Posted January 19, 2019
In this third part of the series on developing ports outside Lagos, Anna Okon examines Rivers port and the challenge of insecurity
Rivers port, made up of Port Harcourt Quay, with a length of 1,259 meters, is capable of accommodating eight modern seagoing vessels loading and discharging at the same time.
The port is also equipped with 16 tanks of 3,048-tonne capacity of bulk oil installation. It has a conveyor belt and a pier holding the structure, while there are also seven stacking areas of 27,407.15 square meters size.
According to the Nigerian Ports Authority, the port is a multipurpose port and plays the ‘Mother-Port’ role to many other jetties surrounding her as ‘satellites’ through the provision of pilotage and towage services, catering for the various markets, relating to dry, liquid and general cargo trades.
The situation of the port is also strategic. It is situated in one of the world’s largest crude oil production regions, creating the tanker market being witnessed at the Federal Ocean Terminal through the Bonny Fairway Buoy.
Low vessel traffic
The port, despite its capacity and strategic location, can in no way be compared to its Lagos counterpart in terms of vessel traffic and volume of business.
Vessel traffic to Rivers port has remained below 500 annually for the past five years.
Data obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that in 2012, only 499 vessels called at the port, with a Gross Registered Tonnage of 7,210,520. The same year, 1,445 ships with a GRT of 32,012,798 called at the Lagos Port Complex, while Tin Can Island port received 1,508 vessels with a GRT of 32,636,886.
In 2013, 439 ships called at the port, with a GRT of 6,207,092. The following year, 430 ships called at the port with GRT of 6,632,480.
Lagos Port Complex in contrast, got 1,510 vessels with GRT of 34,189,172, while Tin Can Island port recorded vessel traffic of 1,615 and GRT of 40,096,754.
In 2014, LPC received 1,503 vessels and recorded a GRT of 37,046,879, while Tin Can Island port got 1,692 vessels with GRT of 47,231,548.
In 2015, the number of vessels calling at the Rivers port dropped to 373 with an equally low GRT of 5,423,002. Its Lagos counterpart got 1,410 vessels with GRT of 36,290,502, while Tin Can Island got 1,656 vessels with GRT of 45,864,565.
Vessel traffic in Rivers port further reduced to 317 in 2016 with a GRT of 4,951,913. The LPC recorded 1,559 vessels with GRT of 45,229,402, while Tin Can Island recorded 1,559 vessel traffic with GRT of 45,229,402.
In 2017, vessel traffic to Rivers port was 312 with a GRT of 5,277,722. LPC welcomed 1,151 vessels with GRT of 31,932,784, while Tin Can Island got 1,350 vessels with GRT of 41,477,915.
The drop in vessel traffic witnessed nationwide between 2016 and 2017 was attributable to the ban on 41 items of import by the Central Bank of Nigeria, in the wake of the 2016 recession which was occasioned by the drop in price of crude oil.
Reacting to shrinking dollar receipts owing to the drop in oil price, the CBN had taken some measures to conserve scarce foreign resources.
Notwithstanding, Lagos ports had continued to receive more vessel traffic over the years, causing congestion sometimes and unbearable traffic gridlock along the port access roads.
This led to several calls by stakeholders to decongest Lagos.
The Chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators of Nigeria, Mrs Vicky Haastrup, asked the government to relocate the tank farms from Apapa, and also develop ports outside Lagos, as one way of easing the congestion in the area.
Apapa had also been at the receiving end of increasing and chaotic vehicular movement as importers, residents and workers go to and fro on a daily basis.
A 2018 survey commissioned by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, aimed at providing a lasting solution to the incessant gridlock along the Apapa Port access road, found that about 7,000 trucks ply the Apapa Wharf Road on a daily basis.
Stakeholders complained consistently that Lagos ports remained congested while the Eastern ports remained unutilised.
In response to calls to revive the Eastern ports and make them more attractive to importers, the Federal Government invested huge resources in tugboats, pilot cutters, navigation systems, upgrade of facilities around the ports.
Insecurity at the core of the problem
With the investment, one would expect importers to welcome the opportunity of routing their cargoes through the Eastern port, especially for goods destined for the eastern region.
But the reverse had been the case. Instead of embracing the opportunity, importers have continued to shun the Eastern ports, due in part to the level of insecurity associated with the area.
The Federal Government had also expressed worries over the level of insecurity in the region, adding that the poor activities recorded at ports in the region and Rivers State in particular were caused by insecurity.
The concessionaires in Port Harcourt, Messrs Port and Terminal Operators Limited and BUA Ports and Terminals, lamented recurrent attacks on vessels around Bonny waters, noting that their operations were affected by the activities of pirates on the waterways.
Confronted with complaints that the Eastern ports were not being patronised, an exasperated Nigerian Ports Authority Managing Director, Hadiza Bala-Usman, said, “NPA cannot compel importers to route their goods through the Eastern ports. Importers are at liberty to route their cargo through whichever port they like.”
A freight forwarder, Jay Michael, explained the situation thus, “It is mostly oil companies that ship essential equipments through Port Harcourt port. Though some businessmen ship goods through Port Harcourt port, the rate is very low.
“The oil companies and the shipping agents to those oil vessels have money enough to settle the community dwellers and avoid trouble. The oil industry that utilises Port Harcourt port due to proximity usually doesn’t worry about cost, besides, some of the equipment may be too large and cumbersome to transport through road if shipped from Lagos.
“A boss of mine who is an operations manager in charge of discharging and loading vessels at GAC shipping agency, said militancy, extortion and piracy were the most serious impediments to their operations.
“Except it is absolutely necessary, businessmen prefer Lagos port.”
Market the port to importers, expert suggests
A maritime expert, Dr Vincent Nwani , has suggested that in addition to providing infrastructure, the government should beef up security around the area and give some incentives to importers to attract them to the Eastern ports.
“The government can do more by marketing the ports to importers, through a reduction in charges for cargoes discharged at the ports,” he said.
The community is said to also make efforts to attract importers to the Eastern ports.
In the wake of Escravos channel dredging by the NPA, the Ijaw youths signed an undertaking to let peace reign in the area.
The President of Ijaw Youth Council, Mr Eric Omare, and his Itsekiri National Youth Council counterpart, Weyinmi Agbateyinro, gave the assurance that there would be no ethnic strife to cause disturbance to government’s efforts to develop the ports.
He said, “You will agree with me that the youth and community- related hostilities account for the inability of the government to carry out some developmental projects in the Niger Delta region. Furthermore, the non-usage of the Warri Port in particular and other eastern ports have been attributed to security and other community related challenges.
“Like in the past where the government wants to execute projects, there are community challenges here and there. The IYC and INYC came together and agreed that we cannot allow history to repeat itself. That is why we have decided to take the initiative of sensitisation process which will be led by a joint committee of Itsekiri and Ijaw youths.”
Communities around PH port would need to borrow the same leaf of peaceful co-existence and elimination of attacks on vessels if they aim to restore the confidence of importers.
As a major oil depot, a lot of investments could be channeled to the port, leading to ripple effects of employment creation.
The government makes over N1tn from seaports around Lagos. That revenue could come from the Eastern ports with increase in vessel traffic.
According to stakeholders, a revived PH port will lead to employment for the youth and mark an end to militancy and restiveness among them.
Bala-Usman had last year urged more owners of flat-bottomed vessels that did not require much ocean depth to berth at the ports. This can only happen if there is peace in the region.
Failing this, the government may be forced to question the rationale behind pumping billions of naira into the port without getting any result from the investment.