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Reviving Calabar port

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Last week, the Presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, at the APC’s Presidential primary convention, unfolded his plan to dredge the 84-nautical mile Calabar Port access channel to make the port attractive for business and boost the economy of the Eastern region, if elected President. OLUWAKEMI DAUDA writes.

There was jubilation in the tent of the delegates from the Cross River State when the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Asiwaju Bola Tinubu in his acceptance speech after he won the ticket at the Eagle Square promised to dredge the channel leading to the Calabar Port to enable large vessels berth and do business there.

The joy was expected. Dredging the port, stakeholders who spoke with The Nation on the sidelines of the convention, said, would boost the economy of Cross River State, provide efficient port service system that will guarantee quick turnaround time of vessels, faster cargo clearance and save cost. Besides, it would also make the port function maximally so that the youth and business people in the area can also go there and keep themselves busy as alternative to crime.

Other stakeholders said the delay in the dredging of the channel to acceptable standard had impacted negatively on the economic activities of the state and the country. “The Tinapa Resort, Calabar has been a little bit dormant because of the non-functionality of the channel,” said an importer, Mr Sunday Felix.

History of the port

The history of Calabar Port can be traced to the merchants of the 15th century. It served as an important focus of trade with the outside world and port for the north. The old port was privately administered and operated by various shipping companies among which were M/S Palmline Agencies Limited and Elder Dempster Agencies until December 1969 when the Federal Government took over the inadequate Calabar Port facilities from the erstwhile operators and vested it on the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).

The development, modernisation and expansion of the Calabar Port was embarked upon under the Third National Development Plan (1975 –1980) to make the port facilities cope with the ever-increasing demand of the economy. The port complex, which was inaugurated in June1979, consists of the following major areas: 38 hectares, four quays each measuring about 215metres long and 40metres wide. The quays were also divided into six berths.

The port also has two warehouses measuring 150 metres by 40 metre and 175 metres by 40 metres Its operational area was divided into two terminals. Terminal A consisting of two berths was concessioned to Messrs Intels Nigeria Limited, while Terminal B consisting of four berths was concessioned to Messrs ECM Terminal Limited.

House of Representatives’ call for dredging

In March, this year, the House of Representatives urged the Federal Government to re-award the contract for the dredging of the Calabar Seaport to a reputable company, with a mandate to complete the project within a timeframe.

Also, the House urged the NPA to supervise the project and ensure that standard depth is established to enable larger vessels to berth at the port, in line with international best practices.

The House further mandated its Committee on Ports and Harbours to “investigate the contracts awarded in 2006 and 2014 to ensure that factors militating against complete dredging of the Calabar Seaport are resolved.”

These resolutions were sequel to the adoption of the motion moved by a member of the House, Dr. Alex Egbona, entitled: ‘Call to complete the dredging of the Calabar Seaport.’

According to Egbona, the Calabar Seaport is the oldest seaport in Nigeria, from where palm oil and other goods were shipped to Europe and other parts of the world in the 16th century

Egbona, who represents the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency, said: “My mind is always on the Calabar Port and the waste of a public facility that would have given a boost to commerce and tourism in my state. Each time I think of the Calabar Port, my heart bleeds. Each time I remember that we have a seaport that is lying idle, wasting away, when the Lagos port is busy and making the economy of that state to boom, I develop stomach ache. It makes me want to sometimes think that the Federal Government hates us. I may be wrong, but that appears to be the best way to describe the abandonment of the Calabar Port.

“See, we are talking about the oldest seaport in this country. In the 16th century, goods like palm oil were being shipped to Europe and other parts of the world from this seaport in question.

“Before now, it was privately operated by various shipping companies, including John Holts, until December 1969 when the Federal Government took over the port’s facilities and gave its management and ownership control to the NPA. As I said on the day I presented the motion, the development, modernisation and expansion of the port complex was embarked upon under the third National Development Plan of 1975-1980 and then on June 9, 1979, it was inaugurated by the then military administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Some of us have at various times expressed the concern that the port is not serving the purpose for which it was established, largely because of its shallow nature and notable sons and daughters of Cross River State, past and present governments at the state level, have cried out to the Federal Government for the port to be dredged, to allow large vessels to come in.

“There have been diverse government proclamations on the dredging of the port dating back to the administrations of General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha but no tangible thing has been done to rehabilitate it. In 2006, Obasanjo, as president of Nigeria, awarded a contract for the dredging of the port to Messrs. Jan De Nul and Van Oord at a cost of $56million but it was abandoned. In 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan initiated the Calabar Channel Management (CCM), a joint venture company between the NPA and a consortium of companies led by Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited to dredge the port.

“Although the Calabar Channel Management was reported to have commenced work, the port is yet to be dredged. So, you can see why I said at the beginning, that my heart bleeds whenever I remember what the Calabar port has been through.

“And in the midst of this neglect, the Lagos port is booming. If you need to clear your goods, you must do so in Lagos and then find a way to bring your containers to the Southsouth and Southeast, with the attendant bad roads and all that. Can you see what I am talking about?

