By Okey Ibeke
Approaching Onitsha, the commercial hub and gateway to the eastern part of the country, on the old but still picturesque bridge over River Niger from Asaba in Delta State, the sight of the tall cargo handling gears jutting into the blue sky on the quay side of the single berth port bordering the river is unmistakable. The large array of warehouses, albeit empty, in the outlying area complete the false picture of a functional facility for the handling of containerised and general goods. Its prime location on the bank of the gateway to the centre of commerce in the east, rather than evoking the excitement of a major boisterous outpost for processing of imports away from the crippling disorganisation of Lagos ports, however, stand as a testimony to official scam.
Onitsha River Port has the distinction of being the only such facility to be commissioned twice by two democratic presidents and is on the verge of being thrown up again as a new false political bargaining chip to bring shipping services close to business men in the east. In the run up to the 1983 presidential election when he was seeking re-election, Shehu Shagari had “commissioned” the river port as he sought to curry votes from the south east. Twenty nine years later, a Goodluck Jonathan seeking a second term on August 30, 2012 commissioned the same facility. In effect, from 1983 when it was first commissioned by President Shagari, the port had remained dormant.
A common feature of the two commissioning is that unlike the usual convention after such ceremonies where there is an official designation and gazette of the facility, no such official proclamation was made on each occasion.
Built at a cost of N4.6 billion, Onitsha River Port was projected to offer a viable alternative to the nightmarish ports in Lagos to businessmen in the eastern part of the country. Indeed, the port had the basic complement of facilities for effective take-off. There are transit sheds/warehouses of 100×55 metres with a storage capacity of 10,000 twenty feet equivalent units (TEUs), port operations building, nine senior staff quarters, 11 junior staff quarters, fuel tank farm, 150mm diameter borehole, etc.
However, the viability of such facility is contingent on certain factors for which there are no short cuts. As the name connotes, the port relies on round-the-year navigation for lighter vessels to sail upstream to deliver goods as well as evacuate the ones for export. Keeping the Niger river navigable required both capital and maintenance dredging to chart a channel with to a minimum draught of 2.5 metres. That is what is required for lighter vessels to sail the Niger without running aground.
It was not a novel challenge. In pre-independence Nigeria, the colonial government had opened up the river to safe navigation from the creeks in the Niger Delta through Onitsha and Lokoja to Baro in Niger State, a distance of 527 kilometres. It required a disciplined yearly maintenance dredging schedule to keep the channel at advertised draught. Unfortunately, just as the rail system inherited from the colonial government was allowed to rot, the Niger river which is reputed for its very high rate of siltation was allowed to silt up. So prolonged was the period of neglect that pockets of islands have sprouted along the entire channel, especially in the upper reaches of the river up to Onitsha and beyond. There’s is even a large one now facing the port.
It was the bid to open the Niger for safe navigation that high wire politics, official graft and mundane considerations took centre stage and ushered a chain of intrigues. The fate of the dredging of the Niger and functional Onitsha river port are comparable only to the on-and-off second Niger bridge, rehabilitation of Onitsha-Enugu and Enugu-Porthacourt highways, which have become political tools across several administrations from the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
In 2009, the federal government had initiated the dredging of the river from Warri to Baro. While commissioning the Onitsha port facility in 2012, President Jonathan proclaimed the job completed and effective, stating that the river port would be concessioned to private operators to manage under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. However, six years after the commissioning, no activity had taken place in the port. In fact, the idle state of the facility indicated that for a long time to come, operations may not come on-stream in the port and businessmen who had looked forward to saving up more than N100 billion annually from using the port knew the wait was not about to end.
Curiously, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has been making similar claims that the dredging of the River Niger has been completed. The Minister of Transport, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, has stepped up efforts in campaigning for the use of the inland waterways, sparing no opportunity to woo investors. Speaking recently on a Voice of Nigeria programme, Amaechi said that the dredging of the River Niger has been completed and called for investors to start making use of the dredged waterway. He berated Nigerian businessmen for not showing interest in investing in inland water transportation on the waterway. He said Nigerian businessmen should not wait on government to provide barges for them but should rather exhibit enterprise and entrepreneurial prowess by fully utilizing the dredged waterways.
While the government claimed that the River Niger dredging project had been completed and ready for use, stakeholders and people living along the channel were unanimous in asserting that the river is yet to be dredged. Reports quoted some people from the communities along the stretch of the river as variously describing the dredging as “fake”, “scam” , “sham” or “mock dredging”.
To most people who live along the river, the Niger has not been dredged because they have neither seen ships passing nor seen trucks coming to cart away the sand excavated from the river to anywhere.
Alhaji Kabiru Yusuf, an opinion leader in Lokoja, the capital of Kogi State, was reported to have expressed doubt about the claim by the federal government that River Niger has been dredged.
According to him, in the 1960s and 1970s big ships and barges sailed the river Niger, bringing goods from Niger Delta to warehouses in Onitsha and Lokoja for onward movement to the North. “You don’t need anybody to tell you that the river was navigable then. Then, it boosted the economy of Lokoja as people were paid to offload the goods to warehouses but since they said the river Niger has been dredged, we have not seen any barge, not talk of ships sail the water. I am sure somebody somewhere has collected the money and deceived us with fake dredging.”
He added that during the supposed dredging, the dredging equipment ran aground. “I don’t think the river Niger was dredged because there has not been any change since the supposed dredging. Communities have been waiting for business that will come as a result of the dredging but since the federal government claimed it is dredged, nothing is happening on the water ways,” he said.
