It is time to upgrade the other seaports in order to compete effectively

Although the Calabar Port Complex received its first Shipping Line’s container vessel last September, it is still bogged down by several challenges, essentially due to its low water depth. There is therefore an urgent need for the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to complete the dredging of the channel to the advertised draft of 9.4m to ease the difficulty in attracting container vessel to the terminal. The management of the port has also called on the federal government to ensure a quick completion of the road contract from Odukpani Junction through Ikot Ekpene to Aba, in Abia State.

We recall that on assumption of duty in 2016, NPA Managing Director, Ms Hadiza Bala-Usman acknowledged the problem of the Calabar Port Complex. “The draft needs to be deeper to ensure we attract more vessels,” she said. “We need to jointly work to bring commercial activities into the state.” But the port, which has proximity to 16 northern states and the South-eastern markets is still largely abandoned. For 13 years, and after billions had been poured in by the government, dredging the water channel has defied all odds. And that has deprived the port of good business despite being closer to the landlocked country of Niger than Cotonou in Benin Republic.

Maritime stakeholders have been asking pertinent questions for which the authorities have failed to provide answers. Why has dredging the water channels defied the odds? Why is the nation unable to provide the necessary infrastructure and reduce the excessive pressure on the Lagos ports? Why can’t the Calabar port along with Port Harcourt, Warri and Koko ports be developed as a haven for importers in the region? Indeed, why can’t they be equipped with good infrastructure and capacity to compete in the growing cargo and maritime business?

Nigeria ports have been rated as among the worst in sub-Saharan Africa because of their poor state. Major stakeholders at a recent workshop agreed that the government has failed to position the ports among the best on the continent because of series of failed policies. Experts in the maritime sector said about 60 per cent of all imports to West Africa are destined to Nigeria. But what gets to our seaports is barely 10 per cent. For years, the Lagos port had been gravely challenged by poor accessibility. “Most ships bringing goods to Nigeria prefer to go to other ports”, said maritime and commercial lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN. “It’s like you buying a car in Liverpool; the car will go to Benin Republic ports instead of going to Lagos because of the Lagos port is completely inefficient.”

Indeed, it is Benin Republic that benefits from the large market of Nigeria. Cotonou has remained the haven for most importers. Huge trade cargoes are also lost to Togo and other neighbouring countries from where they are offloaded and transshipped to Nigeria due to poor shipping connectivity and shallow draft of the port channels. It is estimated that in 2016 alone, Nigeria lost about N250 billion to neighbouring countries due to poor shipping connectivity, poor state of the ports and inefficiency.

The federal government should also upgrade the Eastern ports to be competitive in terms of tariff and infrastructure. A port operator recently underscored the need, especially for the Calabar port, because of its proximity to several northern states: “You can imagine how many trucks that move from Lagos to the North on daily basis, so imagine when those trucks are diverted to Calabar. It means saving a huge amount of money, and it’s a great relief on Lagos and its roads.”

The underutilised seaports in Nigeria have the capacity to significantly increase our national revenue and indeed our GDP. It’s time we upgraded them.