Shutting the eastern ports: Consequences of a punitive policy
Last week, I was trapped for hours on the Isolo-Apapa Expressway in an unprecedented traffic gridlock. Many lanes of the so-called expressway were seized by articulated vehicles especially trailers carrying containers and fuel tankers, forcing other vehicles to drive against the traffic, in an effort to move forward since most of the articulated vehicles seemed stationary. Nigerian road users were sweating and cursing. A friend of mine who was riding with me in exasperation asked, “When will this war end?” I turned to look at him wondering what war he was talking about and what the situation we were in had to do with a war. “Which war are you talking about?” I asked him. “The Nigeria-Biafra War,” he replied with a frown on his face. Startled and wondering where he was going, I played along by providing him the obvious answer.” My friend, the war ended about 58 years ago.”
He retorted: “Yes, the physical aspect – shooting by soldiers at the war front may have ended in 1970 but Mazi, the war has been going on other fronts – economic, political, psychological etc.” I turned on my seat to face him squarely as he went full blast to throw up all that he had in mind. The following narrative is a summary of the conversation. He said that before the civil war, Nigeria had two main sea ports – Apapa and Port Harcourt. That was why the colonial government built two rail lines from the North to the South. The Western Line from Kano to Apapa-Lagos and the Eastern Line from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, with a cross from Jos to Kaduna which linked the two lines. Both lines carried cargoes of groundnuts, cotton, herds and skin from the North, Tin and columbite from the Middle Belt to join jute bags of cocoa, rubber, palm produce, timber and coal from the Western and Eastern hinterlands to the ports in Apapa and Port Harcourt for export. Latter the ports in Calabar and Warri were developed to support the export of the newly discovered crude petroleum.
The Eastern ports of Port Harcourt and Calabar served as major gateways for the import of textile including Indian Madras, automobile parts, stock fish, medicines and other consumer commodities that the Igbo traded on, distributing them across the nation particularly to the Middle Belt and the far North with Aba and Onitsha as commercial centres where much of the bulk were broken. This commercial prowess combined with a sound agricultural base and nascent industrial complex spreading from the Trans-Amadi Industrial Estate in Port Harcourt through the Factory Road in Aba and bifurcating into the Onitsha and Nnewi axis, made Eastern Nigeria under the progressive Government of Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Then the Nigerian Biafra war began in July 1967 and all that changed. First, shipments to the Eastern ports were embargoed for strategic reasons. Largely, this was seen as necessary to prevent Biafra from receiving ammunition for prosecuting the war. Later it became necessary to prevent the import of food items so that Biafrans could be pressured by hunger to capitulate faster. Subsequently, similar embargo was placed on the airports in Port Harcourt, Enugu and Calabar. When Biafra built new airports in Uli, Uga and elsewhere to ferry in food and other aids to help keep the starving Biafran children alive, the Federal Government did its best to either destroy the airports or disrupt any flights by the international relief agencies, especially the Red Cross and the Caritas international.
Thus as long as the war lasted, all shipments into and out of Nigeria were concentrated at the Apapa Port. And when the war ended, and the pressure piled on Apapa, resulting in the famous cement armada and flour armada, that clogged the port; rather than reopen the Eastern ports fully, the Federal Government preferred to build a new port around Apapa called Tin Can Island Port forcing everybody from all over Nigeria to move into Lagos, whether you are exporting or importing. The mass exodus of many people from the South East and other parts of Nigeria and the continuous population explosion in Lagos have their roots from this punitive policy measure.
Sometime later when pressure was mounted on the government to relax this policy and reopen the ports, it was discovered that the ports had silted and had become shallow to admit any big ship and the Federal Government has not found money to sufficiently dredge the ports to allow big ships berth at the eastern ports. Beyond this infrastructural handicap, the government of Nigeria and some of its agencies have restricted the importation of certain items to Apapa Port, thus foreclosing the use of the Eastern ports even if they get dredged by public or private effort.
Some of the airports in the East are designated as international airports but in essence are only international in name. So called international airports are de-marketed by the approving agencies. Some are called cargo airports and the only cargo they carry are boxes of Easterners going home for burials or Christmas holidays. The truth is that the punitive policies against Eastern Nigeria enacted during the war have not been fully lifted. Where they are said to be lifted, it is only in words, not in spirit. The result is that Nigeria is short changing itself. The amount of losses, importers and exporters are experiencing from the chronic logjam at the Lagos ports is huge and depressing the gross domestic product. For several months, an armada of heavy articulated vehicles in addition to causing untold hardship to road users are standing on bridges and fly overs. The damage these large stationary weights is having on the bridges must be enormous and soon we shall begin to feel their effects and pay the price. Despite previous repairs, the Third Mainland Bridge may soon be closed for repairs and only God knows what the traffic situation will be. The combination of the closure of the Third Mainland Bridge, the restriction of movement by the several ongoing road projects in Lagos and the blockage of several roads and bridges by tankers and trailers waiting to enter the Lagos ports will create traffic night mare of unimaginable proportions.
People may try to deny this reality and say the policy has changed. But the test of the change of the policy is to see the Eastern ports come alive. If the policy has changed, why is everybody still flocking to Lagos ports? If the policy has changed, why would traffic not be re-routed to the Eastern ports to relieve the current stress in the Lagos ports? If the policy has changed why would importers and exporters not be encouraged to use those ports – sea and air? If the policies have changed why are the conditions for using those ports, even in their substandard states, including costs, levies and bureaucratic processes be so prohibitive?
Nigeria is denying itself of the benefits of decentralising port operations and other economic activities. Indeed when Eastern Nigerians push for restructuring of Nigeria, part of their grouse is this 58 years shutting of the Eastern economic corridor except for oil and gas. As our people say, anyone holding someone on the ground is also holding himself down.
When my friend finished this expose, I shouted wao! And then said a prayer: God please bring this war to a complete end in word and in truth. My friend said a loud ‘Amen’. When we looked up, the traffic had inched up a bit. As we drove on, I promised him I would report this interaction in my weekly column. This is just what I have done.
Mazi Ohuabunwa, OFR. firstname.lastname@example.org