Seven Months On, NIWA-Onitsha River Port Remains Unoperational

Seven Months On, NIWA-Onitsha River Port Remains Unoperational
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Charles Ebi

In October 2020, the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA, piloted the arrival of the first cargoes from Onne Port in Rivers State to the Onitsha River Port in Anambra State by barges. NIWA had said the ceremony marked the beginning of the frequent arrival of cargoes to the port to decongest the traffic caused by trucks lifting containers from Lagos ports by road.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, the Managing Director of NIWA, Dr George Moghalu said, “The aim of the test-run is to break the jinx and encourage partnership with the Barge Operators Association.” He also revealed that the port was capable of handling 1,000 containers at once, which would then be transported by road to their destinations, which are nearer than Apapa and Tin Can port in Lagos or the Onne port in Rivers.

Seven months after the celebrated arrival of cargoes by barges, no container has arrived at the Onitsha port, an investigation by AljazirahNigeria revealed. A first-quarter target by the NIWA for full operation of the port was also missed. Our correspondent gathered that the voyage from Onne to Onitsha was difficult due to navigational issues.

Sources privy to the test-run process said the first container vessel to arrive in October last year was towed into Onitsha port and that it did not sail as NIWA had announced. Near the port, a worker in the Julius Berger Construction Company at the second Niger Bridge told our correspondent that they were the ones that towed the ship immediately it left Onne to Onitsha. He said the barges on which the groundbreaking ceremony took place at the port were also arranged by them.

“There is nothing that has ever happened at the Onitsha River Port. The entire thing is just one big drama. The ship was towed into Onitsha. We use flat-bottom boats to move our equipment into Onitsha, and where there is a shallow draft, we dredge to allow for easy navigation,” our source added.

Recently, NIWA said it had engaged Akewa Colmar Terminal Limited, ACTL, to move containers from Lagos ports to the Onitsha River Port via Burutu Port in Delta State.

Some operators and stakeholders in the importation business spoke about the state of the Onitsha River Port. The secretary of the Electronic Market Association in Onitsha, Comrade Damian Ogudike, said the purported opening of the Onitsha River Port was deceit.

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It was learnt that since the NIWA claimed that the port was opened, importers in Onitsha are not accessing it because it is not functioning. “We will be pleased with the NIWA and the federal government to match their words with action. You cannot tell the whole world that Onitsha port was functioning while it was not working. It is the height of deception,” he said.

An importer in Onitsha, Mr Mobi Rocky, said that after the commissioning of the Onitsha River Port, it stopped functioning almost immediately. He said, “I don’t know why it stopped working when we had the hope of getting relief from the pains we pass through to bring goods to this part (South-East) of the country. I hope the government will reactivate the port because most of us are importers. We need the port for easy movement of goods from Port Harcourt and Lagos seaports to the South-East.”

Another importer, Mr Martins Okafor, also confirmed that the port had not been working since they commissioned it. He said nobody had cleared goods from the port since they claimed to have opened it. “Barges just came when they said they had commissioned the port, and since then, nothing is happening there. I thought my pains of moving goods from Port Harcourt and Lagos to Onitsha had ended, but here we are. We appeal to the government to make it functional and active,’’ he said.

When contacted, the manager of the Onitsha River Port, Mr Baba Adam Spencer, said that for now, the facility had not started functioning fully. According to him, tests were done by ConnectRail Limited, Co-Haulage and AFCOM Nigeria Limited in preparation for full operation. He also said AFCOM Nigeria Limited had been given an operational licence to commence very soon.

NIWA’s Head of Corporate Communication, Jibril Darda’u, said that the voyage by the container vessel was the first phase of the test run and that the second phase would be from Lagos ports to the Onitsha River Port and from Onitsha back to Lagos. “Part of the managing director’s commitment since he assumed duty is to ensure that the Onitsha port is fully functional. This is after 42 years of construction and commissioning in 2012, but it has not been put to use. The first voyage is in preparation for the full official operation of the port, which was intended to commence by the first quarter of 2021, but there are some teething problems, which include meeting with the Nigerian Navy and discussing with locals, whose waterfront would also be used,” Darda’u said.

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The Federal Government had struck gold at the official commissioning of the port with the plan to move cargo from Lagos ports to inland ports across the country, especially those of the southeastern part of the country like Onitsha. This followed the operating licences issued to about eight barge operators to move containers from Lagos Ports to Onitsha River Port to other inland ports through the nation’s inland waterways.

Although the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA, has kept the estimated revenue from the effort to its chest as a result of fears of jeopardizing the project, checks revealed that the federal government would rake in as much as N30 billion yearly if well managed. Managing Director of NIWA, Chief, George Moghalu, while addressing newsmen during a meeting with the stakeholders in Lagos, said that moving cargo by waters through barges would be cheaper than roads.

Moghalu, who refused to disclose estimated revenue from the project, said the effort was part of ongoing efforts to solve the gridlock in Lagos ports. He said that NIWA management decided to have a meeting with the barge operators that it has already licensed to fashion out ways to make the project successful.

According to him, the representatives of Nigeria Ports Authority, NPA, and the President of the Barge Owners Association of Nigeria, BOAN, and other stakeholders looked at the programme NIWA has on multi-modal transports system to move cargo between Lagos and Onitsha and to other inland ports

Specifically, he said: “So it is all about moving cargo between Lagos and Onitsha and other inland ports. We have licensed about eight barge operators. A lot of people have applied but we are being very careful because we have the Standard Operating manual, which we strictly insist that you have to meet all the requirements. At the same time also we do not lose sight of the fact that NPA also licenses barge operators. We try to synergise our operations so standards are not compromised.”

He added that by the time the nation’s waterways are put into active use, it would save the country’s decaying infrastructure, “and the money being spent on repairing infrastructure and rebuilding of roads would reduce and not be there again. According to him, moving cargoes from Lagos to Onitsha and other inland ports would increase earnings and generate more revenue going into government’s coffers, adding that NIWA is engaging NPA and other stakeholders to facilitate the commencement of the cargo haulage.

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The news of the commissioning attracted congratulations from the government, NIWA and Moghalu. Dr Orji Kalu, former governor of Abia State lauded the Federal Government for revamping Onitsha River Port. In a statement, Kalu said the resumed activities at Onitsha seaport will boost economic activities in the South East and ultimately create employment opportunities and wealth for Nigerians. He commended the efforts of the Federal Ministry of Transportation and NIWA for the development.

He said: “With the functioning of Onitsha seaport, exporters and importers will be relieved of the stress of transporting containers by road from different ports to the South East and vice versa. With the commencement of activities at Onitsha seaport, businesses will thrive further in the South East. The bottlenecks being faced by exporters and importers will be reduced as containers can now be transported from Onne Port and other ports through the waterways to Onitsha seaport and vice versa.

The activities in the seaport will drive industrialisation and sustainable development in Onitsha and South East at large. The revamping of Onitsha River Port is another feat achieved by the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari,” Kalu said.

All these congratulations would have been apt if indeed Onitsha River Port had become operational. People of the South East would have had cause to jubilate and to praise the Buhari administration. Good enough, Maersk Line, the multi-national shipping line whose shipping schedule was used to perpetrate the “fake news”, came out promptly to refute the claim and to put the records straight.

The shipping line debunked the news that it has commenced full operation at the Onitsha inland port.


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