By Godwin Oritse
Seaports in relation to trade are major gateways to the economy of a country. They represent a complex structure in a country’s transportation system providing ship harbour interface services such as pilotage, dredging, provision of berths, maintenance of navigational channels, etc., the ship-port interface in terms of loading and unloading cargoes and port-land interface in delivering cargo to and from the hinterland. In general seaports have five principal roles. They include: Cargoes and passengers handling, providing services for ships such as bunkering and repair, a shelter for ships in case of heavy sea and storm conditions, bases for industrial development and terminals forming part of a transport chain.
Seaports, expert believe, are complex dynamic systems consisting of numerous interacting elements, influenced by random factors. Over the years, seaports across the country suffered neglect, depriving Nigeria of the economic advantages of having efficient and well-managed ports. Apart from the Lagos ports, there are seaports at Warri, Koko, Onne, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Ibom Deep Seaport at Ibaka, Akwa Ibom State, which is still at the design stage. There are also numerous inland dry ports and fuel depots.
The main problem with these ports is that the river channels leading to them are too narrow to accommodate large vessels. The shipping companies find it more convenient to take their vessels to Lagos than to the eastern ports.
The situation worsened after the concession of the ports started in 2006. This was a sequel to the withdrawal of the 30 per cent incentive granted vessel owners to use the eastern ports when the Federal Government controlled the ports.
Currently, apart from the Onne Port, most of the other ports servicing the Southeast, South-South and the Eastern flank of the North are virtually idle.
The channels into these ports need to be dredged, their facilities need to be upgraded and incentives provided to enable them to take up more of the nation’s maritime business.
Apart from shallow channels, which make it impossible for bigger vessels to access the port, decrepit port infrastructure is another major problem.
While the Calabar Port suffers from shallow draught, the Onne Port is contending with insecurity such as pirate attacks and sea-robbery among others.
Other identified challenges include deplorable berths, the dearth of finger mooring jetties to berth Nigerian Port Authority (NPA) crafts, lack of operational vehicles and fire hydrants at quays.
Cargo handling equipment and the port quays areas are also inadequate to make trade facilitation efficient.
Also, while high siltation at the Calabar Port has impeded safe navigation, the Port Harcourt Port suffered under constant pirate attacks, which made the port unattractive for foreign shipping lines. Because of the aforementioned challenges, no fewer than 754 vessels are said to have deserted the eastern ports between 2013 and 2016. Specifically, the number of vessels that berthed at the ports reduced from 2,268 vessels in 2013 to 1,514 in 2016.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the number of vessels that berthed at the Delta port fell from 609 in 2013 to 433 in 2016, while the Gross Registered Tonnage at the port also dropped from 8,687,160 in 2013 to 6,177,809 in 2016.
NPA Takes Action
In a bid to reverse the situation, the NPA last year commenced the dredging of Warri port at the cost of $44.861million (N16.150 billion). The Dredging has been completed and vessels have started calling at the port. Confirming the above, a Warri based Customs broker and former National Financial Secretary of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Val Orhobabhor, said he gathered that the dredging project has been completed.
Aware of the perennial gridlock in Apapa as a result of the activity at the Lagos port, the NPA management recently announced that it is working with professionals in the maritime sector to make the eastern ports attractive for business.
Last year, the NPA deployed equipment worth over $30 million in Onne Port, Rivers State. The measure, which was taken by the Managing Director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman was to boost efficiency, security and make the port attractive for business. Onne Port Complex is one of the key ports under the NPA. It is situated on the Bonny River Estuary along Ogu Creek.
It was also gathered that six pilot cutters, tug boats and 17-meter offshore patrol boats, have been deployed in the port to make the port attractive and stem the cycle of criminalities within and around the port.
Sources at Onne Port confirmed to that it cost the NPA more than $30 million to deploy the sophisticated equipment.
One of the sources, however, condemned what he described as indiscriminate anchorage of vessels and urged the perpetrators to desist. He also urged investors to take advantage of the strategic location of the port, located in one of the largest oil and gas free zones in the world.
Apart from supporting exploration and production for economic activities, the free zone provides a logistic oil service centre for the oil and gas industry in Nigeria (Onshore and Offshore), while also providing easy access to the entire West African and sub-Sahara oil fields.
The official, who declined to have his name in print, assured stakeholders and investors that adequate depth of the channel leading to the port would be dredged to accommodate big ocean-going vessels and guarantee adequate security.
Stakeholders Commend NPA
Meanwhile, stakeholders in the maritime industry have continued to pure encomium on the NPA for the authority’s effort at making other ports across the country viable. For instance, former president of ANLCA, Mr Olayiwola Shittu, commended the NPA for repositioning the port for greater efficiency.
He urged other stakeholders to collaborate with the NPA in its efforts to make the port a hub of maritime activities.
On his part, the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Ikewoli 11, called on stakeholders in the Delta Ports to give maximum and unflinching support to NPA management so that the transformation the authority has brought to the region could be sustained.
The paramount ruler pointed out that Calabar Port, which also has the same challenge of shallow draught, has been improved upon by the NPA with the use of Flat Bottom Vessels (FBV) to attract more cargoes to the port in Warri.
NPA Privatises Warri Port
As part of measures to make the eastern ports attractive for business, the NPA and the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) recently handed over Terminal B of the Warri Old Port to private concessionaire, Ocean & Cargo Terminal Services Limited.
BPE Director-General Mr Alex Okoh, who spoke at the handover ceremony, said President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration was committed to a private sector-driven economy.
He also called on local and international businessmen to take advantage of the government’s open door policy to establish businesses in the country.
Okoh said the Nigerian ports are the main gateway to the country and key to the Federal Government’s objective of diversifying and growing the economy.
He pointed out that the objective of the government in port concession was to increase efficiency at the ports with the ultimate goal to modernise the ports and make them more competitive.
The BPE boss said: “The objective is to increase efficiency in our ports, improve service delivery, upgrade and modernise facilities in the ports, reduce the cost of shipping and clearing of goods at the ports and relieve the government of the burden of financing the sector.”
According to him, the concession is for a period of 25 years at an annual lease fee of $1,621,500, in addition to the entry fee and monthly throughput fee chargeable on the volume of cargo handled.
Okoh assured that the implementation of the development plan for the concessionaire would be closely monitored by the relevant government agencies, including the NPA, the BPE and Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission to ensure compliance.
That is not all, the NPA is also tackling insecurity which leads to the inflated cost of importing goods through the eastern ports. An importer, Mr Robert Francis had recently told the media that shipment of cargoes from China to Lagos, which used to cost about $1,500, now costs between $4,000 and $4,500 because of insecurity and high salinity of the sea. He, therefore, urged youths in the area to give peace a chance to make the ports attractive and competitive.
“In addition, vessels calling at Onne Port in Rivers State also slammed $45,000 (N16.2milion) on importers for an average of six hours per night for the delay to berth. The delay, which is estimated at $7,500 per hour, is said to be caused by incessant robbery and shallow port channels,” he said.
Worried by the problems, Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi had, at a stakeholders’ interactive session in Warri last year, explained that one of the factors militating against the success of the maritime sector was insecurity in the Niger Delta region, which he said was also hampering the growth and development of the region.
He said Niger Delta was not working because of the people in the area. His words: “How many Lagosians are on the water in Lagos? None. The reason vessels will not come to the eastern ports is because there is no war insurance on vessels because of restiveness in the region.
“War insurance means if the goods cost N10, 000 in Lagos, it will get it N20, 000 here because there is an extra cost on it. There is insecurity in Lagos, but not as bad as it is in the eastern ports.”