From Stanley Uzoaru, Owerri
One of the greatest challenges of the people of South East is having maritime access to the outside world.
Disturbed by the issue, Stakeholders and leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) during a consultative meeting with their presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, in Enugu last Tuesday, demanded: “Give South East access to the sea as Atlantic Ocean is just 18 nautical miles from Ihiala/Oguta.” They also asked him to consider making Onitsha Port operational and properly linked up, if he emerged victorious in next year’s presidential election.
Their request came on the heels of a statement allegedly credited to Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State that President Muhammadu Buhari approved the dredging of the Orashi River in Oguta Local Government.
Orashi River takes off, about 183 metres above mean sea level from the rocks in Ezeama community, Dikenafai in Imo State, a river of the Lower Niger Basin that is also tributary to Oguta Lake and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
It played critical role in the economic life of the region in the colonial era. Goods were ferried in the river to overseas even slave trade activities were carried out there.
Uzodimma said Buhari gave his nod for the take-off of the project, expected to cost $2 billion. He made the disclosure when the Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Awwal, represented by Silyranda Lassa, visited the state. He said the dredging of the Orashi River would open a new economic chapter in the state and South East.
Confusion, however, set in when Federal Government denied: “We are not aware of such port.” Minister of Transportation, Muazu Sambo, said neither the ministry nor the Presidency was aware of such a port. “As far as we are concerned, the Orashi River Port is not known to the government.”
However, the Orashi River has become a key campaign issue for the state All Progressives Congress (APC)-led government and the PDP as they bicker over the matter. PDP State Publicity Secretary took a swipe at Uzodimma:
“Lies and deception have been elevated to the status of state policy by the regime of Uzodinma. Just yesterday, the Federal Government debunked claims personally made by Uzodimma, that he was dredging the Orashi River to build a new seaport. This is how embarrassingly low the regime can go in its struggle to deceive the people.”
Nonetheless, the state government made a clarification that it was not building a seaport but partnering with the Federal Government for the dredging of the Orashi River to open it up to the Atlantic Ocean.
Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, said the explanation was necessary following various interpretations of the project by many interest groups:
“The governor never talked about sea port at Oguta or Orashi, but harped on the economic benefits of dredging the river up to the Atlantic Ocean. He could not have talked of a seaport in the state when there was no sea. The governor clearly emphasised having access to the sea through the dredging of existing waterways.
“The governor after an inspection tour of the area said he went with the Navy to understand the terrain better and appreciate the beauty nature bestowed to the state. The enormous natural endowment in this area is yet to be tapped.
“Our first line of action will be to create access road that will enable security agents patrol the channel up to the sea. The access will help stimulate commercial activities and halt crude oil theft and vandalism of oil installations.
“This was not the first time that attempt was being made to dredge the Orashi River. During colonial era, ships were moving from the Atlantic Ocean and Port Harcourt to Osemotor, a river port in the bank of Oguta Lake.
“Bonny was like this (Orashi River) in 1948 until the first vessel came in, then people began to appreciate it. With time after the dredging, people will begin to feel the economic benefits of the project.”
Elder statesman, Chief Bob Njemanze, said: “If the governor succeeds in getting the Federal Government to accept to dredge the river, God knows why he made us the heartland. Uzodimma is doing same effort Iwuanyanwu put in to build the Imo airport.”
Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu: “For many years, we have talked about dredging of the river, now it has come to reality. This will open a lot of opportunities in the South East in terms of tourism and other economic activities.”