Managing Director/CEO, NIWA, Dr George Moghalu

The National Inland Waterways Authority NIWA, Nigeria’s apex inland water regulatory agency has introduced measures to stem the rising cases of boat accidents

The recurring cases of boat accidents in the country constitutes a major source of concern to most stakeholders. This is given the imperfections that characterise road transport systems comprising poor state of the roads with the attendant increasing cases of accidents with high casualty figures, hiccups such as perennial gridlock and attendant loss of man hours and the unregulated nature of road transport systems dominated by individual vehicle owners, especially intra city movement, among several others. This development is made worse by the poor state of rail transport, which led to over dependence on road transport for the movement of persons and goods. The nation’s seaports have been at the receiving end in the face of these imperfections in rail and road transport in terms of operational efficiency. This is why many transport experts have canvassed the optimum utilisation of the country’s over 3,000 kilometres of navigable inland waters. 

It was probably in the light of these that the current Managing Director of NIWA, Dr George Moghalu on assumption of duty late last year hinted that part of his vision and mission was to make water transport the preferred choice for the movement of all types of bulk cargo and persons in the country especially among the coastal states.

The MD had while speaking with the media after his maiden engagement with stakeholders in Lagos, disclosed that part of the strategy to achieve this was to remove all impediments to effective, efficient and safe inland water transport system in the country in order to make it the preferred choice.

Under this programme, the authority would work out a system whereby all bulk cargoes and persons in Lagos, which he described as Nigeria’s marine capital would be moved through inland water transport as a way of reducing the pressure on the roads and by so doing curtail the perennial gridlock on seaport access roads and other parts of Apapa, which houses the nation’s two biggest and busiest cargo seaports; the Lagos Ports Complex and Tin Can Island Ports Complex.

As part of efforts to achieve this target, the new management began the clearing of the waterways by removing water hyacienth, wrecks and other things that pose threats to safe navigation on the inland waterways.

In addition, the authority commenced the construction of new jetties, especially in Lagos to complement existing ones while rehabilitation work on old ones are also ongoing to enhance safe and secure navigation.The new management also commenced strict regulation of safety standards among ferry operators.

But regrettably, there have been increasing cases of boat accidents, which is disincentive to would- be users of water transport mode. For instance, in the last two months alone, there have been boat mishaps in the Ikorodu and Festac areas of Lagos as well as Benue State. Though some passengers were rescued, some died while some are still missing.

Scene of a boat accident in Lagos (file)

Investigations however show that the primary cause of these accidents is the failure of the boat operators to strictly adhere to safety protocols issued by the agency.

For instance, NIWA established some safety protocols, which include compulsory wearing of life jackets, non consumption of alcohol or drugs by boat captains and crew members. There are also protocols that prohibit them from operating between 6.30pm to 6.00am, which implies no night movement. Others include those that bar operators from over-speeding, overloading with passengers or goods as well as midstream transfer of passengers or baggage. Unfortunately, many of the boat owners and their captains do not comply with these protocols.

It was also gathered that even when the weather is not good for navigation, some boat owners allow their vessels to sail, which is partly responsible for these increasing cases of accidents.

It was in the light of these that the agency initiated processes to re-certify all the boats plying the nation’s inland waterways as well as retrain boat captains and crew members to help curb the menace of accidents.

Speaking recently at a stakeholders’ meeting held in Lagos, Managing Director of NIWA, Dr. George Moghalu warned that no captain would henceforth be allowed to move on the nation’s inland waters if he was not certified by the authority.

 He said: “We are going to impound vessels now, vessels that are not as far as we are concerned, sea worthy, vessels that are not certified by NIWA will be impounded. We are going to start a new regime of random checks now. You will not be surprised to see our Police on the waters chasing, stopping and impounding vessels that do not comply with the regulations. We are going to start that immediately because we cannot allow this to continue. This lawlessness must not be allowed to continue.

“The protocol on the use of life jackets must be obeyed, we cannot afford to lose any life anymore.

