can be proved that NIWA is not doing enough, then the onus is on NIWA to raise the occasion and do what is needed for them to ensure safety on our waterways. Secondly, with the large unemployment rate in the country they cannot say they cannot employ people to train them and let them be able to do some of the monitoring. So, if there is an embargo on employment, it means NIWA cannot as a government agency employ. And if they cannot employ, they won’t be able to have staff to monitor. So, it’s like a circular issue. So while you try to blame NIWA, it’s important for us to know whether they have the right now as we speak to employ or not. But if there is embargo on employment, it means they cannot employ and that means they may not have the suitable hands to oversee some of these issues raised. So it’s a problem that NIWA, Federal Ministry of Transportation and the Federal Government may necessarily look into, so that we can have safety on the waterways,” he said.
Ndibe argued that there is need to develop the waterways so that confidence can be restored in that sector because it will actually take off pressure from the road and even from the air. “Looking at what one can pay for flight from Lagos to Abuja or even Port Harcourt”.
On the causes of frequent boat mishaps in the country as recorded in the month of July 2022, Lagos Area Manager Sarat Lara Braimah said,“The causes of boat accidents in the North is a little different: Excessive overloading and use of old wooden boats. The presence of tree stumps and snags: flagrant disregard for safety regulations and night sailing are some of the peculiar causes of boat accidents;lack of training of the boat operators particularly illegal operators”.
She said the agency has perfected plans to train boat drivers in some locations in the North.
The NIWA Area Manager noted that “Inadequate passenger boats may be responsible for the overloading, and have therefore intervened to provide some passenger boats and will soon award contract for the construction of a “Mass transit passenger boat to be deployed in the North”.
As part of efforts to checkmate illegalities on the waterways, Braimah revealed that NIWA has concluded plans to provide surveillance gadgets along the waterways to enhance safety and security. “Our personnel are also deployed to the respective loading terminals to provide pre-boarding safety task to passengers and prevent overloading and night security” she said.
On the role played by Jetty owners and illegal Jetty operators in the frequent boat mishaps, MMS Plus reached out to Mr. Muyiwa Akande , Corporate Affairs Manager, Sifax Group, concessionaire of Ojo Jetty, on what measures they have put in place to checkmate non-compliance of boat operators on safety regulations. He, however, said, “I cannot comment on these issues. Thank you”.
However, the President of National Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Waterways Transportation (ATBOWATON), Gana Tarzan Balogun, stated that his association is making everything possible to ensure safety of passengers.
According to him,“We are sensitizing members and giving them training and also asking them to observe the rules and regulations guiding operations”.
The ATBOWATON President noted that there are some operators that are not their members and therefore cannot account for them. Because, according to him, there is freedom of Association and also they cannot force anyone to be their member.
He however noted that safety cannot be compromised. “We need to follow it up and that is the job of the regulators,” he said.
Gana Tarzan noted that the owners of the ill-fated boats in Lagos and Niger are not their member. Asked whether the boats his members use in water transportation meet with standard specifications ,Gana said, “I cannot answer that question.”
He however said that as the President of ATBOWATON, he tries to ensure that his members comply with regulations.
“During the Covid-19, we reduced the member of passengers a boat can carry. Even though there were suggestions that we could carry more passengers but I refused. We limited it to ten passengers, even though the capacity is twenty. And that is what we are still doing till now. The reason is that if there is accident involving a boat there will be space to accommodate those involved in the accident. But if you carry overload, you won’t be able to help when there is accident.
According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO’s) rule, if a boat has accident on the Sea, or the boat stops mid way on the Sea, you must go and save the people involved.
So going to help, you must have space in your boat. And if you don’t have space, how can you help? Gana Tarzan lauded NIWA for their efforts but stated they should do more.
Experts posit that most of the boat mishaps are traceable to illegal operators and illegal jetties.
According to Paul Ndibe, it is a criminal act to operate an illegal jetty or boat because if anything happens, criminal proceedings can be initiated against such people. “For NIWA, they should endeavor to have clear study of our numerous waters and chart them. What I mean by charting is delineating them and stating their depth and then types of boats that can operate along those waterways and also ensure that there is security at the arrival point and departure points of the waterways,” he added.