“Look at the amount of money that exchanges hands in Lagos and compare that with what is happening in Calabar. So, would you say that this country is fair to Calabar, or to the Southsouth? We keep talking about youth unemployment. We are talking of trade and commerce in the Southeast. Go to Onitsha and Aba and see the number of containers that enter those commercial cities daily. Those goods are being cleared in Lagos. Meanwhile, we have a port in Calabar.

Why can’t the port in Calabar be dredged and made to function maximally so that our boys can also go there and keep themselves busy? There was a time that cars were imported and were cleared at the Calabar Port. That time, if you can remember, people were always going to Calabar either to buy those cars or do other things. That way, hotels were busy, the local economy got some serious boost and life was pleasant. Today, those who believe they are the owners of Nigeria appear to have crippled or killed the Calabar Port. And in the midst of this, the same people will be crying that the Lagos Port is congested. Is that not hypocrisy?

“So, my plea is that the Federal Government must, immediately, take steps to ensure that the Calabar Port is given a life of its own. A quick completion of the Calabar Seaport will help decongest the Lagos Port and reduce the hardship of waiting for hours to clear goods.

“The Federal Government cannot pretend not to know of or hear about our hue and cry about the Calabar Seaport. I believe it is a sin for them to continue to keep silent about this. If they do not feel okay with handing it over to private concerns, let them re-award the contract for the dredging of the port and then supervise it very closely, just to be sure that the depth would be good enough to allow very big ships to berth at the port. This is my prayer,” he said.

Previous dredging efforts

The Calabar channel dredging is the most controversial of NPA’s contracts. It has been awarded and re-awarded several times. Sometimes, there were claims that the channel had been dredged, yet the channel remains non-navigable and shallow and unable to attract sizeable vessels to boost business at the port.

For instance, in 2005, contracts for the management of the four channels in Nigeria were advertised. They included Lagos, Bonny, Calabar and Warri channels. The bid was conducted internationally by Mobotek, a Holland consulting firm where about 49 international firms applied.

At the end of the pre-qualification involving the technical and financial bids verification with bid clarification meetings between NPA and Federal Ministry of Transport, some companies emerged.

These include DEPASSA, leading a consortium of companies for Lagos Channel, Dredging International Services, leading a consortium of companies for Bonny Channel, Niger Global Engineering, leading a consortium of companies for Calabar Channel and Forby Engineering, leading a consortium of companies for Warri Channel.

Though the management of Lagos and Bonny Channels were executed, the ones in Calabar and Warri were not. The Calabar dredging contract may have been won by Calabar Channel Management Limited sources put equity participation in the joint venture at 60 per cent for NPA and 40 per cent for the company, in the ratio of 160 million shares belonging to NPA and 140 million to the firm.

But the contract ran into a hitch following a strong petition by the former NPA Chairman, the late Chief Tony Anenih.

In a five-page petition to the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, Anenih appealed to the minister to cancel the agreement, which was made on January 25, 2013 between NPA and the consortium and the directors of NPA, Ministries of Transport and Justice to appraise the agreement and produce an acceptable deal.

The petition also directed the then managing director of NPA, Mallam Habib Abdullahi, to suspend the 60 per cent subscription fee payment to the joint venture.

Steps taken by Jonathan

Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s approval of the capital dredging of the 84-nautical mile Calabar Port access channel in 2014 gave many in the maritime industry the goose pimples because billions of naira had been sunk in the project with nothing to show for it. Up till today, many are still wondering whether the project had not become a conduit for siphoning public funds, a reason they want the in-coming administration to study the project and see where there were mistakes to make the port work.

While some applauded the promise by Tinubu, apparently because of the project’s capacity to boost the economy of Cross River and the nation, others were apprehensive because it had been abandoned by contractors for years despite the billions of naira sunk into it.

Bringing those who handled the failed project to book

Also, the then Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Habib Abdulahi, confirmed that the Federal Government has awarded the contract for the dredging of the port.

During a visit to the then Acting Governor of the Cross River, Mr Efiok Cobham, Abdulahi said: “I am very happy to inform you that Mr. President has approved the capital and maintenance dredging of the Calabar Port.”

company can discharge its responsibility. He said LCM has 14 dredgers and vessels for removing wrecks, including special dredgers that can do the Key Walls.

Investors groan

Despite the huge amount spent on the port, its channel remains shallow, and investors have continued to count their losses.

Before govt awards fresh contract

Stakeholders advised that a fresh contract must not be awarded until an explanation was given on the previous ones.

They said there was the need to probe those that took several billion of naira from the government without much to show for it. The feeling of operators is that if the N96 billion was judiciously invested in dredging the Calabar Port, the channel will not be difficult for big vessels to berth.

Former President, Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu said: “There is nothing bad if Asiwaju promised that he will dredge the channel by re-awarding the contract. But the previous contractors must be made to tell Nigerians what happened and how the money was spent and on what so that people will not start to see it as avenue to siphoning public funds. Was the contract executed to specifications and if no, those who awarded the contract then must tell us what they have done to sanction the companies and if yes, the same people must tell us how come the channel is not navigable? Were there some shady dealings? Who are those involved apart from the contractors? Officials of the NPA and the Transport Ministry who awarded the contracts then must also tell Nigerians what happened and why the huge sum could not improve the depth of the channel and boost the economy of the state and the country.”

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