November 2, 2020

Onitsha River Port: Sustaining three decades of political deceit

For DSO, a new life in a season of expectations

By Okey Ibeke

Not a few Nigerians were amazed recently when news broke out that Onitsha River Port has been commissioned, and has started full operations with vessels and barges calling at the river port. For informed people, maritime observers and stakeholders, the news of the commissioning sounded very strange as the river port had been commissioned thrice in the past 20 years.

But the news was given credibility by the picture of the Managing Director of the National Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA, Dr. George Moghalu, who was seen cutting a tape with some people behind him. This action by the NIWA managing director has sent tongues wagging and asking whether Moghalu knew what he was doing at all and what manner of commissioning that was.

The social media was awash with comments and praises of the commissioning ceremony. The fake news of full operations at the port was further boosted by a shipment schedule from Maersk line showing China-Onitsha destination which was placed on social media.

Even the Special Assistant to President Mohammadu Buhari, on Digital and New Media, Tolu Ogunlesi, was reported to have confirmed the commissioning ceremony and the commencement of operations at the port.

“Maersk is now (starting 2020) sending container ships direct from China to the Onne Port, without the need to first call at Lagos,” he was quoted as saying in a tweet.

“Now, when the ship berths in Onne, it will be offloaded and the containers going to Onitsha Port will be barged down.”

The news of the commissioning attracted congratulations for government, NIWA and Moghalu. Dr Orji Kalu, former governor of Abia State lauded the Federal Government for revamping Onitsha River Port.

In a statement, Kalu said the resumed activities at Onitsha seaport will boost economic activities in the South East and ultimately create employment opportunities and wealth for Nigerians. He commended the efforts of the Federal Ministry of Transportation and NIWA for the development.

Said Kalu: “With the functioning of Onitsha seaport, exporters and importers will be relieved of the stress of transporting containers by road from different ports to the South East and vice versa.

“With the commencement of activities at Onitsha seaport, businesses will thrive further in the South East. The bottlenecks being faced by exporters and importers will be reduced as containers can now be transported from Onne Port and other ports through the waterways to Onitsha seaport and vice versa.

“The activities in the seaport will drive industrialisation and sustainable development in Onitsha and South East at large. The revamping of Onitsha river port is another feat achieved by the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari,” Kalu said.

All these congratulations would have been apt if indeed Onitsha River Port has become operational. People of South East would have had cause to jubilate and to praise the Buhari administration. Unfortunately, the charade is another episode in the bag of many decades of  deceit of the present and past governments  for the easterners.

Good enough, Maersk Line, the multi-national shipping line whose shipping schedule was used to perpetrate the fake news, came out promptly to refute the claim and to put the record straight. The shipping line debunked the news that it has commenced full operation at the Onitsha inland port.

In an e-mail response to an enquiry, Maersk said: “There are some inaccurate news reports going around as we are not calling at Onitsha port with our vessels as this is not operationally feasible due to the draft of our vessels.

“We do however offer a through bill product for our customers in which cargo discharged at Onne is trucked to the Clarion Bonded Terminal in Onitsha, which is roughly opposite the Niger River.” This was clarified by Kerry Rosser, Maersk Africa Communication Manager.

What actually is going on at Onitsha is that a bonded terminal operator, Clarion Bonded Terminal, built a terminal very close to the Onitsha River Port. As bonded terminals are recognised as ports destinations in shipping, some importers designate Clarion Bonded Terminal  as their port of destination in the Bill of Lading. Such containers arrive first at a seaport and are stemmed down for conveyance to the inland port.

The containers in question purported  to be coming to Onitsha River Port,  first arrive at Onne Port. Clarion picks them from Onne Port and bring them to Onitsha by trucks. Clarion does not even bring them by barges as the river course is not even navigable. It is, therefore, deceptive to insinuate that containers have started arriving at Onitsha River Port by sea. At least, Maersk made it clear that its ships are not coming to Onitsha because it is not operationally feasible due to the water draft.

Recalling that a few weeks ago, late September, NIWA had said the commencement of shipping operations at Onitsha Port was targeted at the first quarter of 2021 one is surprised at the sudden news that the port has become operational.

NIWA’s Area Manager at Onitsha Area Office, Mrs. Queen Uba, had said operations at the port have been on hold due to the ongoing concession process, and that NIWA was ready for full operations as soon as the process was completed. “NIWA has put in place all necessary things for effective operation of the port and we are just waiting for the completion of the concession process.

While we are waiting for the completion of the concession process, the management has entered into agreement with Connect rail Services Limited to kick start the lifting of goods from the port to other places in the country,” she said.

What NIWA has failed to inform the public is that there’s no way the river port will be operational as there’s currently no concessionaire in place. This is so as the concession process is stalled due to a case instituted by International Trading and Contracting Limited against the Federal Ministry of Transportation, NIWA, the Infrastructure Concession  Regulatory Authority and four others.

