Onitsha River Port’s Many Unanswered Questions

Onitsha River Niger Bridge

By Chuks Collins, Awka

Onitsha, the strategic gateway and main commercial hub of the South-East had for so long even from the colonial days yearned for key commercial infrastructures and services like rail lines, airport, and seaport among others like a dedicated electricity supply network, security, properly designed well-paved access roads, sanitation and neat streets adorned with flowers and street lights. Till date they are still lacking!

So, it was great relief to many on August 30, 2012, as the long awaited Onitsha River Port dream became a reality when President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned it alongside some other private industries in Onitsha.

The dream according Lynda Ikpeazu, a former House of Representatives member for the Onitsha Federal Constituency (1999-2003) was part of her constituency project then. That she saw to it that the project alongside the Greater Onitsha Water scheme was incorporated into the national budget all through the period until fruition now. She was however sad that neither the water project nor the dredging of the Lower River Niger has been accomplished to give the river port a realistic purposed and aim. At least for the berthing of cargo bearing vessels without difficulties.

The ex-legislator said she was indeed happy that one of her campaign promises to the citizens has now been realized, even though it appeared to be far from full realization. She admitted the port would enhance the commercial activities of the city, and greatly alleviate the security and safety challenges daily being faced by the city’s businessmen and importers. Currently they have to use Portharcourt, Calabar and Lagos seaports to bring in goods and then transport them at great costs and risks from these ports down to Onitsha, their bases by road. They even some times resort to the use of ports in neighbouring countries of West Africa thereby making the nation lose huge revenue.

In his remarks during the impressive commissioning ceremony at the riverport approach in Onitsha, President Jonathan pointed out that “as a nation one good thing we would do to reduce transport is to exploit all potentials available. When we try to adjust the pump price of petroleum products, there was a resistance because cost of transport was quite high, so it ought not to be so. We believe that maybe the road transport, the river and the core marine or coastal transport must be enhanced and for you to do that, you need terminal points.

“We need the normal port, marine port; we need inland port like the one we are commissioning today. We also have of course, inland container terminals that the Minister mentioned. So that even in our travels there is no need for cargo to be cleared at our airports or seaports. There should be inland terminals for other things to curtail congestions.”

He also assured the people that it was one of the targets of his administration to link up all these ports by road and rail so that transportation in Nigeria becomes a lot easy.

Hear him, “Transporting through the water is cheaper than on land. Cargoes that are supposed to be moved on water are carried on roads” said the President.

Earlier, the Minister of transport, Senator Idris Umar, said that the port was aimed at easing road transportation and in order to enhance economic activity through water transport.

Governor Peter Obi also noted that Anambra State was the best place to site the river port due to its high commercial activities. According to him, “Onitsha remains the biggest and most important trading city in the country. There is no other place to build this facility than Onitsha”.

Ironically the Onitsha business community that would be the greatest beneficiaries of the port appeared skeptical over the intentions of the Federal Government on the project especially as the only presence of the Federal Inland Waterways, operators of the port was more of a makeshift office. This, journalists were told, accommodates only few staff, while the supposed ‘port’ area remains a mere gesture, unfenced and open, unlike what obtains at other ports.

An Onitsha based importer who gave his name as Chief Cletus Obiagboso could not hide his “doubts about what the Federal Government appeared to be really taking us for.”

He noted that the dredging “The dredging of the River Niger started and stopped long time ago and all the machineries evacuated. We have no stable power supply in Onitsha, no proper road network, insecurity reigns and kidnappers and armed hoodlums run amok here, no peace of mind, sanitation or erosion/flood channelization or any government presence to reassure us that we are still part of Nigeria”, he stressed. He went down memory lane to recount that at the run-up to 1999 Presidential elections that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo visited the popular commercial city and went to pray at the mausoleum ground where the remains of the former Number One citizen of the country, late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe rests. The popular 34 rooms presidential mansion known as Inosi Onira Retreat has become overgrown with weeds and giant elephant grasses while his statue produced by H. Onukwuba is lost to the angry eastern weather. Not minding it was located adjacent to the 302 Field Artillery Regiment of the Nigerian Army, the premises has become a play ground for hoodlums and rodents, due to utter neglect by the Federal and the South East state governments. No sane being would believe such could become the fate of a president of the Giant of Africa.

