By Tope Adeboboye
It is called the State of Aquatic Splendour – a catchphrase that adequately defines Lagos, as a state that parades many water bodies.
Indeed, besides the Atlantic Ocean and the lagoon, Lagos is also home to several rivers, creeks and canals that should make water transportation the preferred choice for residents of this hugely populated state with roads that are perpetually afflicted with intractable gridlocks.
Yet, water transport business hasn’t fared too well in the state. Besides the inadequate ferries, plying the waterways, a plethora of other challenges has ensured that most people in Lagos would rather keep navigating the busy roads than taking a ride on Lagos waters.
To resolve the challenges, a meeting was conveyed in Lagos recently for players in the water transportation sector. The meeting was between members of the Lagos State chapter of the Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Water Transporters of Nigeria (ATBOWATON) and the regulators – the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA). The regulators, at the meeting, enumerated a list of conditions to be met by the water transporters to ensure safe and secured water transport operations in Lagos.
But the commercial boat operators in Lagos are insisting that the guidelines put in place by the regulators are hardly enforceable at the moment. They maintain that a number of policies must be in place before the regulators even contemplate an enforcement of the guidelines.
Already, ATBOWATON has dispatched a letter to the Lagos Area Manager of NIWA, Alhaji Muazu Sambo, complaining about the non-workability of the operational guidelines for commercial boat operators on Lagos waterways.
The operational standards for commercial boat operators jointly signed by Sambo and the LASWA boss, Abisola Kamson, stipulated that all commercial boats must be fitted with two engines and a functional speedometer. Besides that, commercial boats must have a minimum internal dimension of 7.3m length, 2.2m width, 0.6m distance between seats, a minimum capacity of 30 passengers, and a double hull and bottom design.
Some of the regulations included: “All commercial boats must also be fitted with appropriate navigational aids, including GPS and Echo Sounder Systems as well as cabin lighting systems. Each boat must also have life jackets, fire extinguishers, paddle, life buoys, shore to sea communication gadgets, key starter, horn and alarm systems.
“Commercial boats should have a minimum of four emergency exits, as well as toilet and waste treatment facilities for bigger boats with 70 or more passengers. Commercial boats must adhere to a speed limit of six knots around jetties and a maximum of 15 knots as service speed as well as provide manifest of passengers on board.
“Besides having a comprehensive insurance cover submitted to regulatory bodies annually, boats must be subjected to a bi-annual inspection for standards while boat drivers must be certified for competence and be issued a certificate. There should be a manifest secured in a water tight carrier, boat names should be boldly written on both sides and carry appropriate flags while commercial boat colours must conform to the specified standards.”
The letter to the NIWA boss, entitled Re: Operational Standard for Commercial Boat Operation on Lagos Inland Waterways, was signed by Mr. G.S. Tarzan Balogun, national president of the association and Chief W. Akingbulu, the Lagos State chairman. The association expressed gratitude to NIWA and the Lagos State government for the joint intervention to improve water transportation in Lagos. The body observed, though, that there were a number of issues that ought to be addressed before the operational standards could come into effect.
The operators noted that the guidelines on the boat dimension in paragraph 2 of the regulators’ list stipulating that the length of a boat should be 7.3 metres, width, 2.2 metres and the distance between seats, 0.6 metres as well as the directive stating that a boat must have a minimum capacity of 30 passengers were not safety conscious. They observed that the dimension was also silent about the depth and height of the hull. They also contended that the stipulated provision of a minimum of four emergency exits with two on each side was simply unachievable with the dimension of boat stipulated by the regulators. They also said they could get local boat builders to construct proper boats with all the necessary and appropriate navigation aids that would comfortably seat 30 passengers or more. The operators insisted that many qualified local boat builders exist in Lagos, Ondo, Cross River, Rivers and Bayelsa states, among others, adding that such boats would meet international standards. “This would also create job opportunities for Lagosians and Nigerians as a whole in line with the present administration’s policy to encourage local content,” the operators asserted.
They spoke more: “To make the use of the navigational aids, including G.P.S and Echo sounder system, operational standard for commercial boat operations on Lagos Inland Waterways, first and foremost, there is need to sanitise the Inland waterways by clearing the debris, logs and wreckage. There should be dredging and channelization of the routes with signage on the waterways. The equipment is fragile; it can easily be damaged when you run against any of the above unseen objects while navigating. Secondly, this equipment should be made available to the boat operators for purchase in local markets through large quantity importation due to its non availability in our local markets.”
