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‘Pressure on Nigerian roads can be avoided with navigable waterways’

By Leo Sobechi
03 October 2020   |   2:59 am
Managing Director of Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Chief George Moghalu, has occupied various administrative and political offices, including serving

Managing Director of Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Chief George Moghalu, has occupied various administrative and political offices, including serving as the National Auditor of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, he agonises on the challenges facing water transportation in Nigeria, regretting that although blessed with 10, 000 kilometres of inland waterways, only a paltry 3, 000 kilometres out of that massive pathway are navigable.

You have been involved in party leadership, how has it been moving from political party to managing boardroom?
FOR me, it’s not a big deal; I have been in government before at administrative positions. I was Director-General of an agency; I was also a Permanent Secretary in government. I have run a political party as the National Secretary. Before I came into full blast politics, I was a consultant with the National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria; I was also consulting for other companies in the area of PR and advertising; it’s all about adapting yourself. There’s a level you get to in administration, where you become immaterial; the principles are all the same. What you need to do is to adapt to the immediate specific environment.

When I was at the party, I was also at the managerial level because being a National Auditor, which was my most recent office, I was also playing at the managerial level of the party. I was at the same time the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Nigeria Communication Satellite Company Limited; I was still chairman till my appointment came as the Managing Director of NIWA. For me, it’s all part of the daily activities. In NIWA, I head the board, in APC, I was in the National Working Committee.
So far, how has it been running NIWA?

Like every other life endeavour, it has its own challenges. My responsibilities as the MD of NIWA have its own challenges. We also have been able to do the best we can to overcome some of them, while the process of overcoming some of the challenges is still ongoing.
But like I have said a few times I have spoken to the media, the first challenge that faced me after my appointment eight months ago, as the MD of the National Inland Water Ways Authority, was the fact that NIWA was grossly under-reported; a lot of people even didn’t know there’s an agency called NIWA. And those who knew a little about it didn’t know what their activities entail; some didn’t even know to the extent that it is a parastatal within the Ministry of Transportation. That will tell you the level of lack of knowledge.

I saw that as a major challenge because if people don’t know about the agency, there’s a likelihood also that they will not be able to meet up with their own responsibility to the agency. So, we then set out to get people to know about NIWA, We needed to bring NIWA to the consciousness of an average Nigerian. That’s what the act establishing NIWA says we should do and that is what we are doing. These are areas that we require societal encouragement to support cooperation so that we can achieve the agenda. So, that was a major thing for me.

I also found out that there was a need to boost the staff morale and get them to key into my vision. One thing that helps to drive a vision is when the operators understand the vision of the driver and key into it. I have trained myself to the extent that I believe so much in service; I believe in offering tangible service that will be seen. I know that’s why the president appointed me; my two ministers are people who believe very strongly that we have to impact on the lives of the people. So, I saw that as a challenge and I try to boost the morale of the staff; look at their constraints, look at their challenges, look at their welfare, get them to buy into my vision so that we all can sing the same song. Once I get them to key into my vision completely, then it will solve a major part of my problem. 
Another thing I also noticed was that our police arm need also to be encouraged and supported. Most people didn’t know that apart from the marine police, NIWA also has its own police. Today, a deputy commissioner of police is heading it. We needed also to get them to understand what their mandate is, encourage, and support them.

Again, we needed to standardise the process; I noticed that the processes are not standardised. We needed to first of all identify our limits, know where our right starts and where it ends. We needed to clearly delineate our right of way across the country. We also saw that as a challenge, because if we are talking about boosting our revenue profile, we needed to understand in very specific terms those specific areas we needed revenue to come from within the books; identify them, then go from there. That’s why we needed to marry this identification of right of way with the expectation.

If you recall the point I made earlier, to bring NIWA to the knowledge of the people so that they can understand their commitments to the agency. I also saw as a challenge the fact that God has given us over 10, 000 kilometers of waterways in this country.

