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By Chima Iheke, Ph.D

As Nigeria looks ahead, on its march toward sustainable economic development, it faces the daunting task of pulling every region along while creating an economic revival capable of releasing the masses from the existential pinch of economic depression.
Along with other infrastructure, and despite the many structural problems, the creation of navigable waterways is perhaps the easiest, cheapest and most effective for Nigeria, weighed against geography and a return on investment.

What is called for is a transformational project, finally unclogging the choked up arteries of commerce, which will enable Nigeria to slip through the current crushing grip of debilitating poverty.

The good news is that in our peculiar brand of politics, the creation of a navigable inland waterway(especially on) rivers Niger and Benue is what Nigerians of all regions can agree on embarking. This will illuminate the path of economic transformation nationwide since the two rivers transverse every region of the country. A sparkling, rumbling sleepless flow of majesty gliding serenely in condensed eternity.

On the Niger side, starting from Kebbi in the Northwest through Kwara, in the West to the confluence town of Lokoja in the middle and from the Benue side, starting from Adamawa through Benue State to Lokoja and southward through Onitsha to Yeangoa in the Niger Delta.

These are natural inland waterways which providentially straddle the length and breadth of the country before emptying into one of the deepest natural harbors of the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic.

This is a potential game changer capable of engendering an economic revival that will ameliorate the anxiety among our people distraught under the perpetual worry of the indispensable necessaries of life.

Why the dredging of these two rivers has never been a major part of an overall development plan is anyone’s guess. It seems to pay heed to the elementary school canard “that Mongo Park discovered River Niger” since our people seem to avert their eyes to the existence and economic potential of the river which carries more water than any other river in Africa, except Congo.

This article though is not a polemic on Nigeria economic development plan, rather an attempt to proffer a solution by pointing out the pedestrian and the obvious: A viable commercial inland water way on the two rivers is probably the nation’s single most important infrastructure to spur economic growth throughout the whole country that Nigeria can and should undertake.

In this shared public forum of common discourse, a rather bold, intellectual disquisition is mandated to find solutions and refrain from lancing boils without a poultice. Let us sheath the daggers of cynical criticism that cut through necrosis of the body polity, a debridement bleeding only jeers heard around the world without sutures to bind the wound.

Nigeria is our country. Her triumphs and failures belong to us all. I am of the school of thought which believes that you correct your child with the right hand and draw him or her back to your bosom with the left. You don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. A recognition and an understanding of the enormity and difficulty in a nation-building is expected.

That said, in this brief but crucial period when the economy is sprouting fresh shoots, and Nigeria has become a member of  “MINTS” (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), it’s incumbent upon the government to mandate the Army Corp of Engineers to draw up a plan for the dredging of the two rivers and a further plan linking other rivers into an integrated inland waterways system.

Empirical evidence from other countries shows that inland waterway construction follows the course of natural rivers because of the high costs of building man-made canals. The cost of dredging, deepening the channels and eliminating sharp curves on the on the rivers are normally much more cost effective than building an integrated railroad and road network to move the same amount of cargo.

That is not to say that road and railroads should not be part of the development package. Importantly, in the course of making these rivers more navigable by building dams to raise the water level, there are externalities of irrigation for farming and power generation while the dams enable the engineers to control the flow of the rivers and manage Nigeria’s epic floods like the ones of recent months. For example, here in America, the banks of the mighty Colorado River used to flood a wide area of downtown Austin, Texas, and other towns along it. Thanks to LBJ’s vision, the river was dammed upstream- eliminating floods, providing drinking water and producing electricity and spurring recreational benefits for a booming central Texas population that came once it was built, affirming once again Kevin Costner‘s assertion in the Field of Dreams movie that “if you build it, they will come”.

To travel past the dams, the corps of engineers can then build locks, a water-filled chamber with gates at each end allowing ships to travel past the dams, just like a mini-Panama Canal. After the ship enters a lock, the water level can be raised to match the water level upstream of the dam or lowered to match the level down. These dams can also help maintain higher water levels during dry season. They can also prevent rivers from becoming too rough and flooding following periods of heavy rains which are very common in Nigeria.

The enormous irrigated land will foster good paying agricultural jobs for Nigerians. We can extrapolate from what is obtainable in other places that once the rivers Niger and Benue are dredged making them accessible for commercial traffic, there will be a surge in economic activities in every part of the country especially the hinterland. This will open up Nigeria’s bread basket to commercial farming since farmers in flood plains of both rivers will gain access to move crops and supplies to and from the market.

At the risk of being accused of pedantry, maybe didactic is a better word, consider this: with increased economic activities on the rivers, towns and depots will spring up along the banks to supply both the commerce on the rivers and the hinterland thereby reducing the population pressure on our major cities. An inter-connectedness, developing a robust durable cohesiveness as a fount of stable social order invariably will emerge.

