One year after N5bn upgrade: Onitsha River Port still closed

More than one year after the Federal Government rehabilitated and commissioned the Onitsha River Port at the cost of N4.7 billion, the port is still under lock and key, an indication that government did not do its homework on the viability of the project before plunging public funds into such seeming white elephant project. FRANCIS EZEM reports.

When the Federal Government embarked on the rehabilitation of the Onitsha River Port, which was abandoned since 1983, most stakeholders could not hide their excitement. This is in view of the expected economic benefits to be derived from the project. For instance, the port is expected to serve traders from the South East, Middle Belt and the Niger Delta and by so doing reduce the pressure on the seaports in Lagos, which are usually congested.

Additionally, importers from the Eastern zone would no longer need to go to Lagos, Port Harcourt or Calabar to clear their goods as such goods can be moved by barges and cleared at the River port. This will also reduce the pressure on the roads, with the attendant reduction in cost of maintenance and most importantly the carnage on the roads caused by these heavy duty trucks used in conveying containers and other imported goods from the seaport locations to their final destinations.

Similarly, the strategic location of Onitsha as a major centre of commerce within the West-African sub-region makes the river port a multi-model network of complementary accesses for cheap, efficient and seamless movement of people, goods and services around the country. Regrettably, nearly one year after it was commissioned by President Goodluck Jonathan with fun fair, the port complex has remained securely under lock and key with the infrastructure wasting.

The direct implication of this is that Nigerians are being denied the opportunity of deriving the benefits of this project on which staggering sum of N4.7 billion was spent.

This is also an indication that the objectives of the project has been defeated because it does not serve the purpose for which it was built. Meanwhile, stakeholders have not hidden their reservations over the failure of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) the agency in charge of the port and the Federal Ministry of Transport the supervising ministry to put some measures in place that would guarantee the workability of the port even before it was commissioned.

President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Chief Eugene Nweke, who spoke in an interview, said shippers (importers and exporters, who are potential users of the facility have demonstrated the zeal to begin to take advantages offered by the port complex.

According to him, the shippers have been curious as to the modus operandi of the port, especially in terms of provision of barge services for the movement of the consignments, issues of security as well the terms and conditions for the movement of cargo from Apapa Port for instance to the river port. This concern might not be unconnected with the fact that the movement of some goods abandoned at Apapa Port to Ikorodu Lighter Terminal by the Presidential Committee on Port Reforms on the orders of the president was seriously hampered by the dearth of barges in the port system.

“But it is even more stunning that more than one year after the commissioning of the port, which is a form of invitation to port shippers to commence the use of the facility, government probably through NIWA, which is located in Lokoja, Benue State has not deemed it fit to open up a channel of communication in the form of liaison office for stakeholders’ enquiries”, Nweke said.

It was probably in reaction to these seeming agitations by potential users of the port that the newly appointed managing director of NIWA, Hajia Innah Ciroma in an interview in Lagos, said that the authority was on a new scheme that would bring in private port operators to run the port professionally and efficiently.

According to her, following the commissioning of the project, it was realised that the best way to optimise the use of the port was to invite private persons or firms to takeover the day-day running of the port for efficiency and cost effectiveness.

However chairman, Senate Committee on Marine Transport, Hajia Zainab Kure, who also faulted the claim of the new managing director, noted that the committee was worried that the port had remained under lock and key nearly one year after its commissioning ceremony.

“Apart from media reports, the committee has been inundated with complaints by stakeholders over the state of the port after several billions of public funds were spent on it”, she said.

She, however, disclosed that it was based on these reports and complaints that the committee decided to write NIWA, insisting that the committee would visit the port preparatory to commencing a probe of the project.

Kure had also disclosed that that part of reasons for the non-utilisation of the port was due to the inability of NIWA to secure willing private investors to run the port on a Public –Private Sector Partnership (PPP) arrangement. Kure, who also observed that the upper legislative chamber was not opposed to the PPP arrangement, however faulted the process, arguing that that is tantamount to placing the cart before the house.

“But we have told NIWA that certain things should have been put in place before now like determining whether the port would operate on the basis of a PPP arrangement even before the award of the contract for the rehabilitation”, she insisted.

“You cannot award the contract for a project, execute it and ask Mr. President to commission it and afterwards, you put it under lock and key and tell the world that you are looking for private people to operate it under a PPP,” she had further.

But importers and exporters, who share Kure’s argument, noted that part of the commissioning programme should have been the handling of live cargo, which implies that the port should have been fully operational even before the public ceremony.

Experts had also faulted the decision of the Minister of Transport, Mallam Idris Umar to travel for the commissioning programme by air instead of boat to demonstrate to the world that the dredged rivers are now safe for navigation and that the port is actually ready for use.

These experts are of the view that the Ministry of Transport’s interest in awarding the contract was not the workability of the port rather the other personal interest. The earlier the ministry proves these stakeholders wrong by ensuring that the port works, the better for all of us.

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