The Lagos State Government and stakeholders at a forum on the waterways agreed that the sector had, for far too long, been comatose.
Since the Second Republic, when former Governor Lateef Kayode Jakande Introduced in the state the Baba Kekere and Ita Faji ferries, which brought a new lease of life to people in many riverine communities along the state’s coastline, especially around Mile 2 to Marina, Ipakodo and Ebute in Ikorodu. Lagosians are worried because the feat achieved by the state in the 80s was left to rot.
From a sector that hit about three million passenger traffic yearly, up to the late 80s, the waterways traffic has dropped to about one million passenger per annum, with hardly any presence whatsoever in goods/cargo freighting.
But Governor Akinwunmi Ambode seems set to play big in waterways transportation. With 54 percent of its mass covered by water, the state has a very strong comparative advantage.
At the stakeholders forum last week, government sources said the governor is determined to replicate his imprint on the waterways, as he achieved appreciable success on the road.
The need for the state to deepen its involvement in the waterways is not far-fetched.
With a population put by the state’s Director of Transport Policy Dr Taiwo Salam, at 25 million, Lagos, arguably, is bigger than countries such as Ireland with a population of (4.773 million), New Zealand (4.693 million), or Australia (24.13 million), or some West African countries such as Togo (7.606 million) or Cote d’Ivoire (23.7 million), though tagging behind Ghana with a population of 28.21 million.
However, while most of these countries have out-paced Lagos with robust and thriving inter-modal transportation, (road, air and water), Lagos is still tied to primordial ways with 95 percent of goods and passenger traffic relying on road.
According to statistics from the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, (LAMATA), while the road element remains the heaviest and most popular means of transportation, waterways, despite its huge potential, accounts for about one percent passenger traffic in the state.
The result is a gripping daily traffic congestion, which is gradually making travels on the state roads a nightmare. For instance, Apapa, a scenic area up till late 90s, has become a no-go area as because of traffic congestion that saw bumper-to-bumper parking of containerised trailers and petroleum tankers on every inch of roads in the area, also stretching from the Apapa ports up to Ikorodu Road.
To relieve the roads, the other modes of transportation, especially the waterways, the government said, must work; and to work, the government must have effective control of the waterways. That was the message of Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) Managing Director Oluwadamilola Emmanuel.
Emmanuel said the agency had been encumbered from generating appreciable revenue since a High Court impeded its sail in March, 2014, until the judgment was set aside in July, this year; a verdict that was validated by another Federal High Court last Friday.
Emmanuel said the forum was to drum stakeholders support for a “safe, clean and prosperous waterways.
According to the LASWA chief, government is not interested in driving any operator out of business. But all operators must continue to support it and join hands with it to build a virile sector.
“LASWA as the inland waterways regulator for Lagos State would continue its role of ensuring safety and the enforcement of the various initiatives and interventions of the government on the waterways, despite its not been able to generate substantial revenue due to court injunctions,” he said.
Emmanuel might just have taken the sail off the wings of many stakeholders, who had besieged the forum, believing the government was bent on driving them out of business.
“Whatever the government wanted to do, let it come with a human face as these operators are responsible members of the society and have been contributing to the development of the state in their own ways,” a boat operator, High Chief Wellington Ilori-Ajigbulu, said.
Ilori-Ajigbulu was responding to hints by Emmanuel that the agency would soon embark on an inspection of boats, canoes and ferries operating on the waterways.
“There are minimum standards that we would not compromise. If you must operate on our waterways, you must comply by having lighting systems, have enough life jackets for your passengers, have a functional and water worthy (as against road worthy) vessels and have enough operators to handle your operations.”
He said the agency would not overlook any operator’s infractions; “If your boat is not fit, we would not hesitate to take you off the waterways so that you don’t endanger the lives of other Lagosians. Government is sick of accidents that occur on our waterways as a result of preventable hazards.”
Emmanuel insisted operators must raise their standards and new entrants must maintain the established standards, as the government wanted a sustainable development of its waterways.