Condemning the much-publicized dredging of the River Niger, a monarch in Kogi State, the Maigarin of Lokoja, Alhaji Mohammadu Kabir Maikarfi 111, criticized the ‘haphazard’ dredging. He said the poor work done in the dredging project has greatly diminished its economic potentials for the people of the state.
The traditional ruler was pained that River Niger which was used by multinational companies to bring goods to Lokoja and Niger State in the sixties can no longer be useful for that purpose because of the shoddy dredging work.
According to the royal father, “In those days multinationals like the UAC and John Holt used to ship their goods to Lokoja from Onitsha and up to Baro in Niger State and to Benue and Adamawa through the river Niger but the whole thing is another story today.”
However, to Mr. Goodluck Chinaka, General Manager, Project Administration Fung Tai Nigeria Limited that dredged LOT 1 of the project covering Warri to Bifurcation the lower river Niger had actually been dredged.
“Our company is one of the companies that dredged the lower river Niger and we were in charge of LOT 1 from Warri up to Bifurcation,” he told Sunday Trust. “We started with the capital dredging, and capital dredging was supposed to be originally a contract for one year, but because of some delay, because the time we started there were militant activities, it affected the process of mobilization.
“When we eventually succeeded in mobilizing, the capital dredging was finished. It was executed within 24 months. Between 2009 and 2011, and thereafter we were supposed to start the maintenance year one dredging. Ordinarily, you wait for some period before you start. But you know in 2012, there was flood disaster that actually devastated the channels; not only the channels but also communities in those areas.
“That also caused the delay in terms of commencing the maintenance year one dredging. So, it was in the later part of 2012 we now started the year one maintenance and finished it. In 2013, we did maintenance year two. It is important to state here that the 2012 flood disaster actually affected the channels. Because it brought unwanted materials to so many areas which led to siltation. That particular development ought to have received serious reporting,” he said.
He said the contractors that dredged the river reported to the government that the flood had divested the channels of the river and recommended the need to carry out a survey that would reveal the extent of siltation and review the contract with a view to paying for the excavation of the excess sand and dirt.
According to him, that was necessary because the initial contract agreement for the dredging of the river was based on certain quantity of sand to be excavated and when any of the dredging companies met up with the required quantity, it completed its job.
“That channel was supposed to be maintained periodically. It required periodic or yearly maintenance; which had not been done. I believe that maybe is a question of funding, but we really have to because the federal government of Nigeria has spent a lot of money dredging river Niger.
“As at today, it is not that all the areas are silted up, there are some areas that you can still find more than 3.5 metres deep. There are some areas when we dredged, we were asked to do a minimum of 2.5 metres but in some areas we did much more than that. Some areas also you would find more than even 4 metres, but those were areas that were prone to siltation; so those areas NIWA knows about them, because they carry out periodic survey, so those areas are regarded as critical points.
“It is true that some parts of the river channel have problems of over siltation from that flood. Like I explained to you, there would have been a deliberate and conscious effort towards surveying the place. No contractor ought to be allowed to start anything until that was done. My company reported what was on the channels to be dredged but we were not given that approval. What they told us was that there were limited funds, so if anybody complains today that there are challenges in the channels it is because of that,” he said.
On what to do to ensure proper navigation in the river, Mr. Chinasa said, “Like I said, Lower River Niger is from Warri to Baro. Sometimes the axis of Baro could dry up quicker than the lower axis. But the important thing is that you know also that river ports are being built. The fact is that because these ports must be utilized, they have to be functional. Vessels must come from Warri from other parts and make use of the channels.
“The port must be active. If the channel is not navigable, then the ports will not be active. Therefore there must be very conscious efforts to make sure there is maintenance of the channels. If it is done yearly, the concentration will be in critical areas to make sure there is navigability of the channel all year round.”
A marine engineer, Davy Eshanokpe, on the level of jobs still left to complete the work, said until the dredging of River Niger is done, no medium-sized cargo ship, can use the port even after putting in some facilities. Barges cannot even access the port.
“In reality, no work is assumed to have been done toward making the Onitsha River Port a reality until the technical marine work is executed. There may be other infrastructure at the site, but they will only rot away with time unless dredging is done,” he stated.
Meanwhile, efforts to concession the management of the port to private company under the PPP model is coming unstuck. After beating five other companies to emerge the preferred bidder, nothing has come out of HPC Hamburg’s 2013 report on the management model for the port that is expected to turn-around the commercial life of Onitsha and its environs.
The association’s President, Anambra State Shippers Association, Mr. Emma Akpaka, lamented the unsavoury trajectory of the status of Onitsha port and the dredging of the Niger river. “The best politics now is to make this port a bonded wharf that will create jobs, generate revenue and develop inland waterways of host communities,’’ Akpaka said.
He said that shippers in Anambra and South-East were not happy that the port commissioned in 1983 and again 2012 has yet to contribute to the economy of the area. “To commission a project twice by two democratically elected presidents is not only a clear case of policy somersault but absolute case of organised official deceit.
“Ndigbo are angry that Onitsha River Port is under lock. Let there be equity and fair play across board instead of using different strokes for different folks.
“It will be provocative for another president to commission this port again. We won’t be hoodwinked again. It’s only when we see barges and ships calling to the port and offloading goods that we’ll take any government serious”, he said.