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Eastern Ports: Still Not The Desired Alternative To Apapa, Tin-Can Seaports

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Despite the 2006 port concessioning, the eastern ports have refused to attract more cargoes due to decaying infrastructure, bad access road and insecurity. YUSUF BABALOLA writes

In the last three years, the Apapa and Tin Can Island seaports have been experiencing traffic congestions due to increasing cargo throughput occasioned by the 2006 port reform embarked upon by the administration of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

The reform which led to the concessioning of the nation’s seaports to private terminal  operators, was aimed at making Nigerian seaports more efficient, effective and to attract more cargoes.

However, the reform of the ports were not accompanied with evacuation of cargoes through other means such as rail, water but only by roads which led to the collapse of the port access road and by extention, occasioned a perennial traffic gridlock that paralysed ports activities.

What Statistics Say

According to a report by Donatus Onwuegbuchunam of the Department of Maritime Management Technology, Federal University of Technology Owerri, on Port Performance in Nigeria,  he said in the period before the port reform (i.e., years 2000 to 2005), Apapa port, recorded an average of 11.7 million metric tonnes (m/t) of cargo throughputs. Tincan Island port handled a little above four million metric tonnes on average; while Onne port handled, on average, a little below seven million m/t of cargo throughputs.

The other ports, Calabar, Port Harcourt (PHC), and Warri ports, handled much less cargo in comparison with Apapa, Tincan and Onne ports.

However, after the concession reforms which entailed the transfer of cargo handling and infrastructure investment functions from public to private terminal operators, cargo throughputs handled across most of these ports more than doubled.

Specifically, the cargo throughputs handled in Apapa ports were twice more than what they were before the reforms. This growth in cargo traffic could be attributed to positive effects of the reforms.

Since the only means of evacuating cargoes from the port was road and the only means collapsed, the eastern ports were expected to be the alternative since they don’t generate enough throughput as the Lagos ports – Tin – Can and Apapa.

Mounting Challenges

But the eastern ports are bedeviled by challenges such as insecurity, decayed port infrastructure, bad roads leading in and out of the eastern seaports thereby making it impossible  to be the desired alternative to Lagos ports.

The eastern ports which includes the Calabar Port, Delta Port, Rivers Port, Port Harcourt, and Onne Port were supposed to serve as transit point for cargoes destined for the Middle Belt and the far North East, as well as Aba and Onitsha.

Aside shallow depth of the draft and insecurity on the waters, collapsed quay apron and dilapidated access roads outside the ports have also been a major source of concern to importers who would want to divert cargoes to the eastern ports because of the traffic gridlock at Lagos ports.

A visit to Onne port recently showed that the East West road that serves as the main road for the evacuation of cargoes for the Onne Free Trade zone that also houses the Onne port was in a total state of disrepair and abandonment.

The road which was supposed to serve evacuation of cargoes to the North, South East and South South had collapsed with trucks taking over the failed portion. The channels leading into the eastern ports need to be dredged.

Also, apart from shallow channels, which makes it impossible for bigger vessels to access the eastern ports, decrepit port infrastructure is another major problem. And, while the Calabar Port suffers from shallow draught, the Onne Port is contending with insecurity such as pirate attacks and sea-robbery, among others.

In Port Harcourt seaport, collapsed quay aprons have been a source of concern to operators and it has affected calling of bigger vessels to the seaport.

Also, while high siltation at the Calabar Port has impeded safe navigation, the Port Harcourt Port also suffered under constant pirate attacks, which makes the port unattractive for foreign shipping lines.

And because of the afore-mentioned 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.

Operators Unrelentlessness

However, the operators are investing in anticipation for cargoes from Lagos ports due to the traffic congestion the western ports face. For instance, the West Africa Container Terminal (WACT), a terminal operator at the Onne port has in the last three years invested approximately $3.5 million in various container handling equipment like five reach stackers, two empty handlers and 14 terminal trucks.

The operator also recently invested $10 million in two mobile harbour cranes in order to better serve it’s customers. Also, to complement the investment of terminal operators and to attract cargoes to the eastern ports, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) introduced a rebate for vessels that call at the eastern port.

