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Re-inventing Port Harcourt as a shipping hub (The Guardian)


In the light of weakening global oil prices coupled with Nigerian Government’s new mantra of diversification, there is an urgent need for the Federal Government and all relevant stakeholders in the shipping industry to give adequate attention to Port Harcourt seaports to ensure they are brought back to their original status as a bustling shipping hub as envisioned by the founding fathers.

Port Harcourt was originally created as a port city and shipping hub to export coal and agriculture products in 1912. However when crude oil was eventually discovered in 1956 it changed everything. The city moved from export of non oil products to a major industrial center with a number of large industrial firms particularly businesses related to the oil and gas industry. Everything in the city directly or indirectly now has a bearing on oil and the city has abandoned the ideals of the founding fathers who positioned it as a shipping and commercial hub beyond crude oil.

Port Harcourt and indeed the old Rivers State is paying the price and feeling the pinch brought about by the weakening oil prices. The Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce is seriously engaging a whole lot of stakeholders to see how we can get the city back to what it was originally created for; to be a shipping hub for agricultural and non oil exports, while still providing a base for the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Port Harcourt port was about the second largest port in the country, however now the port is now underutilised and is facing huge facility challenges. We agree we have the Onne port managed by Intels, which is acclaimed one of the biggest oil and gas free zones in the world, but the Onne port is strictly focused on oil and gas related cargo and their charges are astronomically high. Even non oil cargo are charged as if they are oil related and this is not good for business in this era of economic diversification.

Another challenge is the persistence inaction on the part of the port regulators concerning disparity in rates charges between the Lagos ports and the eastern ports. What we don’t understand is why the cargo passing through Port Harcourt ports will cost more than Lagos? This high rate is taking businesses away from Port Harcourt. Most business cargo is now going through Lagos and they are killing the ports in the east. However, one sure thing is that the swamp oil field and land cannot be taken from where it is, which is Port Harcourt and Niger Delta, hence there is a need to expedite action to ensure that seaports in the state are functional to facilitate import and export of other commodities beyond crude oil.

Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce has been doing a lot to remedy the situation, we are engaging government and other stakeholders to see how we can change the situation and ensure we stop businesses from continuously moving out of the city. This call and more efforts have become necessary becaus virtually all the importers from Onitsha, Aba, Port Harcourt and environs now pass their goods through Lagos and this shouldn’t be so. The Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, and Nigeria Shippers Council, NSC, as regulators should bring down their prices so that the likes of Intels Limited will follow suit. They must acknowledge that payments for non-oil cargo should not be tagged along like an oil cargo. So basically the chamber is engaging across board from the various levels of government, Ministry of Transport, Agencies and Intels Limited to see how we can work closely to revive the Port Harcourt ports.

 There has been a lot of presentation to us by the Nigerian Export Promotion Council, NEPC, we are interfacing with the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, NIPC, and we have sustained engagement with the, NSC. Furthermore, we are setting the tone to engage the NPA one of the critical regulators to say that something need to be done to make the old Port Harcourt port fully functional again while Onne with world class facility needs a review on its rates to accommodate non oil cargo because what we have in place now as rates are astronomically high.

 So in all we are saying, Port Harcourt need to go back to shipping which is the ideals of the founding fathers ; we must take a cue from Singapore and Mauritius. These countries had nothing but they were able to identify their potential in shipping, and today, they are among the best and sustaining their economy with that.

We can solve the problems by first getting the old Port Harcourt port back on stream; how? by dredging and further expanding the ports, which in turn will open up the channels to accommodate and allow various size of vessels to come in. We must as matter of priority review our stifling policies to create healthy competition, engage the various stakeholders to work on reviewing charges to reflect realities and create soft landings to encourage businesses.

“While oil and gas related cargo is unavoidable in Port Harcourt businesses, we must as a matter of main concern ensure we also encourage the non oil related cargo to increase shipping activities; when you do that there is a value chain in oil servicing, shipping servicing and others services which ultimately will trickle down to the least businesses,” he was quoted as saying.Membere- Otaji is the President, Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce

Stemming from the fact that Port Harcourt is acclaimed to be an oil and gas enclave, the global fall in oil prices drastically affected the city, oil businesses came down, contractors were not longer getting jobs, people were being laid off from job and the effect is massive unemployment and hardship which consequently leads to the usual socio-economic issues we are abreast with that spirals to other problems.

So basically if we strive to take Port Harcourt back to the idea envisioned by the founding fathers, we stand to gain a lot as there will be in-country trading, for example Dangote Limited and others are exploring coal and other solid minerals in Kogi and other state to power his cement factory and we will need marine haulage in-country that will contribute to stimulating the economy.

We must take advantage of our natural potentials to better our economic life; look at Mississipi in the US, a River that span across so many cities and states, and has been instrumental to stimulating those economies – we should be able to replicate this. We must take advantage of our stretch of coastal lines, intensify effort on our non oil export, agriculture, industrial fishing and agro allied products and explore the value chain on petroleum in the form of petrochemicals and fertilizer plants..

While security remains a critical issue not only in Port Harcourt but the Niger Delta as whole, strong concerted efforts from the major stakeholders especially the oil companies and strong political will on the part of the national government will ameliorate the issue.

Only recently the Somalian pirates made that shipping lane impassable but today, that is history because of strong efforts from key stakeholders, Also government should put in place a medium to long term development plan for the oil producing Niger delta beyond the stop gap Amnesty Programme and NDDC.

From the time of the pre-independence Willinks Commission report, stop gaps have never provided permanent solutions. Since every business in Nigeria cannot gravitate in Lagos, a so called ‘safe haven with good infrastructure’, efforts should be made to develop other cities like Port Harcourt, Kano, Jos, Enugu, Ibadan, Warri etc. to become excellent economic centres. Anything else will be likened to playing out the ostrich game.

This post was first published on the The Guardian

Views expressed are only those of the authors.

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