Is it that massive?
Yes, massive! But as we speak, only about 3,000 kilometers is navigable; something has to be done about that. As I speak to you, we can access 28 states in this country by water, which implies that, if our waterways are navigable and open, we can go by water, not by road. It is this aspect that drew my attention to the fact that the pressure we have on our road today can very well be avoided. For example, if 1,000 containers are coming from Apapa port and if half or even 70 per cent is going to end in the Southeast- Onitsha, Aba, or what have you — what that means is that 500 or 700 trailers will be on the road.
But we can avoid these 700 trailers going on our roads by moving these items on water from Apapa to Onitsha, to Oguta or Apapa to Warri and things like that; it can be done. I also saw that as a major challenge. That’s why I said in my first interview, that I want a situation that by the time I leave office, if I would be able to make water transportation become the transport means of choice, both for cargo and persons, I would have gotten to my self -determined destination. I would have felt very happy and see myself as having succeeded.

Apart from the fact that a greater portion of our waterways not being navigable, people always raise issues of safety and insecurity. What exactly are you doing to regain public confidence?
The issue of security is not a challenge exclusive to NIWA. If you recall, last year, NIMASA hosted the world conference on security in Abuja; it’s all about security because you can’t talk about growing a blue economy without security. So, the issue of security is not exclusive to NIWA, but I must use this opportunity to say that the Navy, the Marine Police, the NIWA police, and Civil Defense are concerned. Security, though a strong issue now, is not only affecting the waterways. Yes, we have a general security challenge, but it is being aggressively addressed. I know what we are doing; we are synergising with other agencies in the government, our sister agencies-NPA, NIMASA, Shippers Council; everyone is concerned, and the issue is being addressed.

In spite of these challenges, are there some low-hanging fruits that the authority has harvested?
Yes, we started doing quite a lot; the person that just entered is the secretary of Barge operators. We are trying to use barges to move containers from Lagos to Onitsha and then to see what we can do between, Onne, Onitsha, and Warri. I strongly believe that the moment we make waterways navigable, we will reduce the pressure on our roads and decongest our ports. We are putting too much pressure on the roads.

Also, we’ve been able to procure some vessels. Two days ago, I was in Yauri to commission a 32-seater ferry. Some of them are still coming; one is coming from China, while another one is completed in Lagos; we are going to deploy them very soon.

I noticed that a good number of our vessels are destroyed and abandoned, so we started renovating and putting them back to use. We started some new jetties; the one in Marina has been refurbished, while the one in Odekpe Onitsha has been completed; we are still working on a few other ones. Meanwhile, work is about to recommence on the Lokoja River Port; the federal government graciously has given approval for that.

We are also looking at the possibility of reactivating the Oguta Riverport because the government has invested quite a lot on it before it was abandoned. To me, the amount of money that has been invested would not be wasted; we are going to get it back.

There have been cases of accidents on our waterways in recent times, what are you doing to halt that?
Since I came into office, we’ve been training some seafarers on the issue of safety. This afternoon, I had a virtual meeting with my area manager in Warri because there is a training programme we are having; we have also gone into sensitisation on safety.

When these accidents happen, you will start asking, ‘Are they following the rules?’ For example, the one on the Lagos waterway, none of them obeyed the rules. Let me tell you, none of the NIWA vessels leaves after 6 pm. Again, 90 per cent, if not all the accidents, happened after 6:30 pm; they took off from the jetties we didn’t know about. There are rules you must follow on the waterways; there must be enough life jackets. Again, you cannot refuel your vessel on the water. A non-licensed operator cannot be on the water; we cannot allow a non-licensed boat driver or captain to drive any of the vessels. So, we have decided to enforce these rules.

I had a meeting with boat operators in Lagos where I made it clear that these rules must be followed; we must enforce them. As for operators that operate outside the laid-down outlines, we are ready to withdraw their licenses because we can’t gamble with the lives of our citizens.

What’s the latest on the proposed Onitsha River Port?
Talking about Onitsha, there are two issues. Before my appointment, there was a concession process going on; it has not been concluded. Then, there’s the issue of dredging; there is capital dredging and there is maintenance dredging. The last dredging was done in 2012/2013, which was capital. All these while, we have been doing maintenance dredging. We are also working on purchasing a dredger because we want to have dredgers that we can use for maintenance purposes.

