Hon. Olubunmi Olumekun is the President of Barge Operators Association of Nigeria (BOAN). In this exclusive interview with The News Diet, he speaks on a wide range of pertinent issues affecting barge operations and the maritime sector at large. Enjoy it:
Barge operations have been on the frontburner following some concerns raised by regulators on night sailing. What’s your position on this?
The regulators have said that they want to cancel night sailing for barge operations. In fact, there is actually a ban on night sailing. However, unlike other ferry services, our barges utilize tugboats that have proper lighting systems for night operations. Asking barge operators not to work at night gives an impression to the global maritime community that Nigeria isn’t safe for such operations.
How much will barge operators lose if night sailing is stopped and what are the other implications?
The issue is that vessels will keep coming into Nigerian waters and cargoes will continue accumulating because the number of barge operations will be reduced following the ban. If night operations for barges is stopped, most of the barging activities at night must wait until it’s dawn. Nevertheless, the vessels at the seaside will not wait for the barges. Thus, this will create an additional problem in the evacuation of empty containers from Nigerian ports.
There is a meeting scheduled for BOAN and the leadership of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) soon and we intend to discuss some of these issues at that meeting. However, this issue has been on the frontburner for over a year as we learnt that banning night barge operations is part of the new Standards Operating Procedure (SOP). We hope that we’ll be able to change this at our next meeting.
Let’s talk about the N50million bank guarantee demanded by NPA for licensing barge operators. Is this annually, what happens the following year?
Yes, the bond is yearly. At the end of the year, operators will still have to renew their licenses so the money will still have to be at the banks. The money is just tied down at the banks without adding value to our businesses and that is why we want the option of insurance bonds. The monies being deposited at the banks could be used to upscale the businesses of barge operators.
We are in a situation where every barge operators has to keep a minimum of N50million with the banks when we have dire need of this money to improve our businesses. This shouldn’t be the ideal practice.
The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) had a trial barge operation from Onne to Onitsha few years ago. Has that transmuted into barging along that corridor and how soon could we have barge operations from Lagos to the Eastern ports?
During the trial voyage from Port Harcourt to Onitsha, two of our captains were kidnapped. We spent a lot before we were able to get them released. So, there are still security threats and no one is really coming to our aid. If NIWA says it has a gun-boat, the essence shouldn’t be to show-off but do the actual work of securing the waterways.
I would suggest that the government these guys causing mayhem on waterways. They aren’t riffraffs because they have sophisticated boats and assets. Why not make them private security contractors in partnership with the government? Most of them are big boys and they could be engaged to invest in various aspects of maritime. I don’t think they would continue such illicit practice if they have a stake in the sector. This same approach could be used to combat oil bunkering and illegal refining. With a little training and well-structured partnerships, these operators could move from the illegal side to legitimate businesses. They will be too happy and too busy doing their legitimate business to engage in criminality.
What’s the biggest challenge to inter-state barge operations in Nigeria, security, wrecks or dredging?
BOAN is taking up the initiative of moving cargoes along the inland waterways across the states. Nigeria is so blessed to have 32 out of the 36 states connected by water. Our expectations is that barges should be able to move from Lagos to Onitsha or Lokoja and Lokoja to Benin, Ogun, Ondo; in fact everywhere connected by water. However, to achieve this, the government has to create the ideal environment to support such effective barge operations.
I have argued severally that if the government had spent only 20 percent of its investments in railway on waterways, Nigeria’s transport system would have improved tremendously.
This improvement would have also been reflected on the nation’s economy via businesses, more employment opportunities, better Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and good standard of living. The roads would have been managed better for durability with more cargoes carried via waterways. Unlike the roads, waterways don’t wear out.
Nevertheless, the federal government can’t take up the onus of maritime security, investments and safety on its own. State governments should also play their roles. I’m from Ondo State and Ondo should have a deep seaport but this hasn’t happened. For several years, the Olokola deep seaport has been in the pipeline, yet there is no hope in sight for that project.
Given the high cost of acquiring barges, what fiscal intervention or policies could see more barges built in Nigeria?
Eighty-five percent of the barges used by members of BOAN are built in Nigeria. However, there is a need for government to make an intervention to make the cost cheaper.
There could be structured loans to the companies responsible for building barges and this could be achieved with partnership of BOAN. This way, the cost of production could be subsidized. Or the major equipments, such as sophisticated welding machines could be subsidized by the government. Nigeria has reached a stage where it should be building big vessels, but the reality is that there is still a long way to go.
What were the other issues that made the Managing Director of NPA, Mr. Mohammed Bello-Koko express concerns on barge operations recently?
The situation isn’t alarming and there is no tension. For the past one year, there hasn’t been any barge accident which means there is a high level of compliance to safety measures.
If any accident should happen now, I suspect it will be the fault of the government agencies in-charge of regulations. This is because we have a lot of wrecks on the waterways. If all the barges operating in the sector are standard barges, the danger of running into wrecks is a severe one and wrecks can sink barges. There are lots of wrecks on Lagos waterways and this is a huge challenge.
So, the tension which arose from the concerns by the NPA Managing Director has subsided. We have identified the challenges which are also connected to the influx of investors in barging because of the profit. Some of those, who rushed in, have realized that the gains aren’t as massive as before and some have rushed out because it’s not business as usual.