Eastern ports are the seaports located in Calabar, Port Harcourt, Onne, Warri, Sapele, Koko, and Burutu. All these ports played significant roles in the colonial era and before the Nigerian civil war. Today, put together, these ports handle less than 30 per cent of imports into the country, while the two Lagos ports of Apapa and Tin Can handle almost 70 per cent.
This situation, which has been allowed to prevail for a long time, has been taking avoidable tolls on the Lagos ports and the economy of the country. More depressing is the sporadic congestions on the Lagos ports access roads. The road congestion has become a permanent feature of the access roads to the ports. The incessant gridlock caused by bad state of the roads and the recalcitrant truck drivers combine to cause unprecedented delays at the ports, making it difficult for importers to take delivery of their consignments at the right time. Operators also suffer huge financial loss as a result of this.
Many importers outside Lagos have to pay heavily to take delivery of their imports. They pay double the cost to move their cargoes from Lagos to their warehouses located in the South East, South-South and Northern parts of the country. The extra cost is, of course, transferred to the final consumers. This they have to do because the Eastern ports do not present a viable alternative to them.
Several factors have been identified as the cause of the extremely low businesses at the Eastern ports. These barriers include shallow draughts of the access channels, insecurity of the waters and the lack of political will to open up these ports.
As a result of the gross insecurity of the waters around the eastern ports, importers in these areas prefer to use the Lagos ports even at huge cost. For instance, shipping companies charge as much as N800,000 as container deposit for a container going outside Lagos as against N150,000 charged for a container with Lagos as its destination. While stakeholders have identified insecurity and infrastructure deficits as the major problems militating against the patronage of Eastern ports, it is necessary to point out that political factor and government regulations are also known to have played a greater role in keeping these ports idle.
Without government coming all out to cancel old prejudices, and demonstrating the political will to make the Eastern ports in a viable and competitive manner, the situation will not change. The call for reduction of charges and levies by government agencies and the overall cost of clearing goods at the ports will not do much in attracting businesses to the ports. It is a known fact that the importation of some products, such as pharmaceutical products, is restricted to Lagos ports of Apapa and Tin Can Island. The huge pharmaceutical markets in the east and south-south regions are, therefore, forced through government policy and directive, to import their goods through the Lagos ports. In addition, Lagos ports are also the only legitimate ports for the export of non-oil products. All these leave the other ports idle and unviable.
For a turn-around in the patronage of the Eastern ports, there is need to review some import and export guidelines hampering the viability of the ports. The channels into these ports need to be dredged, their facilities need to be upgraded and incentives provided to enable them take up more of the nation’s maritime business.
The dredging of Calabar Port access channel should be dealt with decisively. All the people who have turned the dredging of the channel to a goldmine should be made to account for their actions. The prevailing insecurity posed by pirates and sea-robbers to vessels going to Onne and Port Harcourt ports should be seriously tackled. While the shallow draught of Calabar Port channel impedes safe navigation, the Port Harcourt Port suffers under constant pirate attacks, making the port unattractive to foreign shipping lines. Because of these security challenges, no fewer than 754 vessels are said to have deserted the eastern ports between 2013 and 2016. According to records, the number of vessels that berthed at the ports reduced from 2,268 vessels in 2013 to 1,514 in 2016.
While we commend all the efforts of NPA to make the Eastern ports more attractive for business, we call on the federal government to exercise the political will to remove all hindrances to full utilization of the ports. The optimum operation of all the ports in the country should be part of the government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). It should also form part of the terms of reference of the special committee recently set up to review government policies, projects, and strategies in preparation for President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term.
We align with the submission of the General Manager, Security of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Capt. Iheanacho Ebubeogu, that “maximizing the economies of the eastern ports requires more than a port plan. It needs a port master plan.” Resuscitation of the Eastern ports truly requires a holistic, integrated approach to the issues of insecurity and poor port infrastructure.