The operators pleaded with the federal government to purchase commercial boats with all the navigation aids and safety accessories on board and hand them over to their association to manage. They pledged that the payment would be made to the government as agreed by both parties. They noted that grants and soft loans for procurement of boats, life jackets and other forms of assistance from the government would be received with thanks by the boat operators.
The association also said in the letter that getting fuel to power their boats was a Herculean task.
“Since the pronouncement of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the announcement of the Inspector-General of Police that anyone found selling fuel in jerry cans should be arrested and prosecuted, the purchase of PMS (Petrol) has been so difficult for the boat operators. There is no fuel station for commercial boat operators in any part of Lagos inland waterways, and that is now giving the industry a negative impact. “We are now imploring our regulators, both state and federal, to quickly come to our aid by granting us the licence to erect fuel stations at NIWA Marina Jetty,” the boat operators stated.
The operators pleaded with the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the DPR to give their association 20 pieces of floating fuel filling stations on Lagos waterways. They also said they should be carried along in any future planning and decision making on the Lagos inland waterways.
National president of ATBOWATON, Mr. Tarzan Balogun, told Daily Sun that his association was in support of government’s attempt to standardise operations of water transport system in the state. He emphasised, though, that there were certain policies and processes that the government must put in place before such regulations could be enforced.
“If these things are not put in place, as we noted in the letter, the passengers will suffer, and a lot of boat operators will be out of business. The regulators should also appreciate those of us that have been doing this water transport business for long, since 20, 30 years ago. If now the government wants to standardise operations, it is very good, but the regulators must not do anything that will negatively affect those of us that have been doing the business, even when it was not popular.”
He said even though safety should not be compromised, the regulators should not do anything that would send people to the labour market.
The ATBOWATON president noted that since ATBOWATON had been clamouring for the standardisation of boat operations in the state for a long time, NIWA and LASWA should have invited representatives of the body for talks before the guidelines were released.
He said: “If we had been contacted, for instance, we would have informed them that the specification they recommended for the boat is wrong. In fact, it is the boat that we’re using now to carry 20 passengers that they’re asking us to use for 30 passengers. How would that work? And since that meeting, our members from all over Lagos, Epe, Badagry and other places have been calling me to complain that these things would not work. The same boat that carries 20 passengers, and we’re still trying to change the seating configuration to make it more comfortable for passengers, now you’re asking us to carry 30 passengers on the same boat. How will it work?”
Kolade Adesiyan, national secretary of ATBOWATON, regretted that the agencies in charge never consulted the body before issuing guidelines that would regulate commercial boat operations in the state. He noted, however, that NIWA and LASWA had said that the document was not final. “We hope they would call us soon. We’re waiting for them to invite us for further talks,” he said.
The president, Tarzan Balogun, said the regulators also condemned the use of plank boats. He said thousands of people across the country were involved in the manufacture of plank boats, wondering why the regulators should send them all into the labour market and increase crime. He said what the government should be more concerned with was ensuring that commercial boats comply with safety regulations. He said the enforcement of the regulations should be in gradual phases.
The ATBOWATON national secretary also said the commercial boat operators, spread across the country in thousands, were not against standardisation but wanted a gradual process. “We should have a development plan, something like a ten-year development plan. We should meet and set up a development plan for ten years. Part of the things that should be done within the ten years is that government should build more jetties, do more dredging and channelization, put in place more security, build fuel stations by the waterways and other things.
“If they insist on going ahead now, many people will be thrown out of jobs. Criminals, especially sea pirates, will increase. Commuters will also suffer, because we will start charging more, and passengers might start running from patronising us. From Victoria Island to Ikorodu, it means we will be charging about N1, 500 per trip. How many people can afford that? That is why the standardisation should be in phases,” he noted.
Adesiyan said what government should work hard to achieve immediately was safety and security on the waterways. “Our boats are being stolen on the waterways. We have been complaining to the government. Armed robbers that robbed banks in Ikorodu and Festac went away through the waterways. They killed a boat driver at Bayeku the other time. There should be an enabling environment. The Lagos State government built jetties about ten years ago, till date, they have not commissioned them. We have problems getting fuel. We take jerry cans to the filling stations and the police harass our members. There are coastal guards in other parts of the world. We don’t have that now. NIWA and LASWA have been trying though. They have rescue boats, but they are not enough. Government needs to put certain things in place before enforcement.”
Tarzan also lamented that business was very tough for boat operators now. “When the IG announced that those buying fuel in jerry cans should be arrested and prosecuted, I called the Acting MD of NIWA. He called the DPR people and told me to liaise with them, which we did. But if they no longer harass our members in Lagos, what about those in Calabar or Niger State? So, business is quite tough now. Government should address these things before trying to enforce the operational standards,” he said.