Last week, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, again stunned the maritime sector with some shocking comments, this time on the nation’s river ports. As a matter of fact, maritime sector observers have got used to the minister’s startling utterances on issues in the sector. But his last week’s comments on Baro and other river ports, and by extension, the nation’s inland waterways transport will, no doubt, leave a lasting imprint on the sands of Nigeria’s maritime history, and therefore, deserves special mention.
Speaking on a live NTA programme, Amaechi, in his usual vocal and haughty manner said the rehabilitation of Baro Port was a waste of public funds, same with other major river ports of Onitsha, Lokoja, and Oguta which he said were all a huge waste of tax payers’ money.
He said Baro Port cannot be viable because of acute draft limitation, and therefore, cannot be used by importers. He disclosed that the idea behind the concession of the port was to move cargo from Port Harcourt or Warri to the port by barges and cynically asked how many times a barge would move the cargoes.
“The idea when the Baro port was concessioned is that, you pick up a cargo maybe in Warri or Port Harcourt because Lagos is too far, and put it on a barge and move it to Baro. But how many times will the barge be able to move those cargoes to Baro?”
Amaechi went on to say that “for the man who imports through Lagos or Port Harcourt, if he puts it on a train, he arrives the same day, and there is no issue of insecurity unlike the man who has taken the cargo from Port Harcourt seaport to Baro by barge.”
In the same vein, Amaechi said Onitsha, Lokoja and Oguta ports can only become functional and useful if the River Niger is dredged up to a draft of 6 metres. In his words, “for you to have those river ports functional, you must have to dredge River Niger. For now, even if you dredge, it is still 2.5 to 3 metre draft, which determines the vessel that can go there and the minimum you can have is a six-metre vessel.”
These controversial statements by Amaechi have unsettled the waterways and its regulators, and sent tongues wagging among maritime stakeholders as to the continued relevance of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA). They wonder how a minister that superintends a ministry that is supposed to see to the viability and usefulness of the waterways and river ports to the economy could so unabashedly consign them to the dustbin.
Worse still, this verdict of uselessness is coming after over five years of supervising the ministry and approving the billions of Naira spent on rehabilitating the river ports. In his first tenure of four years, Amaechi did not see anything wrong with the river ports. Nearly two years into his second tenure, he is now telling the country that the river ports are useless and all the money sunk into them a waste of public funds.
His reference to insecurity of the waterways and the relative speed of transporting cargoes by train obviously indicate Amaechi’s ignorance.
Amaechi devotes more attention to the railways. He has been promoting and pursuing railway constructions with great vigour, including the rail line from Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic, while paying lip-service to maritime transport. To him, the railway to Niger Republic is more viable than the nation’s river ports.
But where does this leave the nation at this stage? As frank as the comments may be, they have exhaustively exposed the minister and the government he represents as far as the development and use of the nation’s waterways are concerned. They have exposed their attitude to the waterways, their deceit and double-speak all these years.
As a matter of fact, the rehabilitation of Baro Port which the minister has so ruthlessly consigned to hell was completed and commissioned by the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, supervised by Amaechi as the minister of transportation. Billions of the taxpayers’ money was sunk into it. As part of the campaign gimmicks of the APC and Buhari’s campaign committee led by Amaechi, in January 2019, the Baro Port was commissioned with funfair, and glowing speeches were delivered by President Buhari and Amaechi.
Amaechi never cautioned against waste of public funds on a port he knew would never be useful or functional, but went ahead to deceive the president and the entire nation. As a campaign gimmick, he obviously did not see anything wrong in sinking billions of Naira in reconstructing the port, purchase of “state-of-the-art equipment” and organizing the rally at Baro in the name of commissioning of the port.
Hear the minister again: “They wanted the port constructed, so we completed it. My responsibility is to construct Baro port and I have constructed it. As Minister, I did engage the public that these are the problems we will face when we finish this Baro Port. First, Nigeria does not produce anything in the first place, so what are you going to transport? If we make the Apapa seaport very efficient, then we don’t even have enough cargo.”
He went on: “I had this conversation with my friend, Senator Goje about the viability of the river ports that we have including Onitsha, Baro, Lokoja and Oguta river ports and I felt that it was a waste of funds”.
As the Minister of Transportation, “Honourable” Amaechi knew all the problems Baro Port would face after “construction” yet did not make any effort to solve the problems first before the construction. One of the problems Amaechi and the government knew very well before and while reconstructing and commissioning the port was the poor state of the access road to the port.
The road to Baro had been impassable, and the natives were shouting about this while the port rehabilitation was ongoing. Some were talking about the need to dredge the access channel as claim that the River Niger had been dredged was a false claim. But all these were ignored, because the transportation minister and the government knew what they were up to. Now, two years into their second term in office, the minister is talking about limitations of Baro Port. He also knew there was nothing to transport through Baro port, yet went ahead to commission it after completion.
Notably, since he was appointed the Minister of Transportation right from the inception of the Buhari administration, Amaechi has never raised his voice on the controversial dredging of the River Niger. He never bothered to find out and to tell the nation if the river was actually dredged or not, and if it was navigable enough to support the sinking of billions of Naira to rehabilitate or construct the river ports. He had played along while officials of the inland waterways authority under him told the nation that the big river had been dredged.
With these comments by Amaechi, Nigerians now know what is going on at the Onitsha River Port. The port which had been completed before the coming of the Buhari administration had not been functional. It was built under the administration of President Shehu Shagari in 1983 but remained fallow and unutilized until 2012 when it was rehabilitated and commissioned by former President Goodluck Jonathan. The Goodluck administration initiated a process to concession the port, and was on the verge of finding a concessionaire before it lost out in the 2015 presidential election. The present government that took over had since then been engaged in a tardy rigmarole of concessioning the port. It has been stories upon stories while the port remains fallow, because, according to them, no concessionaire has emerged.
Now everything has been laid bare. All the accusations of manipulations and subterfuge being leveled at the Ministry of Transportation with regards to the concession of the port have been proved right by Amaechi. It is now clear that the delay or the stalling of the process has been deliberate. From what the minister has said, stakeholders have to wait till eternity – or at least till after the end of this administration. Right now, the process has been stalled as all the manipulations and subterfuge from the ministry landed the concession process in court, where it has been for over two years now.
It is unfortunate that a cabinet minister will be doing his work with deceit and cunning and still be allowed to continue in office. One may recall that all the projects undertaken by the minister in the maritime sector either ended with stories or are almost stillborn. The national fleet project and the HLSI maritime security contract all of which Amaechi introduced with great passion quickly come to mind.
Without mincing words, in an environment where a government values honesty and accountability, Amaechi would not stay a day longer as the country’s transportation minister. Even though many stakeholders have called for his resignation or outright sack by the President, this may not be possible with a government that has taken the deceit and dishonesty which past Nigerian governments have been known to greater height.