Expectations are high on the Federal Government, particularly the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), to dredge the Calabar Port-channel, to diversify available infrastructure and reduce excessive pressure from the ever-busy Lagos ports, while saving huge revenue losses.
Dredging the channel has remained a challenge and an uphill task for successive administrations for decades.
Although, past managements of NPA had made many promises coupled with several contracts award for the project, operators, importers, and other stakeholders appear to wait almost endlessly for this reality.
Calabar Port, along with its peers in Port Harcourt, Warri, and Onne, is the gateway for sea trade in South-Eastern Nigeria. The port is not only designed to serve the South-South and South-East regions, but also other neighbouring countries like Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Draft at approach of the Calabar channel is 6.4 metres at high tide and 5.4 metres at low tide, whereas the concession agreement stipulated that the Federal Government will take the draft to 9.5metres; and the Bureau on Public Enterprise (BPE) had assured that this would be achieved on start of business, but the situation remains the same since 2006 when the concession programme took effect.
Weighed down by a shallow water channel, poor roads and others, the port has failed to meet stakeholders’ expectations in the maritime industry and the country at large.
Recall that about $56million contract for the dredging of Calabar Port Channel was awarded in 2006, but it remained uncompleted. The Federal Government awarded another contract in November 2014, for N20billion to complete the project. The contract, which was signed by the NPA, the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) and the Calabar Channel Management, was for the port to be dredged up to 9.8 metres, but it also hit the brick wall.
Worried by the controversies surrounding the dredging contract, the Managing Director, NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman, on assumption of office on July 11, 2016, took up the issue almost immediately, with an inspection a month after.
Usman had said: “The critical issue about Calabar Port has to do with the dredging of the channel; the draft needs to be deeper to ensure we attract more vessels. We need to jointly work to bring commercial activities into the state. We have discussed with the state government.”
But two years after, terminal operators continue to decry the low pace business at the seaport occasioned by its shallow water level. Although, NPA had advised that flat bottom vessels could sail smoothly into the port, but operators said this is not the best solution for a nation that seeks to be competitive.
Four months ago, NPA announced that it had begun arrangements to facilitate the dredging of Calabar Port, and had commenced a survey of the area ahead of the exercise, but terminal operators said nothing had changed.
A director in one of the Terminals, who pleaded anonymity said: “Nothing new has happened on the channel. It is really very annoying because the government seems to have abandoned the Calabar Port, as they appear to concentrate only on the Lagos Ports. Lagos Port Complex is currently challenged by the poor access roads, where other ports such as Calabar can provide relief, but it is rather unfortunate that our government is not looking that way.
“The NPA claimed to have started a survey about four months ago; how long does it take to do bathometric survey? It does not take that long. That is another problem on its own because if you have done bathometric survey, and you did not carry out the project, filtration would change the whole thing as time goes by. So by the time you are ready to embark on the project, you will need to do another survey.
“Look at the situation here in Lagos. The ports are almost collapsed. What are the remedies? We should think about the Eastern ports and their limitations, so that we can use them to relief the Lagos ports, and reduce pressure on the roads. The critical issue is that of dredging, so why is government finding it difficult to carry out the dredging?
“The consequence of this neglect is that importers will divert cargoes to neighbouring ports. The NPA has even accepted that their import volume has dropped in terms of cargo traffic in the last one year,” the source said.
Loss of revenue
Nigeria has lost huge trade cargoes to Benin, Togo, and other neighbouring countries due to poor shipping connectivity and shallow draft of the port channels with attendant loss of revenue.
With regard to making use of flat bottom vessels to navigate the channel as suggested by NPA, John Obasi, a port operator, argued that this would just be palliative, and cannot make Nigerian ports to be competitive.
“I keep asking: if Nigeria is aspiring to be a regional hub, what do you think should be done? Because your ports must be competitive at the regional level both in terms of tariff and infrastructure development. You must be competitive regionally. Some major importers and industries have relocated because they don’t have easy access to port infrastructure and they have relocated to other neighbouring countries where they think they have a better deal. Sometimes, we don’t get our priorities right, if only they know how much this country is losing on daily basis with the problem in Lagos alone. There is over concentrated effort on Lagos ports, and this is the consequence we are facing now; and these problems are not quick-fixes, which underscore the need to also develop the capacities in the Eastern ports, especially Cabalar, considering its proximity to the 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 Port Manager, Calabar Port, Mrs Funmilayo Olotu, could not give details about the plan but said the NPA is committed to the dredging project.
NPA Shipping Position obtained by The Guardian for Monday showed that only seven vessels called the port between 22nd to 30th of July. These vessels are MV Express 12; MV Thor Mondiac; MT Ocean Progress; MV Dona Simoa; MV Rebecca; MV Brenda Corlett and MT Sea Voyager.
Others such as the oil rig Delta Queen has occupied the berthing space since February 2012, while MV Carisma (arrived in May); MV Kenavo (arrived in April); MV Agbama (arrived in January); MV Merbey (arrived in May); and MV Calabar Marine which berthed in 2016 are still at the port.
Experts said big ships bearing petroleum products, containers of consumables, and equipment that cannot berth at the Nigerian seaports now berth at the Lome Port, where small ships that can only sail on low draft go several turns to ‘lighter’ the cargo to the Nigerian ports.