Calabar is bordered by five neighbouring nations and has over decades been known for its thriving Inland Water Transportation (IWT). Recent reports are that Calabar waters are dangerous and that many operators have closed shop. In this interview with the Area Manager, National Inland Waterways Authority, Calabar, Engr Stanley Onuoha tells us what the actual situation is, what efforts the Agency is making to resuscitate IWT while ensuring the safety and security of both passengers and cargo on Nigeria’s Inland Waters. He also speaks of what role the State government could play to boost inland water operations. Hope you find this piece interesting.
TNMN: How do you see Calabar in terms of inland water transport?
Engr. Onuoha: Calabar generally has good and navigable water channels for Inland Water Transport. The river Calabar is a stretch that goes all the way connecting Akwa Ibom and the Niger Delta area, the channel that has a functional width, a functional depth and those attributes are the things that makes water navigable, but the problem is the lack of awareness, the campaign for people to embrace it as an alternative mode of transportation. Many people here still rely on the road.
TNMN: Why is that so?
Engr. Onuoha: They consider road transportation cheap despite the fact that most of the roads are not motorable especially the interstate roads but because of the poverty level and our sensibilities, most of them up till now do not appreciate water mode of transportation. We don’t even have many people investing in it to ensure we have jetties, landing platforms or even boats, so this somehow impacts on their choice of the means of transportation. As for the issue of security, that is all over, even on the road, you have it.
TNMN: We hear of more incidents on water here in Calabar, could this be because this area is surrounded by the creeks?
Engr. Onuoha: No, if you look, the security situation in the country is not quite through water. The Calabar incident is not too loud compared to what you have elsewhere , the only thing is that it is often reported. A lot of incidents are not reported, especially in the creeks of the Niger Delta, a lot of incidents of kidnapping. Cross river is an enlightened state , it is a metropolitan state. They are more educated than other communities who do not have access to the media. So, while we have our team putting all hands on deck to ensure zero incidents, we do not have an alarming rate of incidents.
TNMN: Calabar used to be boisterous in water transportation, whether for cargo or for humans. Since you assumed work as Area Manager, what has been your strategy to boost the confidence of the people in Inland Water Transportation (IWT)?
Engr. Onuoha: Calabar used to be a haven of activities, a haven of commerce, a haven of tourism but within the last 5- 10 years, I don’t know what happened. It calls for serious concern and I believe the government should look into it. All the activities here are tied to the economy of the State so, if the economy is moving, every other activity would also move along with it including water transportation. I resumed here in March, and as a mariner I feel so bad nothing is happening in a place with huge potential. So, first of all, I ensured that we are in partnership with a reliable water transportation company that moves passengers from here to Oron. From here to Oron takes about 40 minutes by water. Since we began that, patronage has increased. I also found that the jetty we had could not give me the platform I needed, so we have worked on it to make sure it receives such vessels. I have also met some stakeholders including the Chamber of Commerce and noted their concerns. I have made courtesy visits to all the security agencies in Calabar , almost 10 of them, to make sure that we collaborate to ensure that we are given all the cooperation that we need. They are trying the best within their limited resources. The issue of security is mostly state based, it is something the state government could actually take up because they have security meetings often.
TNMN: Is NIWA represented at those security meetings?
Engr. Onuoha: No, because it’s not within NIWA to do that, NIWA is mostly concerned with safety, trying to enlighten the operators on what to do, how to wear their life jackets , how to maintain their boats, and how to navigate safely. The issue of security on the other hand has to do with security- the Marine Police, Navy but that we are not also keeping quiet because whatever happens can affect operation.
The Managing Director of the National Inland Water Authority has donated a gunboat to NNS victory to aid patrol of the waters. Once in a while, we provide them fuel to move out and come home. We are talking to many people, doing social media campaigns to draw attention to the benefits of using the waterways.
