In 2011 Nigeria opened her doors to the largest container vessel ever to call on any West African port called West African Max (WAFMAX) which has 4,500 twenty equivalent units (TEUs) capacity on a single voyage. The vessel which requires a minimum of 13.5 meters draught was brought into Apapa port by Maersk Nigeria Limited.
This development turned Nigerian seaports to a destination hub for both local and transhipment goods. This was attained by capital and maintenance dredging, including the provision of navigational aids and removal of wrecks from the water channels. This has deepened the Lagos and Bonny channels making them accessible to bigger vessels.
In 2004, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) entered into a public private partnership with the Channel Management Company (TCMC) under a joint venture (JV) partnership arrangement of 60 percent and 40 percent for the NPA and TCMC respectively.
The JV gave birth to the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) with the responsibility of dredging and securing access through the Bonny River to the NLNG Oil and Gas Terminal in Bonny Island as well as ensuring safe vessel navigation to the ports in Port Harcourt and Onne.
The JV arrangement also gave birth to the Lagos Channel Management Limited (LCM) which has the responsibility of carrying out capital and maintenance dredging along the Lagos channel to ensure vessel access into the Apapa, Tin Can Island seaports and the surrounding private jetties.
The partnership was to ensure capital and maintenance dredging of the Lagos and Bonny channels, provision of navigational aids and removal of wrecks along the channels.
LCM started rendering dredging services in Nigeria in 2005 when seaports in Lagos had a minimum of 8.2 to 9.7 meters depth. Few years down the line, the firm has been able to widen the channels to a minimum of 13.8 meters.
It was averred that these developments have yielded good results as Maersk Line and MSC took advantage of the wideness of the channel to bring in WAFMAX with 250 metres long, 13.5 meters draught and 4,500 TEUs of container carrying capacity into Apapa and Tin Can ports.
The LCM and BCC have aided vessel navigation along the two channels where they operate due to their continuous dredging activities.
The LCM carried out visual and side scan wreck survey of Lagos ports which identified the existence of over 70 submerged wrecks that required urgent removal. As a result of this survey, it commenced work and removed about 48 critical submerged wrecks.
According to LCM, the company built a culture of refurbishing all buoys every two years while the damaged ones are repaired within 24 hours. This is in addition to the reinstatement of shore beacons and upgrading of entrance channel buoys with active AIS transponders. The East and West moles beacons were also refurbished.
Statistics made available by LCM shows that within the first 10 years of its operation, it expanded the depth around the harbour entrance from 12.3 m in 2005 to 15.5 m in 2015; Commodore-Bullnose from 11.9m in 2005 to 14.3m in 2015; Bullnose-Apapa from 10.6m in 2005 to 14.1m in 2015; Bullnose-Dangote from 9.4m in 2005 to 13.6m in 2015; Dangote-Tin Can 10 from 8.5m in 2005 to 13.4m in 2015 while Tin Can 10 was expanded from 8m in 2005 to 12.8m depth in 2015.
Already, the number of ships calling at Nigerian seaports with draught above 11 meters increased from 21 in 2008 to 440 in 2015. While the number of ship calls with an average length of 200 meters increased from 404 in 2008 to 930 in 2015. Also, the number of vessels calling Lagos ports with length greater than 245 meters also grew from zero in 2008 to 300 in 2015 while the gross registered tonnage of vessels grew from 54,613,521 in 2008 to 79,861,913 in 2015.
The PPP has ensured the smooth navigation of oceangoing vessels by making it possible for bigger vessels with deeper draught requirements to call on Nigerian ports in an efficient and effective way. This has increased cargo throughput in the port and in turn helped to boost NPA revenue profile.
The BCC said it is focusing on increasing maritime activities by ensuring that the buoyed navigational routes are free of obstruction by focusing on continuous dredging, removal of wrecks, maintenance of aids to navigation and provision of towage services.
The dredging of the Bonny channel from fairway buoy to KP27.5 to a depth of 13.8m in 2009 enabled the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG) to operate round the clock with no tidal restrictions. In 2011, the BCC deepened the channel even further to accommodate larger vessels. It removed 14,000,000m3 of materials by capital dredging, 61,000,000m3 of material by maintenance dredging, installed and monitored 83 buoys, removed 45 wrecks and invested over 6,000 hours in training and knowledge transfer. The Bonny channel is currently maintained at 14.3m draught.
WAFMAX also visited the Federal Ocean Terminal (FOT) successfully on a “trial run” in 2013. The BCC made this possible by expanding the Onne turning basin. In 2013, BCC did a towage trial run with WAFMAX at Onne port and it remains the biggest vessel to enter it till date. Since then WAFMAX has been entering the port.
Prior to its entry, studies showed that the approach channel and parts of Onne port need to be dredged. For instance, the Bonny channel access in 2005 was 12.5metres and by 2016 was14.3m; in 2005 Bonny to Onne junction was 7.5m and by 2016 was 11m ; in 2005 Onne junction to Okrika was 7.5m and by 2016 was 10m; in 2006 Okrika to PHC port was 7.0m and by 2016 was 9m.
The BCC says its dredgers are state of the art. These include the Atlantico Due, Orwel, and Rubens. It also said it has deployed the largest jumbo dredgers, Congo River and Pearl River said to have ever worked in Sub-Saharan Africa in its dredging operations.
The PPP arrangement in the management of the water channels has enabled the NPA to carry out a cost effective channel management besides acquiring various equipment needed for efficient dredging. These include offshore security patrol and crew boats, gun boats, transport boats, wreck storage barges, anchor handling tugs, supply barges and speed boats.
“The importance of constant maintenance of the water channels leading to our ports cannot be under-emphasised judging from the gains recorded since the government entered into the JV partnership. It is vital for the Federal Government through the NPA to create an enabling environment for the dredging companies to continue operation,” said Tony Anakebe, maritime analyst.
As Nigeria exits recession and the price of crude continues to strengthen, it is expected that business activities at the ports will pick up before the end of first quarter of next year.
This means that bigger vessels would be expected to call in Nigerian ports once again like in the days of the WAFMAX. Therefore, government needs to ensure that the channels maintenance and dredging is sustained and increased to ensure improvement in revenue generation for the country.