Onitsha River Ports: Another Round Of Politics?

The Onisha River Port

The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) have called for expressions of interest on advisory services for the concession of some new river ports in Nigeria. The project which includes the N4. 6 billion Onitsha River Port Complex, Anambra State, commissioned by President Goodluck Jonathan on August 30, 2012, is being planned under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement.  It is revealed that the federal government has received a credit from the International Development Association (IDA), part of which she intends to use to pay for the services of reputable and highly qualified transaction advisers to concession the ports. The concession is being supported by the World Bank as part of its broader initiative to support Nigeria’s PPP programmes. The procurement of the concession will follow the national policy on PPP published by Nigeria’s Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission.

According to NIWA, the Onitsha River Port has been fully developed and will be used as a pilot concession. The other river ports at Lokoja, Baro and Oguta are currently at various stages of physical development and will be concessioned once the transaction on Onitsha River Port is completed. By way of distinguishing it from an ordinary port, a river port is used for river traffic such as barges and other shallow draft vessels.

Before the overhaul of the Onitsha River Port by Inter-Bau Construction Limited, it had suffered years of neglect, under-utilization and disrepair. Critical facilities in the port had suffered massive vandalization as a result.

Peter Obi, Governor, Anambra StateThe port was hurriedly inaugurated in 1983 by former President Shehu Shagari in what was later interpreted as a vote-catching gimmick. The aim was to win the hearts of Igbo voters in 1983 and to ensure massive allegiance to the then NPN-controlled federal government in place of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s opposition NPP whose strength was in the southeast.  The port was never really completed prior to commissioning then. There was little or no sensitization of importers, businessmen and other stakeholders especially in the southeast and adjoining geographical areas on the need to key into a new dawn in merchandizing. Key players in the maritime industry and other entrepreneurs expected to invest in the use of the facility had no proper orientation on what they stood to gain economically by utilizing the opportunities offered. Shortly after, it slipped into a state of under-utilization, abandonment and disrepair. The warehouse and the surroundings were taken over by weeds, The base of the jetty itself became occupied by the rampaging flood of the Niger while the most visible structure, a fixed crane, was vandalized,  thus leaving a mere carcass towering into the skyline. Consequently, operators of ferries and other specialized vessels did not see any economic sense in investing in the facility that was hurriedly put in place without economic feasibility.

For some reasons, the Onitsha Port located on the fringes of the great River Niger in the bubbling commercial city of Onitsha can be described as a long-neglected child who is given a scanty attention only when the owner has reason to use him to achieve certain selfish gains and not necessarily to improve his personal welfare.

President JonathanInvestigations show that close to ten months after commissioning by President Goodluck Jonathan, the post-Shagari experience is already playing out: no activity seems to take place in the port. In fact, it appears that for a long time to come, operations may not come on-stream in the port and businessmen who have built up a lot of hope all this while to key into it for commercial gains may have to wait longer. Each passing month dampens the enthusiasm of stakeholders who felt that with the August 2012 commissioning of the Onitsha port, there was no need for shippers or clearing agents from the south-south or southeast to continue flocking in the already-congested ports in Lagos to do business.

It is indeed a good thing, curious observers have said, that the management of the port is being concessioned. If anything, it will help government recoup the huge funds invested. But the nagging question has to do with the issue of functionality. As they say, inaugurating the Onitsha River Port without putting in place concrete arrangements to make it functional is same as what ex-President Shagari did in 1983.

They quickly point to the Calabar port as an example of a facility suffering under-utilization today owing to the perennial problem of dredging. They fear that a similar fate is already befalling the Onitsha River Port. Despite the successful dredging of River Niger, there still exists shallow waters from Onitsha to Burutu and Forcados, a condition experts say cannot in any way aid the functionality of access via the inland waterways. Revamping and deepening this stretch of the inland waterways, they say, would go a long way toward making the Onitsha River Port functional, thereby creating jobs, aiding commerce and sundry trade.

The issue of building magnificent structures without paying requisite attention to other ancillaries that will make them functional has been a major Nigerian malaise, as best exemplified by the mighty TINAPA edifice in Calabar which took eight years to build but is now more of a wasteland. The Onitsha River Port, which was initiated way back in the Second Republic of then President Shehu Shagari, may suffer a similar fate.

Without the effective commencement of the necessary port activities, all there is to behold is only the complex encompassing the transit shed/warehouse 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.

Privatization or not the construction-cum-commissioning of the Onitsha River Port, observers say, makes good economic sense but the militating factors against its feasibility and viability must be addressed by the government. A properly functional port in the market town of Onitsha is well placed to serve the teeming industries and importers in Nnewi, Awka-Etiti, Aba and faraway Port Harcourt. There must also be the complement of rail services to make port activities holistic. The option of hurling barges from, say, Burutu, to Onitsha is not good enough.

The English Channel and the River Thames, which bear heavy ships, may not be bigger than the River Niger. The sad aspect is that the Niger has been left to the elements in the age of climate change such that it now has a very large island at the centre of the river in Onitsha as can be seen from the decrepit Niger Bridge. The destructive floods of last year and the negative effects on the draught of the Niger, despite the dredging, still remains, according to hydrographers.  Making the Onitsha River Port work must consider this fact besides the need to put in place a second bridge on the River Niger because the port cannot exist in isolation without the attendant facilities to make it workable.