What about the second Niger Bridge? Again Chief Tony Anenih, the then Minister of Works was more apt and realistic with the people when in a media chat during a visit to Anambra shortly after President Obasanjo’s Feb 14-16, 2001 working tour of the state, that the second Niger Bridge project was never a priority of that administration. It remained so till date, even after that regime’s eight years tenure. It was a similar gimmick years earlier by Chief Lateef Jakande as the then Minister of Works when he told the nation that the design of the bridge was not ready. Unfortunately, our dear Minister failed to contend that everything should not be politicized, including the issue of second Niger Bridge.

However it was understandable. He must have concluded he had little or no reason to have personal need or use for the vexed bridge throughout his life. That unfortunately has remained the disturbing view and posture of most Nigerian public officer holders. But the dramatic follow-up to his claim put permanent paid to the shameful argument. Because a key member of the consultant engineers earlier engaged by the FG to conclude and approve design of the bridge, Vincent Maduka, spoke up. He did not only confirm that the design had been done and approved long time earlier, he affirmed also that the payment for the job had been fully made, by the FG.

Onitsha, according to another unimpressed Anambra citizen who gave his name simply as George Iheme, residing on St John’s Street in the commercial city, has gone down in history as the only contemporary commercial city without an airport, seaport and a rail line, or proper electricity supply for her citizens or industries. It was such that the residents especially the business executives daily leave in droves to greener pastures along with their investments and families, for good.

Ikpeazu stated that since the FG has mooted its intention to extend the rail line down to Onitsha, to connect the city with the North, West, Lagos and Portharcourt, that it’s another way to alleviate the sufferings and pains and losses of the resident businessmen. Chief Oranu Chidume the executive chairman of the Kristoral Group which new factory the president commissioned alongside the river port urged the FG to give added impetus to the port by the construction of the second Niger Bridge. More so that the present bridge has become too old, weak and needs some form of relief.

Ikpeazu admitted that the executive bill which brought the second Niger Bridge issue to lime light at the National Assembly sailed successfully and that the contract was awarded by a concert of Works, Lands and Housing ministries last year. That the Minister of Lands and Housing confirmed it personally when she inquired recently.

She blamed the long gap between the FG, the state/city and the people on the imposition of persons who neither stood for election, nor approached the electorates with any manifesto or campaign promises. Therefore after being awarded victory they then owe no one any obligation.

Iheme agreed with her, noting that the Onitsha-Owerri Federal Highway, the contract of which was awarded and flagged off on Oct 7, 2002 by Chief Obasanjo(with a completion period of 36 months) has broken records as the

longest outstanding and uncompleted Federal Highway till date.

When the Vice President sent the then Minister for Federal capital Territory, Engr Abba Gana in 2000 to represent him in the flag-off of the 10,000-stall Oba International Market project in the state, he gave his word that the FG would build a road linking the market direct to the Onitsha main market. And also to build a dry port from Ekulo River at the edge of which the new international market sits, to River Niger port at Onitsha. None of these ever took off till date.

Iheme wondered why Anambra that contributed about N50m in 1986 in the care of Chief Akunwata Modebe for the construction of an airport is still searching for a suitable site when Delta state started and completed their in a record 24months last year. He saw it as very unfair for a state that always give 85% of her votes to the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) be so brazenly shortchanged by same political party chieftains in power.

He said he relocated out of Nigeria to Ghana and subsequently evacuated all his businesses and family in 2010 when insecurity threatened to ruin and liquidate his investments and drove his foreign partners nuts. He sees Nigeria as playing the ostrich in almost all sectors where the citizens were constantly left to their fate. The haranguing effect of the blazing bombs and constantly flowing blood of Nigerians, Igbos and Christians from the ever flowing fountain of a murderous group called Boko haram. To him, “what can the FG say Onitsha or Anambra state benefited from the President Jonathan’s administration so far and they are now scheming with the active connivance of Gov Obi to railroad the Igbos into giving him another blanket nod and support?”

The apparently bitter businessman pointed out that “since Obi knows he has no influence or followership among the citizens, who have watched in disbelief how he frittered away their goodwill in the last 7years, such that he cannot approach the electorate to seek support for the president again. That the South East governors’ selfish drive for re-election and the greed of Ohaneze chiefs who gave a blanket support to Jonathan’s presidential aspiration last year whereas his South-South home base threw their weight behind him last, with conditions. They therefore appeared not to be taken in by the selfish drive of few political merchants because its evident from peoples’ reactions that this is the day of reckoning for the support earlier given without any preconditions.




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