The shallow depth of much of Nigeria’s waterways was last Monday, the focus of a probe by the House of Representatives into alleged malpractices in the Nigeria Ports Authority, (NPA). According to the reps, the dredging of the Port Harcourt and Calabar port channels would increase ship traffic to the ports and improve economic productivity. At present, the Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri port channels are all less than 10 metres deep, thereby limiting their capacity to receive big cargo ships. This is not to say that no attempt has been made to dredge the Eastern ports; in fact, the dredging of the Calabar port in particular has gulped over N56 billion in over two decades, with nothing to show for it.
In 1996, late General Sani Abacaha, made the first attempt to dredge the port when he awarded a N3 billion contract to a barely known Chinese company. After a brief appearance, the contractors disappeared without executing the contract, never to be seen again. Six years later, in 2002, the contract was re-awarded at a cost of $56 million by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Again the project was abandoned without any appreciable result. Yet again in 2006, President Olusegun Obasanjo re-awarded the contract to the tune of N9.8 billion to two Dutch firms. The firms, Van Oord Limited and Jan-de-Nul, were expected to scoop out 25 million cubic metres of sand to achieve an overall draught of eight metres for the port. Two months after work commenced at the site, it stopped, with about 24 kilometres of the channel still left untouched. This eventually became the subject of litigation with each of the firms claiming to have scooped out their allotted portion of silt. Lastly, in 2014, a N20 billion contract was awarded for the dredging of the same port, this time to Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited. The contract was eventually terminated by the NPA in 2017. Curiously, despite the several failed attempts at dredging the Calabar port and the huge sums of taxpayers’ monies wasted, the NPA has yet to take legal action against defaulting contractors. As it is, the award of dredging contracts has now become a conduit through which certain unscrupulous Nigerians in conjunction with NPA officials regularly swindle the country.
Even the recently awarded N13 billion dredging contract of the Warri port, which is yet to take off, is not spared from the same controversy. Already, allegations of corruption and bribery during the bidding process are being thrown at NPA management and the contractor, Dredging International Services Nigeria Limited.
Unfortunately, while the dredging of the so-called outer ports have become conduit pipes, the ports in Lagos are literally bursting at the seams – overwhelmed from the pressure of handling over 70 percent of cargo imports and exports in the country. It is unlikely that Nigeria will make much headway in international trade with just two functional ports. The NPA must stop paying lip service to the idleness of the eastern ports and show commitment to their viability by ensuring that every dredging contract is dutifully executed and the country derives good value for its money. The culture of people receiving payment for projects that have not been executed without fear of repercussion must end.
In addition, the executive arm of government must as a matter of urgency support the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in opening an investigation into this string of failed contracts and prosecute those found culpable. The future of the eastern ports may well depend on the outcome of such an investigation.