CONCEIVED in 1982 during the regime of President Shehu Shagari, the Onitsha Inland Port sits on the banks of the River Niger occupying a total of 11 hectares of land. It was meant to be an important nodal point for intermodal exchange in the Eastern economic corridor. Subsequent military regimes ensured its completion. But surprisingly, not withstanding its completion the port has never been put to use, leading to the rapid deterioration of its sophisticated equipment and other infrastructure.
Following intense public outcry, the Federal government in 2012 completed a rehabilitation and upgrading exercise of the river port with replacement of its obsolete cargo handling cranes with more modern and higher capacity ones. According to the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), owners of the river port, the port complex now has two 64 tons of mobile harbor cranes, two 50 and 30 tons of forklifts, two 250 KVA power generating sets, one 45 tons reach stacker, one low bed, one 80 tons mobile crane and one 500 KVA power generating set. Beside these equipments, other facilities there include staff quarters, fire station, administrative block,transit shed, police post, mechanical workshop and network of tarred roads.
In an apparent effort not to allow the new equipment deteriorate again, the Federal government in 2013 decided to concession the port on the basis of ‘rehabilitate, operate and transfer’. Unfortunately, six years down the line the concession processes have been bugged by bureaucracy. Due to these bureaucratic delays, the financing agreement with World Bank for the concession lapsed in 2018. In their submission at a public hearing in Abuja on Thursday, August 15, 2019 by the House of Representatives ad hoc committee on why Warri, Port Harcourt, Onne, Calabar and Onitsha Inland ports are not being put to maximum use, NIWA disclosed that it has now taken up the responsibility to finance the concession process.
The concession which is the negotiation stage is being managed by a high-powered inter-agency project delivery team with National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) as lead agency. Others are Messrs Green Stratos West Africa Limited, the technical adviser, Federal Ministry of Transportation, Federal Ministry of Justice, Federal Ministry of Finance, Infrastructure Concessioning and Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and the Nigeria Ports Authority. The maximal functionality of the Onitsha Inland port is now hinged on the successful conclusion of the concession and delivery of the facility to a preferred bidder. In fact, last year the government granted the Onitsha Inland port the status of ‘Port of Origin and Destination’. With such status, goods can be directly consigned to and from Onitsha river port to any part of the world.
However, the port will still have post-concession challenges which may hinder its optimal use. The port was originally designed to work with Warri port as its point of imported cargo and export of cargo. The shallowness of the depth of Escravos entrance has been a major challenge to the optimal use of Warri port and other jetty terminals in that maritime environment.
Most ports in the Eastern corridor have shallow channels and as such cannot accommodate bigger vessels except those that have flat bottoms. For instance, while Lagos port has a depth berth of between 9 to 13.5 meters, those of the Eastern corridor have the following depth: Onne (8 to 11 meters), Port Harcourt (7.1 to 9.1 meters), Warri (6.4 to 7.6 meters) and Calabar (5.4 to 6.4 meters). It’s interesting to note that ports in neighboring countries like Ghana and Republic of Benin have depth of 19 and 15 meters respectively.
Because of the high rate of siltation of River Niger, there must be a regular maintenance dredging to keep the channel navigable. Also the security challenge of vessels going to Eastern ports, it was disclosed, has become so worrisome that any ship on the route must carry what is termed “war insurance” with additional security. Consequently, shipment from China to Lagos which cost $1,500 will cost between $4,000 to $5,000 to Calabar seaport. The security agencies who appeared at the public hearing were unanimous in calling on Federal government to partner with other countries in the Gulf of Guinea Commisson as well as relevant security agencies of the United Nations to checkmate activities of sea pirates in the Gulf of Guinea.
It will be recalled that following the adoption of a motion sponsored by Hon. Ifeanyichukwu Anthony Ibezi on Tuesday, July 18, 2019, the House of Representatives set up a 14-man ad hoc committee with Hon. Baba Yusuf Yakub as its Chairman. Other members of the committee are Hon. Ifeanyi Ibezi, Hon. Makama Missau Ibrahim, Hon. Onuh Blessing Onyeche, Hon. Haruna Maitala, Hon. Victor Amela, Hon. Nuhu Yakubu Danja, Hon. Aliyu Ibrahim Almustapha, Hon. Alex Egbona, Hon. Akiolu Moshood Kayode, Hon. Kolade Victor Akinjo, Hon. Olayide Adewale Akinremi, Hon. Kalu Benjamin Okezie and Hon. Suny Goli Isreal.
The committee is to seek ways of restoring the full use of Warri, Port Harcourt, Onne, Calabar and Onitsha Inland ports in order to decongest Apapa and Tin Can Island ports. The ad-hoc committee is expected to hold further public hearings in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Warri and visit all the Eastern ports. It is also expected to report back within six weeks with its findings for further legislative action.
There have been disparate and uncoordinated efforts aimed at solving the congestion of Apapa and the attendant traffic gridlock. With this legislative initiative by the House of Representatives, it’s important that the Federal government moves swiftly to harmonize the efforts of the Presidential Task Force and the Ministerial Committee of Federal Ministry of Transportation with whatever will be the recommendations of the ad hoc committee for effective implementation.
Besides its economic benefits, Nigeria’s ranking on International Maritime Organization’s index and Ease of Doing Business will dramatically improve when the Apapa ports nightmare would have been solved. It may not even much resources except strong political will. History, therefore, beckons President Muhammadu Buhari.
Onyima, former Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism in Anambra State, writes from Umuoji.