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The Onistha River Port Manager, Mr. Baba Spencer corroborated Mrs. Uba’s statement, saying the port was ready for use with all the facilities  needed to operate effectively in place.But one wonders what NIWA has put in place that has not been there since 2013 the port was commissioned after completion in 2012.

What one expects Dr. Moghalu’s NIWA to do while waiting for the completion of the concession is to embark on maintenance dredging of the channel to the port, since it claims it had done capital dredging. The channel is still choked by sand bars and silts with islands that developed inside the big river years back still  standing close to the port.

At the moment, even the smallest vessel cannot ply the channel. Barges may even find it difficult to move on the water. Yet, NIWA is claiming everything has been put in place. The only thing that can prove that Onitsha port has become operational is when small vessels and barges start bringing cargoes to the port. Bringing cargoes to the port via trucking cannot make it a river port, for it won’t be any different from any inland dry port located in the hinterland where there is no water access.

Dr. Moghalu, should, therefore, not join previous MDs of NIWA or the federal government in deceiving South East business men and women. Instead, he should work quietly and assiduously towards the full realization of having Onitsha Port begin full operations.

A charade such as what happened last week will not advance his political interest, that is, the gubernatorial interest he is nursing which his party, the APC, has endorsed. South easterners and their well-wishers want to see concrete action, not deceit or speeches. They have been seeing that in the last 30 years.

Another issue that put a lie to NIWA’s narrative is the  absence of personnel of Nigeria Customs Service in the River Port. Their absence means that it’s not yet a Customs designated port and as such will not be allowed to receive cargoes.

What NIWA under Moghalu should do is to ensure it lives up to the challenge of facilitating shipping operations in the port in order to spur its activities beyond the trucking of cargoes which Clarion Depot is currently doing.

For the records, Onitsha Inland Port was built under the administration of President Shehu Shagari in 1983. It remained idle, lying fallow until 2012 when it was rehabilitated and commissioned by former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Yet operations did not commence at the port. Since then, it has been one of the campaign promises politicians have been using to deceitfully  solicit for votes from the South East.

The NIWA managing director, as the son of the soil, should work speedily towards the completion of the concession of the port which started since 2013. The inability to conclude the concession is said to be responsible for the port not becoming operational.

One recalls that the concession process was stalled with the build up to the 2015 general election. It became completely abandoned after the election that brought President Buhari to power.

The concession process itself had been marred by court cases,  intrigues, insincerity, protests and vested interests on the part of NIWA and Ministry of Transport officials.

The dormancy of the Onitsha River Port and what had been going on with the concession attracted the attention of the 8th Federal House of Representatives. As part of its probe of the maritime sector, the House initiated an investigative hearing into the alleged malpractices being perpetrated with the concession, accusing NIWA of dishonesty with the proposed concession of Onitsha River Port.

The hearing which was held in Abuja by the House of Representatives Committee on Ports, Harbours and Waterways, followed several motions calling for an investigation into alleged malpractices in the maritime sector.

The chairman of the Committee, Dr. Pat Asadu, in his address said the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) was misleading the public about the proposed concession of Onitsha River Port, saying that the authority never wanted the port to work.

He chided NIWA for making claims that were not verifiable, especially when there was nothing to show for huge sums of money claimed to have been spent on the port. The House pointedly accused NIWA of malpractices and deliberately engaging in actions that militate against putting the port into operation.

It was after this investigative hearing and after being rattled by the lawmakers that NIWA and the Ministry of Transport kick-started the concessioning the port again. Still there were protests and accusations. The competing firms accused NIWA and its supervising ministry, the Ministry of Transportation, of confusing issues and engaging in acts capable of scuttling the process.

The accusation of confusion was proved when NIWA said in 2018 that it had concluded the exercise and would soon announce the winner or the concessionaire to be handed over the port before the end of the year. But this was never to be because two senior ministry officials were said to have raised conflicting memos in favour of their preferred companies.

In March this year, NIWA MD, Dr. Moghalu said that a strategic process was ongoing for the emergence of the preferred concessionaire for the port. However, the secrecy beclouding the entire process is still worrisome as nothing concerning the exercise has ever appeared in the papers in form of averts.

But Moghalu has said the concession is a painstaking exercise, since it “is a process and not an action. And that NIWA is making sure that the right concessionaire that meets the criteria is selected at the end of the day.

Whatever may be the cause of the delay, it is important that everything is done expeditiously towards making the port operational. This includes ensuring that the channel is dredged to enable barges and small vessels smooth access to the port.

The Moghalu administration in NIWA should not be seen to join his predecessors in sustaining the lie about River Niger dredging, as well as the overall deceit that has been the lot of Onitsha River Port for several decades now.

*Ibeke, a maritime consultant, wrote from Onitsha, Anambra State