Central to the campaign promises of President Mohammadu Buhari is the revival of the Nigerian economy. Time without number the president had happed on this promise. Already, our dependence on oil has now proven how vulnerable the country’s economy can be to the vagaries of oil prices and local politics in the oil-producing region. With the current drastic fall in oil prices, security crises in the Niger Delta, the politics of revenue allocation formula, oil theft and bunkering that have collectively severely reduced the oil revenue, our economy has virtually collapsed. Instead of the economy reviving, it has gone into a recession. This is how bad things have become. In addition, given the current hues and cries for restructuring which fiscal derivation is at the root of, it is obvious that we cannot and should not continue like this. All these, therefore, reasonably call for the diversification of the economy away from oil. The new focus, as President Buhari had said while addressing his Ministers-designate, will be in agriculture and mining. That is commendable!
But let me quickly venture to add transportation to the list, without which there can be no economic development of any sort, anywhere. As Lord Lugard, the architect of Nigeria once said, if he was to define the material development of the country in one word, he would say ‘transportation’. It is through transportation that goods and services are obtained and moved from one point to the other. Agricultural and mining products themselves would depend on transportation to find their markets. Employees depend on transportation to get to their work places. Transportation thus is not only key to social mobility but is indeed the lynchpin of all economic growth. Its development is what will stimulate other sectors of the economy.
Transportation comprises of four basic elements – road, water, rail and air. This means that if Nigeria is to develop her economy she must have to enhance the development of her transportation sector. As of now, two of the transportation elements, rail and water, are simply non-existent in the country, while air transportation is almost confined to passengers only to the exclusion of domestic cargo services; leaving virtually the entire haulage of goods across the country to road transportation. In a vast country such as Nigeria, it is critical that all the transportation sectors are fully developed if the country is to have any reasonable hope of diversifying her economy and attaining physical development. Central amongst all transportation sectors, and probably the oldest, the largest, the least expensive and the most cost effective, is water transportation. Once the water is there all one needs do is to throw in one’s boat and one is in business. No maintenance is required other than ensuring that the water is sufficiently there. For us in Nigeria, in addition to the Atlantic Ocean on our coastline, we also have the Niger and the Benué Rivers way into the interior of the country.
The Niger and Benué Rivers are two important rivers that ordinarily should define the material development of the nations through which they flow. Specifically, they should have been major International Waterways as well as agricultural bases in the West African Sub-Continent. And for Nigeria, Mother Nature has so kindly brought the two great rivers to traverse within her territory, dividing the country almost into half, and converging at the center of the country at Lokoja. There is no other country where both great rivers so traversed. This gives Nigeria the natural advantage of using the rivers maximally both for internal water ways and for agriculture.
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the Niger River is the principal river of Western Africa, extending about 4,180 km in length. Its drainage basin is 2,117,700 km2 in area. Its source is in the Guinea Highlands in Southeastern Guinea. It runs in a crescent through Mali, Niger, on the border with Benin republics and then through Nigeria, discharging in a massive delta, known as the Niger Delta or the Oil Rivers, into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger is the third longest river in Africa, exceeded only by the Nile and the Congo Rivers. Its main tributary is the Benué River.
The Benué River, previously known as the Chadda River or Tchadda, is approximately 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) long and was almost entirely navigable for the most part of the year. As a result, it had been an important transportation route in the regions through which it flows. It rises in the Adamawa Plateau of Northern Cameroun, from where it flows west, and through the town of Garoua and Lagdo Reservoir, into Nigeria south of the Mandara mountains, and through Jimeta-Yola, Ibi and Makurdi before meeting the Niger at Lokoja. Large tributaries are the Gongola River and the Mayo Kébbi, which connect it with the Logone River (part of the Lake Chad system) during floods. Other tributaries are Taraba River and River Katsina Ala. At the point of confluence, the Benué exceeds the Niger by volume. The mean discharge before 1960 was 3,400 cubic metres per second (120,000 cu ft/s) for the Benué and 2,500 cubic metres per second (88,000 cu ft/s) for the Niger. During the following decades, the runoff of both rivers decreased markedly due to irrigation.
By the International Protocols of the United Nations, before then the League of Nations, and before then the Anglo-French and/or Anglo-German Agreements, no country through which the rivers flow may use the rivers, or their valleys or tributaries in such a way, form or manner that can adversely affect the other. But under broad day light, Cameroun Republic has built the Lagdo Dam which depleted the size and volume of the river and water that adversely affected Nigeria. It has so depleted the water level of the Benué that we no longer use the river for agriculture, especially dry season irrigation, fisheries and aquatic life; and also dried up the water level that it is no longer navigable thereby killing our major internal waterway – all these making Nigeria, particularly Adamawa, Gombe, Taraba, Benué and Kogi states, lose trillions since the Lagdo Dam was constructed about 35 years ago.
As children in of the Benue valley, we used to see vessels carrying containers ply the river to discharge goods at the harbour in Ibi, Lau, Numan and Yola for the most part of the year; and even proceed to Garua in Cameroun. We used to see serious agricultural activities being carried out by our people throughout the days of the year, not only on the Benué valley but also on its main tributaries of Mayoine, Tsikakiri, Gongola, Taraba, Donga, Katsina Ala and Ibi rivers. Today all these are gone, not just because of climate change which no doubt affected the river’s ecosystem but mainly as a result of the construction of the Lagdo Dam. And, to add salt to injury, every year when there is high rainfall and the dam becomes over full, the dam’s valves are opened to release excess water causing serious floods and destruction to our people. This has been going on year in year out since 1983.
For any economic diversification policy to succeed it must be based amongst others on two critical sectors – Agriculture and Transportation; and these two are dependent on water, especially the former. It is against this backdrop that the issue of returning the Niger and Benué rivers to their natural sizes and water levels must take a center stage of policy initiatives of the Nigerian government. To this end, I think it will do well for this government to initiate some discussion with the Camerounian government with the objective of getting this serious issue resolved amicably. The bottom line is that the Niger and Benué Rivers must be made to return to their natural sizes and water levels. They are the source of life to our people in agriculture and internal waterway. In a world where countries build artificial canals to create water source, we must not allow our natural canal be blocked unlawfully.
To me, given the present and immediate future development of technology in which the usage of oil by combustion engines is increasingly being faced out, it is more reasonable to concentrate in developing agriculture than exploring oil in the Chad Basin or elsewhere in the country. Unlike oil, food and transportation can never be faced out in the existence of mankind. To this end, therefore, prioritizing the development and usage of the Niger and Benué rivers in agriculture and transportation is more useful to the country’s future than prospecting for oil and gas. I think the government will do well for the country if it turns its attention in this direction.