“Even speed limit regulations must be observed but I know of a certainty that for us as an organisation to succeed, for us to achieve what we desire to achieve, we must have the buy in of all the operators, the buy in of the boat owners, the buy in of those who own private jetties because I know and I can say that no NIWA controlled jetty will allow any vessel to leave the jetty after 6.30pm. It is not possible anymore otherwise the Area Manager might be risking his or her job. That will not be acceptable to us. But we don’t have control of all the jetties in Lagos as we don’t have control of all the jetties in the whole country.

“Most of these vessels are not designed for night navigation; most of them do not have night navigational aids. The status of some of these captains of the vessels is not known, they are not certified. So, that is why we need to have your buy in for this to be fully enforced and that is why I am here. I want to have your buy in, I want you to be part of what we are going to do. I don’t want a situation where somebody will say tomorrow, NIWA didn’t tell us they will start impounding vessels. I don’t want a situation where somebody will call me on phone tomorrow and tell me you have to intervene, that the police have arrested our boats or captains.

“We are going to prosecute. Once there is any infringement on any of these protocols, I can guarantee you, that the defaulters will be prosecuted, vessels will be impounded, if we think that the state of such vessels is not worthy to be on our waters, I will order that they should be destroyed and take my word for it, I will do that because I can nolonger afford to hear any news of any loss of life. This is because the reports we are getting from the investigation bureau is that most of these accidents are a consequence of breach of one of these established protocols that we have discussed here and this is no longer acceptable to us”

It was also gathered that the agency is currently working towards automation of its ferry registration and licensing procedures with a view to removing quacks and substandard ferries.

“We have observed with deep concern the issue of increasing boat accidents on our waterways. It has been observed that such accidents happen mostly at night or early in the morning. We have instructed our area offices to henceforth start arresting substandard ferries and their operators. No more rickety ferries on our waterways. The Marine Police has also been alerted”, Dr Moghalu also warned.

Less than one week after, the authority made good its threat as it shutdown the operations of Lalek Marine, one of the boat operating firms in Lagos for failing to comply with regulations on night movement and overloading of boats, which led to an accident. This has sent a strong signal that it is no longer business as usual.

The ill-fated boat, which sailed out of Ebute Ero Jetty last month by 8pm with 21 passengers on board, capsised on its way to Ikorodu, shortly after departure. It was gathered that 14 out of the 21 passengers rescued, six dead and one missing.

The Lagos Area Manager of NIWA, Engr. Sarat Braimah, who announced the shutting of the operations of the firm, said the ill fated boat failed to adhere to the 6pm sailing regime guiding water transport services in Lagos.

She added: “In a preliminary report on the sad and avoidable incident, the Lagos area office of NIWA discovered that the boat operator apart from violating the extant regulation on sailing time, which is 6pm and not 8pm, he also overloaded the boat against the COVID- 19 protocol which allows only 60 per cent of total passenger capacity for all types of boats in order to encourage physical distancing.

“We at NIWA responded immediately with the support of Marine Police, Lagos State Waterways Authority LASWA and other relevant agencies to rescue the 14 passengers and also recovered six others already drowned, with one missing”. She explained.

She also disclosed that the Ebute Ero Jetty, the departure point of the ill-fated boat will henceforth be closely monitored by NIWA Police pending the conclusion of the investigation of the incident.

It was further gathered that the owner of the boat is being tracked down by NIWA to help the agencies in the ongoing investigations with a view to unravelling the causes of the mishap.

 “The MD of NIWA has directed that the jetty be monitored by NIWA Police to avoid a re-occurrence of the incident and to enable NIWA conduct full investigation to this very sad but avoidable violation” she added.

Recall that NIWA management had in July reduced sundry fees and other operational charges across board in the brown water economy to enable them cushion the effects of the lockdown and also help them to stick to the post COVID-19 protocols, which reduced passenger capacity by 40per cent in line with physical distancing regulations.

In approving this incentive, the Managing Director was conscious that some operators might be tempted to make quick money in order to make up for the lost opportunities and financial loss experienced during the lockdown. He was therefore futuristic and proactive to reduce the fees and charges.

Stakeholders have commended the renewed zeal of the George Moghalu-led management of NIWA to check the rising cases of boat accidents on the nation’s inland waters. They are certain that with the reinforcement of the regulations in addition to the new regime of incentives on charges and fees, the boat operators will have no option than to comply and the waterways will be safe again. Nigeria’s economy will surely be the better for it.