By Lakinbofa Goodluck
Nigeria’s history cannot be told without ample attention to Calabar Port, the oldest seaport in Nigeria. Historical accounts reckon that the seaport had been recognised as an international port as far back as the 16th century, shipping out goods such as palm oil. Its importance was further brought to the fore during the slave trade era when Calabar was notable for its centrality to trade with the white businessmen. The Old Port, as it is often called, was administered by different companies for many years until 1969 when the federal government took over its operations. CalabarPort along with its counterparts in Port Harcourt, Warri and Onnehas been the sea gateway for business in the south-eastern part of the country for which reason they are classified as the Eastern ports. In spite of its historical importance, the port has remained one of the most neglected and decrepit ports in the country.It has however consistently enjoyed the rhetoric of attention without commensurate action. Whilst it is often said that actions speak louder than words; words have been brassierthan action onCalabar Port.
After the federal government took over the port in 1969, not much progress was recorded until the military administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo expended funds on its revival as part of a new development plan. Upon refurbishment, a new Calabar Port Complex was commissioned in 1979.Expectedly the refurbishment generated a considerable level of initial attention but the port quickly relapsed and has since failed to live up to its full potential. The port is not only designed to serve the South-South and South-East regions,but also neighbouring countries like Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Whereas its criticality to trade in the south cannot be overemphasised, the port has nose-dived in meeting the expectations of stakeholders in the maritime industry and the country at large.
Calabar Port is faced with the characteristic challenges that have now defined the ecosystem of the Nigerian seaports. The horribly bad accessroad into the port is sufficient disincentive for shippers and businessmen to consider a call at the port. However, the dominantlid on the growthof the port just like other ports in the region is the inability of the government to dredge the channel. In addition to opening up the port, dredging the water is assuredly a major step towards the promotion of economic development of the entire region. To buttress this point the former Minister for Transport, MallamIdris Umar once stated that “Dredging of the channel could transform the economy of the Niger Delta region. The synergy between the Calabar Port, the Calabar Free Trade Zone and Tinapa is evidently valid. With the channel dredged, the increase in the volume of economic activities could be substantial and of course will transform and grow the maritime economy.”
This all-important activity has remained a tall order for successive administrations. There have been diverse proclamations on the dredging of the port dating back to the administration of General SaniAbacha. The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, as part of efforts to improve the maritime sector in 2006 awarded the contract for the dredging of the port to two Dutch companies at a cost of $56m and both companies left the contract without completing their assignment, and leaving the portin a protracted moribund state.
In 2014 the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in a hope renewing manner,initiated theCalabar Channel Management (CCM), a joint venture company between Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) and a consortium of companies led by Messrs Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited, with a mandate to dredge the port. NPA had openly advertised for the establishment of a Channel Management Company for the Calabar navigation channel; a bid that was won by Niger- Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited, leading to the establishment of CCM with a Joint Venture (JV) agreement with the NPA. Although CCM was reported to have commenced work on the dredging, the reality today is that the port is still yet to be dredged. The NPA MD, Ms.HadizaBalaUsman had on national television indicated that investigation by the Nigerian Ports Authority shows inconsistency in the work done by the management of the CCM.Whilst the NPA investigation faulted the dredging work done by CCM, the leadership of the company claims otherwise. The management of CCM claims it made considerable progress on the dredging until the NPA abruptly stopped the project. To CCM, NPA is to be blamed for the failure of the dredging with insinuations that the current management of NPA has a sinister plan to frustrate the efficiency of the port. As for the NPA, CCM should be held liable for the current state of the port, and the blame game has persisted while the port advances in retrogression.
Hope was renewed again when on October 11, 2017 the Desert Ranger from Greece vessel with 60,000 metric tons of wheat berthed at the port. The apparently elated Port Manager, Mrs.FunmilayoOlotuglowingly declared that “This is a great sign for investors from far and near to know that the Calabar port has capacity to carry this kind of vessel. Any investor who desires it, then we can deliver it. The water will be dredged in the coming weeks as we are ready to advertise very soon and we want every investor to know that a new vista of opportunities has been opened.” The takeaway from her assertion is the promise that the water would be dredged in the coming weeks. Stakeholders who are now familiar with similar lines from officials of government obviously did not accord that assertion any form of cogitation considering that similar assertions were made in the past with nothing concrete to show.
Intrinsically, the statement by the Port Manager has remained an accretion of the usual and familiar rhetoric. Nothing has been done since the assertion of the Port Manager. The on-going failure has suddenly, and misleadingly so, presented dredging of a port channel as agargantuan task that requires decades of planning and execution. Dredging of a channel is simplythe process of digging out sand from the channel to maintain a particular depth that supports the movement of vessels.There are mainly two types of dredging: capital and maintenance dredging. Maintenance dredging is the periodic subtraction of sediments from the navigational channels in order to maintain aproper depth of water for navigation and berthing.Capital dredging is an irregular extirpation of large amounts of impediments from the sea in order to deepen the shipping channel that serves larger ships.The dredging that is required to restore the Calabar Port is capital dredging, which is a norm in the maritime industry. How this has become an impossible task in Nigeria remains a puzzle for only the adept to unravel. This explains why some observers have chosen the convenient school of thought that advancesthe existence of a clandestinely executed conspiracy to weaken the Eastern ports. The school of thought has gained prominence in recent times owing to the attention the governments, both State and Federal, paid to the establishment of the Kaduna Dry Port.
However, a deeper rumination shows that the major problem with the current state of Calabar Port is entrenched corruption that has characterised every attempt to dredge the channel for more than 20 years, and the deficiency in political will. Millions of dollars have been allocated to the dredging of the Port yet nothing to show and no one prosecuted for non-performance. In fact, there is no report whatsoever on what actually happened to the $56million contract awarded in 2006. Perhaps it is the knotty appearance of the dredging contract that moved the former Acting Director-General, BPE, Dr. Vincent OnomeAkpotaire, to call on the President to intervene.
Hopes were high when the Port was conceded to Intels, Ecomarine and Shoreline Logistics in 2006 owing to how PPP has visibly buoyed the growth of the Onne Port. But the inability of the government to dredge the channel, which was part of the concession agreement, has retained the Port in its current stagnant and crumbling state.
Stakeholders in the maritime industry are unanimous in acknowledging the strategic importance of the Calabar Port, especially to the South-South, South-East, North-East and North-Central regions of the country. The question that has remained unanswered is when the dredging of the port will be done. It is obvious that Calabar Port has remained in its current state for lack of political will to unravel what happened in the past and set a clear path for the restoration of the Port. Perhaps only practitioners in the maritime industry are aware of the enormous benefits of a functional Calabar Port. Plausibly, if the government was aware of its importance and attendant benefits, maybe attention would have been refocused on the revival of the port. The Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority has set herself on a mission to revive all seaports in the country, starting with the Calabar Port will be a practical representation of actions speaking louder rhetorical words. Enough has already been said about Calabar Port.
Copyright 2017 Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.