By Pelu Awofeso

With N9m I can have my own twin-engine dredge, own a piece of land on the banks of the River Niger and start a profitable mining venture, no questions asked. “If you can’t afford that one, we can build the single-engine type for you for five million,” says Ebuka shortly after I walk up to him at his work station along Marine Road, in Onitsha.

Before I bumped into Ebuka, I had spent the past two hours sight-seeing at the Onitsha International Market and thought it’d be a good idea to take a walk further down the road, at least to catch a glimpse of the Niger River, so I was dazed by his pitch. For one, I was not prepared to be propositioned at six in the evening by a 25-year-old mechanic while just taking a stroll; secondly, I never imagined that an individual with a couple of millions in the account could invest in the dredging business.

And there was this youngster making it seem like a piece of cake. “There are more than 200 dredges along the river banks, mining. If you look closely, you will see them offloading the sands at various points,” Ebuka said, making every effort to point out two nearby locations out to me, one to the north (towards the Niger Bridge) of where we were both standing and the other to the south. Much as I tried, I could only pretend to see what he was trying to show me.

“I am actually repairing the dredge over there,” he said, standing up and smiling at me. He had already pricked my interest from the get-go and I wanted to know more about this activity, which I thought was illegal. I was in luck—Ebuka was in good mood. “Come, let me show you.”

So, joined by his partner Onyekachi, we marched across the wet, clean sands and climbed down an uneven stairs of sand-bags. Far in the distance, the Niger Bridge arched, Rainbow-like, across the Niger River into the Asaba end. Dusk is fast approaching and the sky is a dark shade of grey. One after the other, boats revved up their engines and scooted off with traders headed back to their villages after a long day at the market.

“This particular dredge has two Perkins engines. One is good but the other one is spoilt, which is the one I’m working on,” Ebuka said, taking his time to explain how the vessel operates. In between both engines, there is a tank ten feet deep and some 20 feet wide, which takes in the sands sucked in from the river bed by a linear inter-connection of hoses. The open tank, according to Ebuka, can take eight to 12 tipper loads of sand. The whole operations are powered by a water-pump, without which the mining will be impossible. “The engine will knock,” Onyekachi said, leading me to the other end of the dredge.

My schooling in sand mining continued. Onyekachi moved over to the faulty engine and made a brief demonstration of how the hose is lowered in and out of water with the aid of a lever connected to a wheel. He motioned for me to come closer and have a go at it. I politely declined, careful not to tip over from my position on the dredge.

When on a mining mission, the dredge itself is anchored to a motorized boat, which propels it further offshore where the chances of finding the sands are higher. There and then, one was on its return journey, headed to its offloading point, not too far from where we were standing. Even at that time of the evening, I could see the boat awkwardly latched to the dredge and both vessels dragging slowly towards us.

“Apart from the boat operator, there are two people on the dredge. One of them will be in control when they are collecting the sand, while the second person will offload when they arrive,” Ebuka continued. “If you are not in a hurry, you will see how the discharging is done.”

Truth is, I was in a hurry. Just as I made my way back up the scattered pile of sand-bags, a tipper backed up into the compound and parked by mound of sand. Time to work: Onyekachi rolled up his trousers, joined by two other labourers and they all began to shovel the sand right into the back of the lorry.

Ebuka was not in a position to tell me how the dredge owners deal with the government in terms of royalty, neither did he disclose who gets the money made for the sands. But one point was clear: “Occasionally, there are patrols on the waterways every now and then; they are settled and we continue doing our work.”

There is a huge campaign by environmentalists worldwide to stop mining of rivers and beaches because of its adverse consequences on host communities and livelihoods. As far as I know, the subject of the dredging the River Niger has been in and out of the news for decades, so much so that it seemed a never-ending story. Thankfully, according news reports, the project is now completed, costing the federal government approximately N36 billion.

Hundreds of communities along the coastline across Delta, Bayelsa, Anambra, Edo, Kogi, Niger, Rivers and Imo States, which would benefit from the dredging project directly, should brace up for the good times ahead. What remains is for the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) to carry out its primary functions, which includes: creating maritime-related jobs for the youths of the Niger Delta, and encouraging and/or partnering with the private sector to invest in economically beneficial ventures on the river.

Not to achieve this in the soonest possible time will amount to, according to NIWA, “a colossal waste of public funds.” In the meantime, while it dilly-dallies, few private interests are sucking out the sands of the Niger River and smiling to the banks. No questions asked.