Sometime in 2014, The Guardian had an interview with the Obi of Onitsha and he made it clear that, though the Onitsha River Port was on the verge of completion, the concession process was a major challenge. Where are we on this?
Yes, by the time I came into office, the concession process was still on, though there was some level of disagreement, which is to be expected because it’s a matter of interest. But we are going to resolve them and I am positive that we are going to conclude the concession process very soon. Most importantly is the fact that the port is world-class; it’s completed.

Since the port is not operational up till now, what happens to equipment already installed there?
We are still servicing and running them once in a while. For example, before I came to this meeting, I made approval for diesel to be supplied to them to use in running the equipment and ensure they are functional; we can’t abandon them. These are machines, so you just have to once in a while run them to make sure they remain in top form.

On the other hand, I was on tour in Yauri in Kebbi State; we are looking at the possibilities of developing new jetties there. I took a boat ride with the Emir himself and saw the vessels that are there, including abandoned and functional ones. Apart from the tourism potentials, it is a major trade post; you will see where bags of rice are being loaded onto locally made vessels. So, we are working on getting the place functional.

Talking about tourism, how can we develop our waterways to boost tourism in Nigeria? What is NIWA doing in this regard?
There’s this American firm that we are talking to; they are trying to bring in ferries. But unless we start, investors won’t come in. Apart from being a money-spinner, we see it as a means of development; we see it as a way to save our road infrastructure and decongest our ports.

Another beautiful thing about it is that, when we start these operations, developments will come up because small businesses will grow. The time I visited the Oguta River Port site, the traditional ruler told me that all the land for the port had been sold to prospective investors; people want to build hotels, leisure facilities, schools, and so on. Meanwhile, the port has been abandoned for over 10 to 12 years now.

What will happen if Nigeria gets it right in terms of developing our waterways?
It is going to be very lucrative, a major leap forward. Apart from the economic potentials, it is a contribution to the nation’s GDP. There’s a lot to gain from it if we are able to get these things into existence.

How much support are you getting from the government?
Government is supporting us but it has to be within the limits of available resources. I have support from the ministers, the ministries, and the president; we have all the support within the limits of available resources. The general lack of resources is affecting every aspect of national life and also affecting every aspect of the economy. That’s why we are looking so much inwards now to see how we can build our IGR without putting pressure on the people. We want to block all the leakages so we can increase our revenue.

What blueprints are you developing to enhance the marine economy you talked about?
For any project to succeed, you must first of all know where you are; know where you want to be and how to get there. And for us to get to where I want to be, it’s not something for the government alone. Last month, NIWA signed a memorandum of understanding with NUPENG on how to move a larger quantity of petroleum products through the waterways and they are now working towards it. We are concluding the process and once we do that, they will start transporting a bulk quantity of petroleum products by water.

Apart from the fact that we will be generating funds, it will also reduce the volume of tankers that will be on our roads. We are determined to achieve our objective, which is principally to build our economy to generate revenue for NIWA and to remove trucks as much as possible from our highways. These are the expected gains and what we need to do to get there. 

The same thing applies to what we want to do in Onitsha in terms of moving cargo and reducing pressure on our roads and generating income for the Federal Government. You made mention of Victoria Island; you find out that there are lots of floating debris on the water. It doesn’t look beautiful like the kind of water that people would want to go and ride their boats. In our procurement processes for 2019 and 2020, we had provided for the removal of floating debris, water hyacinth, wrecks old logs, which we all know is also one of the problems we have on our waterways. When you allow these debris and old wrecks to remain there, they cause accidents. So, we are getting them removed so that our waterways will be all year navigable; that’s the agenda. By the time you remove all these things, you have clean and blue water; not blue water that is brown.

These are conscious efforts being made through the templates that we have laid down. We are now working straight to the answer because we know the answer. We have identified where we want to be; what we are doing now is to reach those places we want to be before it gets late.