My MD has been very supportive and recently he also approved a patrol boat for the Calabar area office to enhance our regular patrols of the waterways. With the kind assurance of his support and that of the management team, we will do better.,
TNMN: On the average, how many passengers move from here to Oron daily and how much cargo moves from here to the neighbouring countries ?
Engr. Onuoha: For now, we have various types of boats at various beaches, we call them beaches. Here at NIWA, we have two 45- person capacity functional boats that move at a 30 minute interval. As one is leaving Calabar, the other one is leaving Oron, that’s how they go. On average daily, at least we can have about 1000 people move on the waterways through this platform here at NIWA but there are smaller boats too and that is where we are focusing our attention mostly because those additional boats at times compromise safety.
As an area office, we are also planning a safety sensitisation campaign before the end of the year. We would like to cover all the Cross River states including Basaki and all those water river line areas.
TNMN: You talked about artisanal boats compromising safety, is there anyway you are ensuring that from the point of the registration of pilots and the boats, surveys are carried out even before they go into the water?
Engr. Onuoha: Being in Calabar also gives me latitude to do that. I am a marine surveyor from Lloyds and in Lagos where I was posted from, we certify boat operators. We send them to school, give them certificates including drivers’ licenses. I intend to replicate that because before I came it was not in place. We would begin to do that to up the standards. I have told them and we have started gradually. Before they would just run to the office, get their stickers but all those things are changing. You don’t come and just collect a sticker to put in your boat, no! We now go out, and look at the boats to make sure the right things are done. What would it take a banana boat owner to get your paddle? If you are using only one outboard engine, probably an 85 horsepower and when it breaks down on the water and you start drifting around? With a small paddle, you can move to the shore and fix the issue. What would it take an operator to have a small fire extinguisher? The last time I went out I saw them with bad life jackets . They didn’t know that I was with my scissors. You know how we do it in Lagos, we start cutting them right away. My staff were looking at me saying Oga they will fight you and I said let them fight me. I was able to sensitize the passengers too. I told them that once they paid boat operators, they were to take them safely to their destination and so, they were also entitled to good life jackets. If they don’t give them life jackets to wear, the passengers have to ask for it because they already paid for the service. The passengers were so happy. The awareness is gradual but we are working.
TNMN: How would a normal passenger know a life jacket that is expired or not good?
Engr. Onuoha: It is not rocket science by even seeing a life jacket torn, you would know that if it has been compromised because the first coat is not supposed to be torn. Once it is torn, water would enter the foaming part and it is compromised. Then, the colour changes when it expires too. Also, when the strap, the zip is not there, how can you wear it? From those elementary ones you would know before you talk about a buoyancy test and all that. These are the elementary ones passengers can see.
TNMN: What would you expect to have achieved when you are leaving here? What are you out to achieve as a person?
Engr. Onuoha: My first agenda is to make sure my staff knows what they are doing. I don’t believe in a situation where in an area office, only one or two people know what to do, so when they are not there, the whole area office is collapsing? No! That is why whatever I do I carry them along, I take them out. I tell the ladies to go and wear trousers, go and wear your jeans. You are working in NIWA, you must not be seen only working in the office. That’s the first thing I want to achieve.
Second, I want to ensure that ferry operations and boat operations in Calabar are resuscitated. Our mandate at NIWA is to ensure there are safe and secured waterways for boat operations. I want to make sure it is achieved and then, there is a need for increased revenue generation. If there are no activities in the area office, there is no way we are going to generate revenue. We have a lot of challenges including our sister agencies having issues with us, making our work stagnate because of one law, one statute or the other. It is not good. I told you about how this place used to be. Our Present office was beehive of activities for Operators involved in both domestic and international trades because we have all the enabling facilities that encourage that but NPA (Nigerian Ports Authority) threatened the operators not to use our facilities and relocated them to somewhere else. It is not convenient for them and they are complaining everyday to come back to our facility. It has been frustrating for them. So, if these things can be resolved, it would be good so that this place can boom again for the sake of the indigenes of this State. If we achieve that, we would have achieved a lot.