The NPA had announced the approval of a 10 per cent discount on harbour dues in all concessioned terminals at the Eastern ports. The NPA said the ports that would be affected by this initiative are: Calabar, Rivers and Delta Ports.

The NPA had explained, “The authority, however, wishes to clarify that this discount will only apply to harbour dues payable by the following types of vessels/cargoes: Container vessels with at least 250 20-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs), general cargo vessels with at least 16,000 MT, combo vessels with at least 16,000 MT and RORO Vessels with at least 250 units of vehicles.

“These discounts shall not apply to: vessels coming In ballast, vessels calling at private jetties and vessels calling carrying liquid bulk. The application of these discounts will take immediately effect.”

Morever, managing director of WACT, Aamir Mirza in a chat with LEADERSHIP Sunday said “If government can look into addressing some fundamental challenges like security risk because of piracy, improving depth of navigational channels and improving road and related infrastructure that connects Onne port to rest of Nigeria,” the port will see increased cargo traffic, he said.

Holistic Solutions Needed

Meanwhile, at a stakeholders’ meeting on how to revive the eastern ports, the former Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admital Dele Ezeoba (rtd) said the eastern ports would always be relevant to the economic growth of the maritime sector and country.

According  to him, if indigenous ship owners or shipping companies work towards the patronage, development and maintenance of these ports despite the challenges the ports face, they would be able to deliver as expected.

He said, “The issues experienced by the eastern ports are the lack of security. Security in this instance needs to be addressed from these four levels which are: social, economic, environmental and physical security challenges.” He explained that the challenges of the eastern ports reflect the challenges of the Nigerian maritime sector as a whole.

He added that addressing the issues require an integrated, holistic, and all-inclusive approach which would in turn significantly increase the economies of scale in these ports as well as boost the local economy around the ports area.

“On addressing the security issues around the eastern ports, economic integration through poverty reduction initiatives along with training and development of human capital will reduce the community interference on the government right of way (RoW)  and outside these ports,” Ezeoba added.   

The NPA however said the federal government is addressing the challenges facing the eastern ports.

Government’s Intervention

Expatiating on what the government is doing to restore normally,  general manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications of NPA, Engr. Adams Jatto said government has awarded road contract to AG Dangote to fix port access road from Tin Can to Oworonshoki will equally be extended to Port Harcourt.

His words, “You understand that we have a limit when it comes to issue of access roads to the port because this are part of federal government responsibility and we can see that they are trying as much as possible to find a solution to issue of the bad roads because they have started from Lagos and we can see that from Tin Can port to Oworonshoki has been awarded to Dangote and they are trying as much as possible to get it done and I think such a thing is equally extended to port Harcourt.”

On insecurity, he said NPA and NIMASA are partnering with the Navy to curb it to the barest minimum in the eastern ports. He said NPA has commenced procurement process to ensure that Port Harcourt port quay aprons are ensure properly rehabilitated and also to dredge the Calabar channel so that bigger vessels can come

“We will see that international anti-piracy agencies have given us kudos for bringing down the level of piracy on the waterways. We are doing our best but it’s work in progress and not that we have folded our arms,” he said.

Speaking on the decayed port infrastructure, Jatto said, “As per Port Harcourt, we have serious issues relating to the quay aprons because they have deteriorated and we have commenced procurement process to ensure that the port is properly rehabilitated so that bigger vessels can come in.”

When asked about the depth of the Calabar port in receiving bigger vessels, the GM said that the authority has commissioned a consultant on how viable the port would be after concessioning.

“On the shallow draft at Calabar, we want to revisit the entire procurement process as it concerns Calabar because the problem is that if we have to dredge it, we are talking of about N50 billion to dredge it and we have to look at economies of scale. So, if we dredge to the required length, can we get vessels to come in there and for how long are we going to recoup the money, these are the areas we are looking at to see what can be done.

He continued, “we want to commission a consultant to look at it, give us a business case to see how viable they are if they are to be dredged but what we doing in Calabar now is to appeal to shippers with low bed to move to Calabar,” he told LEADERSHIP Sunday.

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