The dormant state of Onitsha river port was recently a subject of controversy in Nigeria’s House of Representatives. The House initiated an investigative hearing into the alleged malpractices been perpetrated by government agencies in maritime sector, even as it accused Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), of not been honest with the proposed concession of Onitsha River Port.
The hearing which was held in Abuja by the House of Representatives Committee on Ports, Harbours and Waterways, followed several motions calling for an investigation into alleged malpractices in the maritime sector.
The chairman of the Committee, Dr. Pat Asadu, in his address disclosed that the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) is misleading the public about the proposed concession of Onitsha River Port, saying that the authority never wanted the port to work. He chided NIWA for making claims that are not verifiable, especially when there is nothing to show for huge sums of money claimed to have been spent on the port.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, while speaking at the hearing, noted that the allegations raised were very weighty, with potential to seriously affect the economy.
The accusation of malpractices and deliberately engaging in actions that militate against putting the port into operation by the House might have rattled NIWA and its parents ministry, ministry of Transportation to kick-start the process of concessioning the port.
But the move has attracted another round of accusation, this time from companies competing to win the concession. They are accusing NIWA and the supervising Ministry of causing confusion and fraudulently sexing up the process in order to scuttle the concession.
Even though it is scheduled for handing over to a concessionaire before the end of 2018, there are indications that conflict of interests among senior officials in the Ministry of Transportation may stall the commissioning of Onitsha River port in Anambra State.
Although NIWA, the agency in charge of the facility, said it has concluded the exercise leading to the announcement of a successful bidder, no winner has been announced yet. It was confirmed last week that the lull is attributable to two senior officials in the ministry who raised conflicting memos in defence of their preferred company.
It was confirmed that originally about six firms expressed interest in the concession, out of which only four were shortlisted to bid.
The companies that expressed interest are: Inland Container Nigeria Limited, International Trading and Contracting Limited, Le.Ejinkeonye Nigeria Limited, Universal Elysium Consortium, Marlin Maritime Consortium and Logistics Resources Ltd. and Oranto Petroleum.
It was also confirmed that, out of the lot, four were shortlisted. They are: Inland Containers Terminals, Oranto Petroleum, Elysium Consortium and International Trading Company.
However, due to divergent interests, two officers raised conflicting memos to favour their preferred bidders.
In the letters which sighted by Business and Maritime West Africa, and dated August 1 and 2, 2018 respectively, the subject matter was the same, but there were two different recommendations on the Onitsha River Port Concession.
While the first memo with reference number T.2990/S.6/1/T/37 was signed by Audu, the other memo with reference number T.2990/S.6/1/T/35 was signed by Ekwenugo Chukwudi.
Specifically, the two memos showed that, Audu preferred Messrs Inland Container Nig Ltd as the preferred bidder, while Engr. Ekwenugo Chukwudi preferred Messrs Universal Elysium Consortium as the preferred bidder for the Onitsha River Port.
Onitsha River Port had everything going for it. Apart from its strategic location at a commercial city reputed as the gateway to the east, River Niger itself had the right pedigree as a navigable body of water. More remarkably, it would slice about N100 billion yearly from the cost of doing business in that part of Nigeria.
Unfortunately, getting the port up and running has become a canny political tool for periodic wooing of the people of the southeast for their votes across various administrations. Just as the sister major project for the region, the second Niger bridge, Onitsha port has become a trump card regularly thrown up on the eve of elections to secure the votes of the east. The Buhari administration is equally enamoured by the old game and is gearing to play it up.
Remarkably, the political leaders and traders in the region continue to fall for it. For over 30 years, building a river port on the bank of the Niger in Onitsha has lingered that stakeholders now see the recurring promise to revving the project into gear as an official scam.
However, some commentators believed that ethnic and sectional politics are the major debilitating factors behind the abandonment of the project. There seemed a conspiracy in some quarters to frustrate the development of new ports and rehabilitation of old ones, in spite of the fact that Lagos ports had become perennially congested with attendant hardship to the economy and port users.
As the functioning of the port greatly depends on the ability of lighter vessels and barges to navigate smoothly on the River Niger, several attempts made to dredge the river to required draught, became enmeshed in ethnic politics as some groups vowed to frustrate the dredging. However, the government of the late President Yar’Adua rose above 30 years of ethnic and sectional bias and preceded full steam with the dredging of the Niger through to Onitsha, Lokoja and Baro. That effort was fruitless, even the half hearted effort of the present administration could not achieve much as sand dunes still dot the river.