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The Politics Of Eastern Ports ~ By Enyeribe Anyanwu

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The chickens have finally come home to roost. There now appears to be a genuine effort to get to the root of the neglect of Eastern ports, or as others would prefer, the low patronage or the underutilization of the Eastern ports.

The Federal House of Representatives is currently engaged in the task of finding the reasons for the lack of patronage, and procuring solutions to the situation. An ad hoc committee has been constituted by the House to find out why the ports in Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Onne and Onitsha are either moribund or not fully utilized.

The legislators are saddened that while the Lagos ports continue to choke with cargoes and their access roads bogged down by gridlocks, the ports in the Eastern zone continue to wallow in abject neglect and lack of patronage.

The ad hoc committee which is headed by Yusuf BubaYakub, an honourable member from Adamawa has been saddled with the responsibility of getting to the root of the matter, and proffer solution to the decades-old problem.

A public hearing has been conducted by the ad hoc committee to which relevant government agencies, ship owners and other stakeholders were invited. The chairman of the committee, after the public hearing, described their assignment as an important matter which the committee will not allow any individual or group to treat with levity, referring to some government agencies who failed to appear at the hearing.

The committee chairman, said at the public hearing, “Worries by the increasing loss of man-hours and the untold hardship, with its resultant loss of revenue that business owners, commuters, shipping and haulage companies suffer in some parts of Lagos as a result of the hydra-headed monster called traffic gridlock arising from congestion in the two Port complexes, necessitated the House to resolve to set up this ad-hoc committee.”

At the public hearing, all manner of reasons and excuses were given for the under-utilization or low patronage of the Eastern ports. These reasons, put in a nutshell, included: insecurity in the form of piracy, kidnapping, armed robbery; multiple charges, lack of infrastructure, non-interconnectivity of road network, multiple charges from different agencies, lack of synergy among security agencies etc. These were the views advanced by government agencies at the hearing which included the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), the Ministry of Transport, Nigeria Shippers Council and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).

Other stakeholders which included civil societies, MDAs, and security agencies listed inadequate security, shallow channels, poor and obsolete equipment, high siltation, lack of road infrastructure, lack of stable electricity supply, hostile host communities, lack of appropriate incentives and total neglect as the major challenges.

As plausible as these reasons sound, they only scratch the surface as they are mere aftermaths of the real reason –neglect, willful and deliberate neglect embedded in Nigeria’s destructive politics. Among the government agencies, it was the Navy that hinted at the neglect when they informed the committee that unmarked vessels under water which causes shipwrecks, abandoned infrastructure and uncharted channels of the Eastern ports and other challenges are responsible for the sparse utilization of the ports.

They made a startling revelation at the public hearing that Nigeria still uses the 1903 unreliable nautical charts and this has discouraged vessels from plying most Eastern ports. It was revealed that the original survey data used to produce the two charts for entering Calabar port were acquired by the British colonial government in 1903, while that of Port Harcourt/Onne and Warri were acquired in 1910 and 1984 respectively.

The Navy clarified that mariners place so much confidence on nautical charts and once there is doubt as to the accuracy of a chart, they would not ply such waterway. The navy also clarified that ports in the Eastern corridor have shallow channels and as such cannot accommodate bigger vessels except those that have flat bottoms.

It goes without saying that the shallow channels are a product of neglect as no maintenance dredging has been going on at the channels of Eastern ports. While the Lagos ports have a depth of between 9 to 13.5 meters, those of the Eastern corridor have a depth of 6.4 to 11 meters. Maintenance dredging continues at the Lagos channel while that of Eastern ports are abandoned, and any effort to dredge them often ends in stories, corruption and levity.

Therefore, pointing at shallow channels as a reason why ships can’t go to Eastern ports is hypocritical. If those channels have been enjoying maintenance dredging like the Lagos ports, they will not have shallow draft of as low as 6metres.

All the naval personnel at the public hearing emphasized the non-surveying of the channels to eastern ports as a major challenge responsible for poor utilization of the ports. “The business of shipping requires safety. One major challenge is long, narrow, eastern channels, non-surveying of the channels. Vessels proceed at very slow speed. The channels are largely unmarked, narrow, and the surface is very small,” they submitted. All these point to neglect which is the name of the game. When ships move at very slow speed, they become prone to attack by criminals.

As already hinted, all the problems identified as being responsible for the low or absence of business at the Eastern ports are all aftermaths of deliberate neglect which have now assumed a destructive dimension to the economy of the nation. Without caring whose ox is gored, the real problem of the Eastern ports is the politics of neglect which is a continuation of the civil war which Nigeria fought more than 49 years ago. It is the continuation of the conspiracy to strangle the economy of the East during and after the war which no government has made any effort to dismantle.

