Onitsha River Port
Shipping industry stakeholders while applauding the Federal Government for refloating Onitsha River Port after about 30 years of comatose, make strong case on how the River port, among others being rehabilitated can be sustained to boost commercial activities across the country, reports Francis Ugwoke
After about 30 years of inactivity, Onitsha River Port was two weeks ago refloated in what promises to boost commercial activities in the South East. For big time importers from the commercial towns of Onitsha, Nnewi, Aba and Ogbete-Enugu, the decision by the Federal Government was a welcome development . And this is for obvious reasons.The port could be a big relief for importers from the South East who have over the years moved their trade goods from Lagos, Port Harcourt and Calabar ports by road. The problem associated with transporting goods to long distances is usually nightmarish, one of the reasons why government is planning to introduce Inland Container Depots (ICDs) in the six-geo-political zones in the country. Poor road network and security concerns have been problematic for importers who have to transport their goods to far distances.
There have been cases of container or truck hijack as well as breakdowns that leave importers at the risk of highway robbers. Sometimes, the drivers connive with robbers to hijack such goods, leaving the owner to suffer huge economic loss. The importers are also at the mercy of Shylock transporters who charge exorbitant fares to take containers from far away Lagos to the East. Calabar port which would have helped was deserted because of the low cap of the Ikom Bridge and rampant robbery cases. Delta Seaport which is nearer to the East was also faced with piracy and other hostilities that have affected the fortunes of the seaport. The rail system would have addressed this problem, but totally absent where needed.
At the relaunching of the of the N4.6bn River port in Onitsha, President Goodluck Jonathan said the project was part of government’s efforts to improve on all forms of transport system in the country “The river or marine transport must be enhanced and to do it, we need inland port like the one in Onitsha. Our target is to link all the ports by roads and rail so that doing business in Nigeria becomes easy. The river ports must be linked up to other areas of resource. Today, the process is being started and others on the drawing board must be completed.”, the President said.
He expressed optimism that a well-developed inland water transportation system will be a big relief on the highways. Incidentally, most of the express roads from Lagos to Onitsha, down to Benue State are in a state of dilapidation. The worst area is in Ore, Ondo State and Enugu-Onitsha road which are in very bad shape, although under reconstruction, but in a snail speed.
With the River port, industry stakeholders, including the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) told THISDAY that government should be effective in its promise to ensure that the River Port does not go comatose the way it has been in the past 29 years.
Onitsha River Port:
The River port was a beehive of activities between 1979 and 1983 before it went down. The port served traders from the South East, Middle Belt and Niger Delta. One of the problems of the River port is the Onitsha bridge that makes it difficult for big boats to pass through. As a River port, the draught is shallow and therefore limited to few ferry type boats . But despite these problems, Onitsha port boomed till 1983 when it collapsed. The River Port Complex now has new facilities, warehouses and cargo handling equipment like every other seaports. It is currently under the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) which also supervised the execution of the project. The Deputy General Manager, Corporate Affairs, NIWA, Mr. Tayo Fadile told THISDAY on phone that the River has fully been refurbished to serve importers better. He added that importers from the zone do not need to go to Lagos, Port Harcourt or Calabar to clear their goods as such goods can be moved by barges and cleared at the River port. “Whatever you find in bigger ports is here, except that ocean going vessels cannot come here, but the traders can send these goods from Lagos or any seaport through barges to the port.”, he told THISDAY. Transport Minister, Senator Idris Umar who disclosed that the effort to refloat Onitsha River Port Complex started in 2009, described it as “another milestone in the quest to re-position the inland waterways”. He also added that the facility involved the construction of a new port building, staff quarters, erosion control, and procurement of modern cargo equipment.
Umar who described the river port as Nigeria’s largest river port said it would also make for effective transportation of goods and progressively open other inland waterways to ferry goods to different destinations in the country.
“The strategic location of Onitsha, as a major centre of commerce within the West-African sub-region, makes the Port complex, a multi-model network of complimentary accesses for cheap, efficient and seamless movement of people, goods and services around the country. It is necessary to note that Rehabilitation and Equipping of the Onitsha River Port has a distinct position as one of the hubs identified in the Inland Water Transportation Masterplan and serves as a major North/South trade link. The development of the port therefore is aimed at stimulating economic activities that will enhance wealth and job creation”, he added.
Umar said that the new River ports will assist the government in the efforts to decongest existing Sea Ports as well as create employment opportunities and encourage trade in the hinterland.
To ensure its efficiency, Umar disclosed that in order to ensure the sustenance of the dredged channel of the Lower River Niger, the Federal Government intends to set up Channel Management Company in partnership with the Private Sector.
Running Onitsha Port
Because of the huge capital outlay required in running any port by way of providing and maintaining infrastructure at the River port, industry stakeholders have been in doubt how far NIWA can cope running the port with low subvention from the Federal Government. Maintenance dredging runs into billions of naira. It cost the government the sum of N9bn in dredging the Calabar port. .
Fadile told THISDAY that there are plans to concession the River port along with others without much delay. These include the Lokoja River port, that has started operation; Baro River Port, in Niger State, Degema River Port in Rivers State, Oguta River Port in Imo State which are nearing completion. It is expected that these River ports will be concessioned in the next one year in phases.
How to Sustain Onitsha Port, by Stakeholders
Industry stakeholders who applauded the Federal Government for the Onitsha River project said government should match its words with action to make the River port succeed. Olisa Agbakoba who spoke to THISDAY said that it was unfortunate that the seaport failed in the first place, adding that the benefits of River ports in boosting economic activities cannot be over-emphasised. He called on the government to first consider as a matter of urgency the need to concession the River Port to a company that can run it efficiently, adding that this is because government is not good in business. He said that when run very well, the port will take away about 70 percent of road traffic. He also said that it will facilitate movement of goods from the North to the South East. He added that it is not just enough to have a River port, but to link it with multi-modal form of transport, including railways. He also added that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and not NIWA should run the port, apparently because of the huge financial outlay required in running a port system even under concession.
A maritime economist and agronomist, Mr. Osita Machie said that one of the things that will sustain the port is continuous dredging of the River Niger. He said that this was because in every rainfall, about 1,000 metric tonnes of sand enter the River port and make it more shallow. He called on government to engage marine engineers to study the terrain of the River Port to know whether there are rocks which can be blasted to allow easy flow of Ferries, boats and badges in the port environment. A maritime lawyer, Mr. Emma Ofomata also told THISDAY that government should strengthen its maritime security to ensure that goods being moved in badges to the River port either from Lagos, Portharcourt or Calabar can be protected. Ofomata said that this was in considering the activities of pirates on the nation’s territorial waters.