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In spite of having six seaports, most of them are grossly underutilised, while two are under enormous pressure. In this report, TUNDE AJAJA examines reasons why the other ports are not being fully utilised, the tragedies that have resulted from the congestion that has characterised the two and what should be done urgently to sustain the sector
Like a stack of cards loosened suddenly from the table top, Mrs. Maryam Udo, a 35-year-old mother of four, with seven-month-old pregnancy, collapsed at the entrance of the emergency ward of the hospital that hot afternoon, on hearing that her husband had given up the ghost.
She only stopped crying, temporarily, when the stretcher conveying the charred, dismembered remains of her husband from the ward to the mortuary faded out of sight. Her grief was quite understandable, especially with four children to take care of, and now their breadwinner was gone, forever.
Perhaps, if crying or grieving could wake the dead, the volume of her tears that morning would revive three souls. The gruesome manner in which he lost his life made it all the more pathetic. The father of four and surviving child of his aged mother was on his way to clear his goods at the port in Lagos when he was crushed by a cargo container that fell off a moving trailer.
“It was his second time going to Lagos that week. He was an importer and you know almost everybody uses Lagos ports. His goods were being delayed and the people he wanted to supply had become impatient, so he had to go there. We never knew that would be his last,” narrated Maryam in a chat with Saturday PUNCH.
“To avoid further delay or unpleasant stories, he was accompanying the trailer back to his warehouse in Calabar, but he didn’t live to reap the fruit of those efforts; he died on the way – on the Benin-Ore Road,” she said.
Painful as it is, Udo could still have been alive till date if the seaport at his backyard – in Calabar – was functioning optimally. In fact, the proximity would not only have reduced his operating cost and saved his time, he would never have needed to travel 780.6km, about 12 hours 37 minutes, to meet his death. Regrettably, several other exporters, clearing agents, importers, truck drivers and even innocent persons have also perished in similar manner in the course of travelling long distances to and from the Lagos ports.
Sadly, however, his death is just a microcosm of the many sad tales that have for years characterised import- and export-based businesses in the country, given that the only two ports functioning at optimal capacity, serving over 180 million Nigerians, the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, are in Lagos. Thus, people from the far North (East, West and Central), South-South and South-East have to travel hundreds of kilometres to use the ports, despite the colossal attendant risk.
Suffering amid plenty
Ironically, there are six seaports in the country, all of which, if operating optimally, would have made import and export business across the country seamless and attractive. The ports are Apapa Port; Tin Can Island Port; Port Harcourt Port (or Rivers Port), Onne Port (also in Rivers State), Calabar Port and Warri Port (or Delta Port).
But regrettably, three of these ports; Calabar, Warri and Rivers, suffer from underutilisation, while all roads seem to lead to Apapa Port and the Tin Can Port, both in Lagos, which are now extremely overstretched, while Onne Port is largely used for Oil and Gas related cargoes, which underscores the extent of its usage, even though not maximised as well.
The prominence of Lagos in port activities dates back to the civil war era when it was the only available port serving the country’s maritime transportation needs, following the closure of Rivers Port to foreign traffic, over security concerns. It bore the weight of the high flow of war time cargoes and other goods coming into the country at that time, and has remained at the fore front till date.
But, in spite of its critical importance, driving to Apapa on a typical day, whether through the Ojuelegba route or the Oshodi-Mile 2 axis is like travelling to hell, due to the chaos the place has been reduced to by the port activities.
One can suffice it to say that the Apapa axis had become a national embarrassment, due entirely to the chaotic situation created by the tankers and heavy duty trailers that had consistently occupied all the routes leading to the ports, thereby creating dreadful traffic snarl and harsh environment for businesses in the area.
Several businesses have closed down and many others have relocated out of the state, but, interestingly, the enormous pressure on the two ports and the attendant problems, which had almost snuffed life and sanity out of the residents and businesses in the area, have refused to subside. Instead, it seems to be getting worse.
In other words, despite the demoralising congestion at the Apapa and Tin Can ports, which, even makes some container-bearing vessels to queue for days before they are called to berth, due to the non-availability of space, the other ports, also called eastern ports, are bereft of activities.
But why are people constrained to embrace such untold hardship in Lagos when there are alternatives that could have made life a lot easier for people who need the ports? Findings by our correspondent showed that there are myriads of issues.
Draft, a major concern
A reliable source at the Nigerian Ports Authority, who preferred to be identified as Abdul, pointed out that the issues with the different ports differ, which revolve around low draft (water depth), insecurity, absence of incentives to encourage vessels to berth at the eastern ports and the industrial advantage of Lagos and neighbouring Ogun State.
However, the primary reason, according to investigations, why many vessels do not use the eastern ports is the low draft.
From findings, the standard depth required for very large vessels or containers-carrying vessels to berth is between 18 metres and 19 metres, which is actually for deep seaport. And at the moment, Nigeria does not have any deep seaport; all the ones available are river ports. The first deep seaport in the country is the Lekki deep seaport that is currently under construction.
For example, the draft of the Apapa and Tin Can Island is between 14m and 14.5m, which is why large vessels berth at the two ports comfortably. In fact, some container-carrying vessels do not need more than 12m to 13.5m.
However, at the moment, the draft of the Warri Port is about 7 metres, that of Calabar Port is about 6 metres while Rivers Port also has about 8 metres; all of which are lower than what container-carrying vessels need to berth. Thus, barges and service boats have been regulars at the eastern ports, while people in those areas, like the late Udo, are constrained to make use of trucks to evacuate their cargo containers from the Lagos ports.
But, on realising the impact of the enormous pressure on the already overstretched Lagos ports while the others are underutised, the Federal Executive Council had in April 2018 approved the sum of N13bn for the dredging and the replacement of the bad navigational aids at the Warri Port, for it to serve as an alternative to the ports in Lagos.
The Managing Director, Nigeria Ports Authority, Hajia Hadiza Usman, had in a reaction to the approval, said, “It (the dredging) will expand the utilisation of our eastern ports. We believe in the need to ensure that all ports locations are given the seamless access by providing dredging works and that is what we are here to do today.”
Moments after the approval was announced, the Warri Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture commended the Federal Government, saying dredging the Warri/Escravos River, which is the gateway to the port, would help to create employment for people, especially the youth, and boost revenue for government at all levels.
“Heavier vessels and ocean-going liners carrying containers will be able to sail into Delta port, thus boosting commerce,” WACCIMA President, Mr. Simon Asite, had said.
Meanwhile, the Calabar Port is also at the moment unable to receive large containers-carrying vessels due to its low draft, and so it largely receives flat-bottomed ships, service boats and barges. But the NPA boss said the procurement for the dredging works at the Calabar Ports was already at an advanced stage. “The Calabar Port also needs dredging, which is being looked into, but at the moment, it receives flat-bottomed ships,” she added.
Meanwhile, speaking to Saturday PUNCH on the fate of the Rivers Port, which is also underutilised at the moment, Usman said the port had reached its age limit and that rehabilitation would be a waste of money. “It’s very old and we are actually thinking of building a new port infrastructure in Port Harcourt as well as expanding the Onne Port.”
Interestingly, a document sighted by our correspondent on the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency’s electronic library showed th