One recalls that those ports were closed during the civil war both for “security”, and the blockade of the enemy known as Biafra. That blockade is still operative in principle, leading to the criminal neglect by successive governments. These many years of neglect have started backfiring on the economy of the nation and on the Lagos ports that were meant to benefit from the neglect of the Eastern ports. Can anyone contradict the fact that if these ports had been given the same treatment and attention as the Lagos ports and a fair competition allowed anybody would be talking of low patronage today?

The group which hit the nail on the head at the public hearing was the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), whose representatives, the President of the association, Dr. MacGeorge Onyong and the Chairman, Technical Committee of the Association, Dr. Lucky Akhiwu, made it very clear that the issues surrounding the workability of the eastern ports are being politicized by government.

Akhiwu said: “My reservations are that the issue is being politicized. They are dancing around the real truth, which is that it is a deliberate attempt and policy by government to kill the eastern ports.” Dr. Akhiwu further said:

“When I listened to the representative of the NPA, he said they are making an investment in Lekki deep port which for me is unnecessary at this time. Why not channel that money to the eastern ports to dredge the Calabar River? You have the AGG equipment and the pipeline from the Benin River. So, for me, it is a deliberate attempt to just make Lagos work and it is not good for government and for us who have invested so much millions of dollars.”

That blockade is still operative in principle, leading to the criminal neglect by successive governments. These many years of neglect have started backfiring on the economy of the nation and on the Lagos ports that were meant to benefit from the neglect of the Eastern ports. Can anyone contradict the fact that if these ports had been given the same treatment and attention as the Lagos ports and a fair competition allowed anybody would be talking of low patronage today?

The group which hit the nail on the head at the public hearing was the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), whose representatives, the President of the association, Dr. MacGeorge Onyong and the Chairman, Technical Committee of the Association, Dr. Lucky Akhiwu, made it very clear that the issues surrounding the workability of the eastern ports are being politicized by government.

Akhiwu said: “My reservations are that the issue is being politicized. They are dancing around the real truth, which is that it is a deliberate attempt and policy by government to kill the eastern ports.” Dr. Akhiwu further said:

“When I listened to the representative of the NPA, he said they are making an investment in Lekki deep port which for me is unnecessary at this time. Why not channel that money to the eastern ports to dredge the Calabar River? You have the AGG equipment and the pipeline from the Benin River. So, for me, it is a deliberate attempt to just make Lagos work and it is not good for government and for us who have invested so much millions of dollars.”

Nothing can be truer than that, as those who know the truth will confirm. The federal government and its agencies have been politicizing the upgrading and the viability of the eastern ports in a deliberate effort to keep the Lagos ports attractive for all importers in Nigeria. This is in order to ensure that Lagos ports continue to be ports of choice and not share traffic with other ports.

This assertion can be buttressed by some actions of government against the eastern ports. Some people may not be aware that there are some imports that are not allowed into the country via the eastern ports. For instance, some years ago, the importation of pharmaceutical products was restricted to the Lagos ports. It then follows that the huge pharmaceutical markets in the east and south-south regions are forced, through government policy and directive, to import their goods through the Lagos ports. In addition, Lagos ports are also the only legitimate ports for the export of non-oil products. All these leave the Eastern ports idle and unviable.

This is where the trite argument by the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council, Hassan Bello, that it is the importers that determine where their cargo goes does not hold water. He had given that as the reason for low patronage of Eastern ports at the public hearing.

Of course, the argument was cancelled by Chief Brown Mene, the Ogwa of Warri who said importers will only chose the destination of their imports from existing functioning ports, not those that are not functioning. In the words of Chief Mene:

“… And our gathering today shouldn’t just be to highlight why the ports are not working and stop there. We should proffer solutions to them. We are proposing solutions to the places where they say it is the importer who determines where his goods go; the importers will only chose from the existing, functioning ports, not those that are not working. So, if government will make them work, they would find an advantage to use them. We should not use the excuse that it is the importer that determines it. We should make the ports workable. That will give good reason for the importer to choose them.”

The argument of Chief Mene cannot be contradicted in the face of man-made problems that have kept the ports unattractive to shipping lines. For instance, users of these ports have been lamenting about deplorable berths, dearth of finger mooring jetties to berth Nigerian Port Authority (NPA) crafts, lack of operational vehicles and fire hydrants at quays. These are supposed to be provided by NPA which they have failed to do. Yet the Authority continues to declare profit for government, indicating that not providing the necessary infrastructure at Eastern ports is not because of lack of funds.

The Nigerian Shippers Council boss had said in his contribution: “The choice of the port depends on the shipper. Some cargoes in Lagos are meant for the eastern ports. And yet, the shipper chose Lagos. “If the owner says I want my goods in Lagos, you cannot force him to go to Warri or Onitsha. That’s why we are having the Apapa traffic gridlock.”

Another government action that badly affected patronage of Eastern ports is the withdrawal of the 30% reduction in port charges following the port concession of 2006. This sudden withdrawal gave the concessionaires like Intels the leeway to hike their charges as it pleased them, a situation that scared away importers who were using these ports. Today, high charges are being touted as one of the reasons importers are not using the Eastern ports.

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