Transport cost, a major hindrance to economic expansion, will be greatly reduced all around since no place in Nigeria will be more than two hundred and fifty miles from the banks of the rivers. Not only that, the volume of traffic will be immense since a single tugboat commonly transports fifteen barges, each capable of carrying about 1,500 tons (1,360 mts) of cargo and in some cases one tugboat can push more than forty barges moving bulk cargo including chemicals, coal, construction material, grains, mineral and petroleum products.

Moribund mining concessions and the extractive industries in the North and Dim Lang highlands will get a shot in the arm intensifying Foreign Direct Investment into the region. Moving bulk ore coming from the mines require river transport to be cost effective and a great attraction to mining companies.

We should be cognizant of the fact greatest successes in raising living standards have come about by not altering individuals’ choice, but by changing decisions made by government in creating an enabling environment for the people. A framework within which citizens can pursue their personal betterment.
Nigeria should borrow a leaf from nations that have made inland waterways a major part of their infrastructure project to achieve economic development. From the Germans on the Rhine project completed in 1895 to the English on the Thames and the United States with its ubiquitous inland waterways including the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi River.

There is nothing coincidental in the fact that most of the major economic centers in the United States and other developed countries are located along the banks of major inland rivers and waterways. Neither is it coincidental that China’s leading economic city of Shanghai sits right on the coast or at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Inland waterways are the arteries to the heartland of a country’s economic activities.

This asymmetry in economic development in Nigeria between the North and the South can be explained in large part to geography and proximity to the sea.

The futility in, and draw backs attendant in economic development with inadequate infrastructure in Nigeria is too glaring to offer any analysis. Once strategies are adjusted to reflect both the limits of the possible and the relative importance of the various goals toward long-term national development, we then abominate the alternative, that doing nothing is not an option. This dilemma can be solved in only one way, by the birth of a new faith in our people, adjusted to the peculiarities of the task at hand.

The creation of commercial inland waterways on the Niger and Benue is one such option and will go a long way in rectifying this structural anomaly. The arrangement and mechanism which they favor are important, and the appropriate means must be found to give them effect. Physical geography, that is the geography that informs a country’s topography has been identified as one of the main reasons why some countries achieve remarkable development while others lag behind. This is mainly due to high transport cost that retards economic pursuit.

In answer to the question why some countries fail to thrive, Dr. Jeffery D. Sachs in his book, the End of Poverty, asserts that the answer often lies in the frequently overlooked problem of physical geography. “Many of the world’s poorest countries are severely hindered by high transport costs because they are landlocked, situated in high mountain ranges, or lack navigable rivers, long coastlines or good natural harbors.”

Dr. Sachs noted Supra “Adam Smith was acutely aware of the role of high transport costs in hindering economic development by stressing in particular, the advantages of proximity to low-cost sea based trade as critical, noting that remote economies would be the last regions to achieve economic development. As by means of water carriage a more extensive market is opened for every sort of industry than what inland-carriage alone can afford, so it is upon the seacoast, and along the banks of navigable rivers, that industry of every kind naturally begins to subdivide and improve itself, and it is frequently not till a long time after that improvement extends to the inland part of the country.”

The trick here is getting political and economic structures to work in tandem. The Niger-Benue natural waterways should not be allowed to become the proverbial Naira on the sidewalk, neglected and waiting to be picked up. To that effect, an expansive, non-parochial political will, eschewing and transcending regional and ethnic nativism in the appointment of a civilian administrator is called for. An office with delegated authority over the military flowing from the president in his capacity and role as Commander in Chief.

The administrator should be a woman or man of cold, energetic intellect…a Hammer, of compounded fist and brain with temerity to boot. A person combining a non-blenching fortitude with lucidity of purpose. We have Nigerians who fit this bill and have exhibited such qualities. Men and women actuated by excellency both at home and abroad. Nigerians occupy various prominent positions around the world and one will be honored if tasked to help build the Motherland.

The eternal optimist that I am, a firm believer that since this will be a “Project Specific”, I am persuaded that mandating the Army Corp of Engineers with the task will meet success, if for no other reason than to protect their professed professional integrity. With a civilian at the helm of the agency, it will not be with the trampling boots of arrogance that the military approaches this task but rather with chastened humility of one making amends.

It will be a redeeming project, that will allow the military to shed the scarlet garb of ineptitude and mollify to some extent the opprobrium and lingering public outrage for the long years of military misrule. Let us make an effort, this effort! Doing nothing is not an option at this point of our history when staggering joblessness, hopelessness, crime, and corruption are insidiously joining forces to derail Nigeria.

By Chima Iheke, Ph.D
Arkansas, USA

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters

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