By Emi Membere-Otaji

Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was founded as a port city in 1913 and named after the British Colonial Secretary, Viscount Harcourt, principally to evacuate agricultural produce and coal from the then Eastern Nigeria to Europe mainly. From then onward, it became a major economic hub in Nigeria especially in shipping, agriculture and the support services, accessible by roads, rail line and inland waterways. With its planned layouts and beautiful environs, the city was aptly called the “Garden City”.
Port Harcourt was a Mecca for many, young, old, black and whites alike.

With the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantity in 1957 in nearby Oloibiri, things initially started changing gradually and then dramatically after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). From then on, the economic dynamics of the city and indeed Nigeria changed from a net exporter of multiple agricultural produce and coal, etc. to a literal sole exporter of crude oil. Crude oil accounts for over 95% of the nation’s foreign exchange and over 75% of her exports.
With time, the Port Harcourt main seaport was largely abandoned and the new Onne port became mainly a port for oil and gas related cargo, what with its concession to INTELS.

While a lot of development has taken place at the Onne port, the current reality of failing global crude oil prices and its attendant gruelling socio economic challenges to the country, Port Harcourt and businesses around, has brought to the front burner the need to revert the Rivers Ports to the initial dream of the founding fathers.
This is buttressed by the goal of actual diversification of the economy by President Buhari; especially in the areas of agriculture and solid minerals with the mantra of import substitution (promoting in-country trade) and non-oil export promotion. These cannot be fully realised especially in the Rivers Ports if certain hindrances are not removed.

Already, nearly all non-oil imports and exports in and around Rivers State are done through the far away Lagos ports, with the attendant risks of delay in time, damages and overcrowding of the Lagos Ports.

The current fall in crude oil prices should be a wake-up call not only for government to review some of the exorbitant charges like port charge, but INTELS be engaged to realistically review their rates to accommodate all cargoes. The rates applicable when crude oil was over $100.00 (Hundred Dollars) per barrel cannot work with oil trading around $30.00 (Thirty Dollars) per barrel and obviously unattainable in this era of promoting non-oil exports, in-country inland waterways transportation and imports of essential machinery and spare parts for manufacturing, solid materials and the agro allied industries.

Coastal and inland waterways transportation uses mainly barges. Instances where a small inland 300tons gross tonnage (GRT) barge pushed by a 30tons gross tonnage (GRT) tugboat entering and leaving a Rivers Port commands about $20,000 (Twenty Thousand Dollars) port charges per call and a  3,500 gross tonnage (GRT) barge towed by about 300 gross tonnage (GRT) tugboat commanding about $140,000 (One Hundred & Forty Thousand Dollars) per call, in both cases without cargo, calls for change of policy, if non-oil exportation and in country trade promotion will thrive.
Even for the oil related cargoes, through the Joint Venture Partnership, with the international oil companies (IOCs), the Federal Government owns about 60% holding, and so government is actually paying itself, as they pay the exorbitant port charges and other rates.

The Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines & Agriculture (PHCCIMA), also mindful of some national issues affecting shipping/ports viz-a-viz security, activities of multiple agents at the ports, corruption, etc. do pledge to work with the State and Federal governments to make the Port Harcourt and Onne ports busy and accessible again.
In so doing, not only will our businesses be impacted positively, but socio-economic activities will be booming again and thus contributing immensely in curbing youth restiveness in the oil rich Niger Delta.

– Dr. Membere-Otaji  FNIM is President; PHCCIMA
– Governing Council Member