Admitting that the sector is ever changing, Emmanuel said the onus was on operators to join hands with the government, which would continuously work towards creating the right environment for operators to thrive and flourish, while operators should support by paying requisite dues and fees to the state government.
LASWA, he said, has begun regularisation to capture the database of operators on the waterways.
“Stakeholders should come to us, we need all your data, it is not only about money, we want to engage you to move the water sector forward. We implore you to come and regularise your membership,” he said.
The Director-General, Lagos State Safety Commission, Mr Hakeem Dickson, urged operators to register their boats with the government.
He said boats operating would be given number plates. “Any operator without a number plate is illegal and should be taken off the waterways.”
He observed that plate numbers would help promote safety on water as boats could be tracked easily, and also assist in reducing the challenges encountered in securing insurance for their operations. He disclosed that discussions were ongoing about its introduction.
He also appealed to boat and ferry operators to ensure that their passengers wear life jacket and shun overloading to avoid accident on the waterways.
General Manager, Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), Adesina Tiamiyu, said the agency had been well equipped to combat emergency anywhere in the state.
Harping on the need for stakeholders to embrace safety standard, Tiamiyu said with two Jet skis and a marine unit established by LASEMA, the emergency responder is prepared to be more engaged in emergency activities even on the waterways.
The LASEMA chief urged operators and passengers using the waterways to be safety conscious and arm themselves with the emergency numbers 112 and 767, in case of any mishap on the water or off it.
Chairman, Lagos State Ferry Services, Paul Kalejaiye stated that government’s commitment to developing the waterways was irreversible, as it remained the only way to “move the state from a mega city to a smart city.”
He criticised the National Inland Waterways (NIWA), for contesting a court judgment ruling which was in Lagos’ favour with the state government, just because of the money it wanted to generate rather than being conscious of the safety of operators and the passengers.
Kalejaiye said for effective ferry service in the state’s waterways, at least 1,000 ferries were needed to convey passengers to and from their destinations across the state.
Though admitting that government has no business being in business, Kalejaiye however said government would be investing in the purchase of modern ferries in order to set standard for all operators wishing to operate ferry services in the state.
Though the government had in the interim imported four such ferries, it, is however looking inwards especially to the establishment of a boat manufacturing firm at Epe, where according to him a large tranche of land had been acquired by the government and work would start in earnest.
“The state government thinking forward is already envisaging a thriving industry and has acquired a large parcel of land at Epe for the building of boats, barges and ferries for local use.”
Chairman of boat operators in the state Mr Ganiu Tarzan commended the government for coming up with plans to build boats locally. He said local producers abound in Ajegunnle, Epe and Ikorodu, that can produce fibre vessels and boats, adding that such industry would drive more participation in the water transportation sector.
Tarzan said: “You can imagine if boats and ferries are produced locally. A huge economy can be jumpstarted as all coastline states would begin to look towards Lagos to purchase sea worthy boats. Again, you conserve foreign exchange and crash the soaring cost of acquiring good boats. Right now, one sea faring boat with good engines could cost between N5 to N8 million. I bought one for N10 million. All this could be brought down with government coming up with plans to support operators who can form cooperative society with loans.”
Kalejaiye said the boat building initiative is just one of the several initiatives of the government to stimulate the sector. He said government has identified 13 water routes, seven of which are being dredged while channelization is also ongoing on others.
Government, according to the Lagsferry boss, may acquire more water hyacinth machines to combat the menace across the state, even as he disclosed that government is building several jetties and interchanges in its bid to make water transportation lucrative and attractive. To encourage night travels on the water, government, he added would soon embark on lighting up the routes.
He said the government would concession the running of some of the routes to private operators even as LagsFerry which would soon move its head office back to Mile 2, would continue to be the regulator of all equipments on its waterways to ensure the safety of all operators, goods and passengers.
Kalejaiye is confident that Lagosians haven’t seen anything yet on water transportation.
Only time would tell if these interventions would bolster a people’s sagging confidence in a sector made unsafe in recent time by avoidable fatalities.