The imperatives for Onitsha Seaport

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One heartwarming news East of the Niger is the reassurance from Dr George Moghalu, the managing director of the National Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA, that the federal government would reinvest and ensure removal of all obstacles militating against the resuscitation of the multimillion-naira Onitsha Seaport project. This seaport project had been commissioned under the Shehu Shagari administration in 1979 but was, subsequently, abandoned when it got bogged down by pedestrian politics.

Experts believe that, apart from its strategic positioning between the North and South, the Onitsha Inland Port has variously been described as an untapped goldmine, unfortunately allowed to waste. It is unique and exceptional from others in the country because of its three levels that goods can be brought in – lower, middle and top levels, which also make it a great and wonderful port. We believe it is particularly imperative to resuscitate this Inland Seaport, obviously because of the humongous problems occasioned by the ever-congested Lagos seaports.

Again, there is no doubt that the productivity and efficiency of the nation’s maritime industry have remained at the lowest ebb in the past two decades. This poor performance, occasioning inefficiencies and high costs of services at the ports are attributable to long years of neglect of port infrastructure and superstructures and their associated infrastructure, like the Inland Container Depots (ICD) in Onitsha.

The Onitsha ICD was envisaged to facilitate better processing and handling of containerised cargo in the eastern axis of the Nigerian ports. Importers and exporters from the eastern axis would, thereby, clear goods or cargo in the Onitsha ICD rather than the western ports in Lagos. This option provides cheaper logistics in terms of costs for cargo destined for the hinterlands in the eastern axis than when such cargo is processed and transported from Lagos. Another key rationale for the resuscitation of the Onitsha ICD is the growing level of commercial and economic activities in the eastern axis of Nigerian ports, activities that result from significant infrastructural developments and urban renewal programmes.

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According to the project proposal, when completed and inaugurated, the Onitsha Inland Seaport would provide services like cargo handling and processing capacity for 5,000 TEUs per year, with modular capacity to grow to 20,000 TEUs, subject to demand. It will integrate surface transportation of containers in the South East, cargo consolidation point and customs clearance for cargo originating or destined for the Southeast zone. Of course, there is the provision of a comprehensive cargo sorting centre and provision of a temporary cargo storage facility. It will, as well, provide for cargo and truck management through installation of appropriate equipment and machinery to receive and dispatch containerised cargo to and from the ICD for onward shipping.

There is no better way to underscore the importance of this project but to rely on the words of Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, the former managing director of NIWA, after an official visit to Onitsha two years ago. According to him, “Onitsha River Port was refurbished in 2012 but since that time till now, nothing has happened in terms of full utilisation and that is not good news for us as a country; but the good news there is that the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is trying to rectify, amend and do things differently within the ambit of the change mantra of this administration.” He went on to say that he was “aware that … the bulk of the cargoes that come into Lagos port leave Lagos for Onitsha. I am sure less than 20 per cent of cargoes stay in Lagos (while) the remaining come to Onitsha through the roads, and it is a burden to the roads. “The federal government is working assiduously to take the burden off the roads. We can have them go through the waterways and … ensure the navigability of the waterways.”

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As stakeholders in this project, we cannot but agree with Mamora. The siting of the River port at Onitsha is not really the issue; rather, the issue is the overriding benefits to the entire nation when all the equipment installed at the port premises are not allowed to continue to rot away as is the case with many other projects elsewhere in the country. Indeed, it is about the huge revenue that would accrue to the government and the enormous job creation potential of the project.

When it is developed and opened, lots of ships will be navigating the Onitsha-Lokoja axis, some unemployed youths who may be tempted to engage in anti-social activities will be gainfully engaged. It is our wish that the new managing director receives the necessary cooperation and resources necessary to actualise the federal government dream for the port, as so expressly enthused by both Senator Mamora and Dr Moghalu, and thus roll this federal government gigantic revenue generation project into motion for the good of the Nigerian economy.

This is one project which was stalled by the really silly politics of 1979, but the yearning for which gets louder and louder at this very moment that the nation needs to earnestly diversify its economy.

Let this federal government take the bull by the horns and take yet another glory – of shaming the proponents of blind unavailing politics and giving this economy a major facelift through an operational Onitsha Inland Seaport.

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