Court affirms NIWA’s sole jurisdiction over commercial activities on inland waterways

Hajiya Inna Ciroma, MD, NIWA

…As authority embarks on nationwide safety campaign

With a navigable inland waterways of over 3,800 km, made up of no fewer than 12 major rivers, creeks, lagoons, lakes and intra-coastal waters spanning more than 20 states in the country, the average citizens have a right to expect the endowment to provide not only a reliable means of transport, but also credible platform of employments.

History showed that even before the purported dis-covery of the River Niger by either Mango Park or the Lander Brothers, that the local people have used the body of water mass for commercial and social activities like fishing and swimming. Government has however made efforts to optimize the waters for bulk goods movement, through dredging and the development of Agriculture through irrigation.

Subsequently, the Federal Government, working tirelessly through its specialized agency, the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), had taken various measures to protect lives and property on the waters, in addition to a capital dredging of more than 532 km, stretching from Baro in Niger State and Warri in Delta State, all in bid to make the River navigable, all year round.

With the dredging, also came the need to develop river ports at Baro, Oguta, Owerrinta and Degema; just as contracts were awarded for the development of standard river ports at Jamata and Lokoja. The Onitsha River Port was even rehabilitated, commissioned and given a new lease of life.

The statutory vision and aspirations made NIWA wonderful, especially with all the right things put in the right places. Everyone had expected NIWA to soar in to the air like an eagle. Unfortunately, the most important moment for NIWA had also become its most critical moment. Its most important ally, the Lagos State Government soon became its most distracting partner, opponent, competitor and legal foe. The result was an avoidable legal warfare, which not only kept the NIWA tied to the ground, but also ensured a dis-traction which kept it away from optimal performance.

For instance, industry watchers observed that the NIWA had hardly completed the dredging of the lower river Niger, fine tuned the construction of the jetties at Buruku, Ida, Agnebode, Pategi, Igbokoda, Okrika, Degema and Yenogoa, alongside the slipways in Kaduna and Pategi; and was mobilizing efforts towards a long-drawn battle against water hyacinth and aquatic weeds in line with vision of an Inland Water Transport (IWT) Master Plan, when it was confronted by the cacophony of voices, protesting what has since become known as collection of multiple charges in Lagos.

The protesters, consisting mostly of ferry/ boat operators were aghast that they were being compelled to make payments to both the NIWA and the Lagos State Government, practically for the same tittles or services; especially with issuance or renewal of operational licenses, certificates etc. For a good while, the management had a hectic time embarking on dialogue, during which the operators continued to pay. The dialogue would probably have continued indefinitely, but for the patience of the operators which when exhausted, finally dragged both the Lagos State Government and the NIWA before a competent court of law, seeking clarification as to which should discontinue with the illegal collection of the charges.

Suit No. FHC/L/CS/543/12 showed the Incorporated Trustees of the Association of Tourist boat operators and water transporters of Nigeria; and the Incorporated Trustees of Dredgers Association of Nigeria dragging nine entities to the Federal High Court In Lagos, and asking the court, to make a declaration as to which body has the legal right to collect charges.

The nine were: Lagos State Water ways Authority, Hon. Commissioner, Ministry of Water Front Infrastructural Development; Hon. Attorney General of La-gos State; Governor of Lagos State; National Inland Waterways Authority; Nigerian Maritime Standard and Safety Agency; Hon. Minister of Mines and Steel Development; Hon. Minister of Transport and the attorney General of the Federation.

Consequently, the court in its March 28th, 2014 judgment made seven declarations, through which the NIWA mandate and statutory right over all the country’s inland water ways was upheld, the operators were also told of the unconstitutionality of the Lagos State Government to administer the waters of its State, in so far as the relevant portions of the laws of the country was concerned.

In the judgment, authenticated by Mrs. A.M Adegbite, a Principal Executive Officer, the court declared as followed:

That the 5th (NIWA) and 6th Defendants were declared the proper and lawful authority in matters relating to the Plaintiffs’ commercial activities.

· *That the 1st and 2nd Defenders (Lagos State water ways authority and the states attorney general) are thus restrained from seeking to control such commercial activities of the Plaintiffs.

*That the Plaintiffs shall make payments, obtain and renew permit or license from the proper and lawful agency of Government, under the law, being the 5th and 6th Defendants.

*That the demand for payments for the operations of Plaintiffs on the inland waterways by both the 1st and 2nd Defendants as well as the 5th and 6th Defendants on same and similar issue, to wit: Operational license, Operational certificates etc amounts to multiple charges and therefore unconstitutional and unlawful.

*That the Plaintiffs shall make payment for their operational activities on the inland waterways and jetties to the 5th and 6th Defendants, being the proper defendants empowered under the constitution to collect such charges and issue license / permit, under the law in Nigeria.

*That the 1st and 2nd Defendants herein, not em-powered under the Constitution are restrained from further collecting and imposing charges on the plaintiffs in respect of their operation of boats, ferry and water transportation on Inland waterways and jetties in Nigeria, as it relates to the Plaintiffs; and

*That Prayer 5 and 6 of the originating summons which sought interim relief have been overtaken and are declined.

Obviously, the clear winners, from the court’s declarations were the ferry/ boat operators and dredgers. The real losers were the Lagos State Government which absolutely forfeited the chances of making further collection from the ferry operators and dredgers. With this judgment, NIWA is now re-invigorated to continue to call the shot and collect payments, although it lost good time, which it could have judiciously invested, and profitably too on other productive issues, first on a fruitless dialogue, and letter, on a wasteful legal pursuits.

Perhaps, now that the court’s war is over, the authority may be encouraged to sit tight, and invest its time more productively.