For the second time on this page, we are expressing our openly appreciation to the Maritime Reporters Association of Nigeria (MARAN) for its role in bringing salient issues within the nation’s maritime sector to the front burner. Sometime in 2008, the association organised a seminar on how to finance ship acquisition, with special attention on the plight of indigenous ship owners and their quest to improve on their fleet and enhance participation in shipping activities.
Recently, the association took the issue of low patronage of ports within the eastern operational flank of the Nigerian Ports Authority to public domain through a seminar which it hosted in Port Harcourt. The theme of the seminar was: Economic imperatives of reviving eastern ports.
The ports that are categorised as eastern ports are: Port Harcourt, Onne (comprising of Federal Ocean Terminal and Federal Lighter Terminal), Calabar, Warri, Koko, Sapele and Burutu (otherwise known as Delta ports).
Port Harcourt port was once the most vibrant port in the eastern part of Nigeria. Its brightest moment was between the 1980s and 1990s; that is before INTELS; a private terminal operator overshadowed the port with its superlative performances in Onne port; also in Rivers state.
The same fate befell Warri port (Delta) and Calabar port (Cross Rivers); both of which had at different times played prominent roles in the history of NPA until dwindling patronage set in. Both ports are yet to rekindle their enviable pre- 1990’s status of vibrant ports.
As for Sapele and Burutu ports, only miracles can bring them back to life as already a part of the former has been taken over by the Nigerian Navy. Burutu port is not even in the thoughts of NPA which has probably given up on the once- strategic port.
When government adopted port concession it was expected that the fortunes of these ports would change, but that expectation has been largely dashed as only Onne port is still enjoying a good showing.
With concession, private sector operators like: Port and Terminal Operations Limited, Bua, Ecomarine, INTELS among others joined the list of companies with high hopes that things could only get better.
By virtue of their locations, these ports should conveniently be serving the commercial needs of all the states in the eastern and south- south parts of Nigeria. Apart from these states, these ports should substantially meet the needs of some parts of north central part of the country. But all these are conjectures that never materialised.
We are aware of several efforts that were put up by the terminal operators in Port Harcourt port to woo importers from the eastern part of the country to no avail. Incredibly, the importers in Aba, Nnewi, Onitsha and other commercial cities in the east are already hooked to Onne port and unbelievably some of them still patronise Lagos ports.
We are told that the Port Harcourt berths are not deep enough to accommodate the type of vessels that call at Onne port. Besides, the port has been known for many years as a bulk cargo terminal.
Warri port has a peculiar problem of compulsory, but illegal pilotage by local pilots, which from the onset has distanced shipping lines from Delta ports.
The fact that the Warri old port was handed over to Messrs Integrated Logistics Services, Associated Maritime Services and construction giants, Julius Berger, while Terminal ‘B’ of the new port went to Integrated Logistics Services and terminal ‘A’ to Global Infrastructure, has done nothing to persuade ship owners that the port is okay.
From the calibre of people who attended the MARAN sensitisation seminar and also from media reports, it is certain that it is only those whose investments are being threatened that are more concerned about the dwindling fortunes of eastern ports. Of course, an importer is not obliged to patronise Port Harcourt, Warri or even Calabar port; or any port for that matter, it is the responsibility of the operators (or owners) of the port to make it attractive and competitive. The same goes for the ship owner whose interest (among other things) is to ensure safe voyages for his ship.
While not speaking for the concessionaires, available information is that they are not enjoying the best of patronage, except for one or two of them, which are already into service delivery to the oil and gas concerns.
As for Calabar port, the greatest problem is perhaps the limited draught of the channel leading into the port. Successive governments have talked about dredging Calabar channels; the present government has started singing the same tune.
It is heart-warming and hope-inspiring that one of the terminal operators; PTOL has started receiving container-laden ships at Port Harcourt. This is a clear indication that all hope is not lost and that with proper marketing, the port can boom again.
We are also elated about the effect of resumption of operations at the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company and the recent declaration by the managing director, NPA that the organisation would consciously bring in bigger vessels to the Warri port even as he assured that the much-expected dredging of the Escravos channel is receiving attention.
Perhaps, the greatest opportunity may be on the way for Warri port as two prospects are already being explored. First is the planned construction of a 50,000 tonnes capacity cold room for imported fish, second is the Escravos Gas to Liquid project that the port is strategically positioned to participate in. By all standards, the Escravos project alone is capable of turning the fortunes of Warri port around.
With these come the challenges of marketing these ports and ensuring that their immediate catchment areas are made to patronize them. This should be done side-by-side with the provision of adequate security measures at both the ports and the approaches.
Thank God that the problem of militancy is already being addressed by the federal government and once that is solved, more meaningful patronage may be witnessed in the eastern ports.