Opening up the eastern and delta ports
With a coastline of 853 kilometres, Nigeria is, by all parameters, a maritime country. Having a coastline that opens up directly into the Atlantic Ocean creates enormous opportunities for a shipping hub, ship repairs and transshipment services. After the experience of crippling port congestion in the post-civil war construction period, the federal government had drawn lessons from the episode and built a chain of seaports in the delta and eastern parts of the country to take the pressure away from the more patronised Lagos ports.
Apart from the earlier years, the expectation has largely failed due to the peculiar nature of Nigerian ports. Despite the appreciable number of ports in the delta and eastern parts of the country, Lagos ports have continued to dominate in ship and cargo traffic, accounting for more than 80 percent of the ships and cargoes handled locally, exclusive of crude oil and gas operations.
In the past four years, the ports in Lagos have been in perpetual lockdown due to the total dilapidation of the two access roads to the facilities. The Creek Road and Wharf Road approaches to Tin Can Island and Apapa port complexes have made the evacuation of goods a nightmare for importers and transporters. Within the period, many goods have been destroyed or damaged, lives lost, articulated vehicles damaged while businesses have lost billions of naira through the avoidable downtime in cargo delivery.
Given the obvious terrible state of the favoured Lagos ports, the question is why Nigeria’s economy is being held hostage by the concentration of ship traffic through Lagos port?. Why are the facilities in Delta State which has three different ports not been patronised by ship owners and shippers? The same poser also goes for the ports in Port Harcourt, Onne and Calabar.
A common feature of Nigerian ports is their location outside the immediate vicinity that opens up to the Atlantic Ocean but on rivers that empty into the ocean. In effect, all the ports are classified as estuary ports given that ships have to be guided through narrow channels in the rivers to berthing facilities five kilometres or more inland. For the advertised draughts of the channels to be sustained, there has to be regular maintenance dredging as the rivers have a high rate of siltation.
While maintenance dredging is regularly undertaken on the channels leading to Lagos ports, that is not the case with the ports in Warri, Burutu and Sapele in Delta State, the ports of Calabar and the old and new wings of Port Harcourt as well as that of Onne. The effect is that the depth of the channels are much less than what was advertised and could no longer accommodate ocean-going vessels that should ordinarily comfortably berth at the facilities. Against the backdrop of the near total lockdown of Lagos ports while palliative repairs are being effected on some portions of the access roads, government officials have continued to echo the oft repeated appeal to companies in the east and south south region to use the ports in that part of the country for the shipping of their imports.
We consider the appeals, the latest coming from the managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hajia Hadiza Bala Usman, as hollow. No business person or corporate organisation will abandon the more convenient option of shipping their goods through ports outside Lagos, especially at this time that the access roads have completely broken down. Making such appeals is like playing the ostrich.
The true state of the channels to the ports outside Lagos is well known to policy makers and top government officials. At a time that Lagos ports should be unusable, no ship owner or importer would need to be prodded before using the delta and eastern ports where they are guaranteed prompt services at a cheaper cost.
The truth is that delta and eastern ports can no longer be used conveniently by ocean-going vessels. What they need is capital dredging to improve the depth of the channels to the advertised draught after which there should be regular maintenance dredging to sustain the draught.
Last week, Delta State governor, Sen. Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, expressed deep concern on the wasting asset in his state which would have driven the rapid economic development if the ports had been opened up. He is looking to engage the federal government on the best option for dredging the channels to delta ports and open them up for business.
The management of seaports is under the exclusive list that makes it a federal government affair. Although all the ports have been concessioned to private operators, they still remain the responsibility of the federal government. Dredging is a capital intensive project that states cannot shoulder, just as the private concerns cannot fund such projects.
The federal government collects a seven percent surcharge on import duties paid on every imported item. The surcharge was introduced to fund the maintenance of port infrastructure for smooth operations. Over the years, however, the fund has been subsumed into the Federation Account and no longer set aside for the purpose it was introduced. Concessionaires that won the management of delta and eastern ports have repeatedly complained of poor ship and cargo traffic due mainly to the low draughts of the channels.
We urge the federal government to open a separate account where the seven percent surcharge for the maintenance of port infrastructure should be domiciled and dedicate it exclusively for the purpose it was introduced. Appropriating it into the Federation Account for sharing will continue to hurt the shipping industry and, by extension, the economy.