By Enyeribe Anyanwu
But for the noisy election campaigns, the recent ceremony in Baro, Niger State would have commanded a well-deserved national attention. Unfortunately, the event was crowded out of national consciousness by the election din and political maneuverings and deceptions currently going on in the country. Thus the event at Baro was rendered a non-issue.
The ceremony was at the historic Baro River Port. They called it commissioning of Baro Port, but I call it the re-activation of Baro Port. Who does not know that the river port is even older than Nigeria? Describing the event as a ‘commissioning’ is, therefore, a misnomer. As a matter of fact, the commissioning of the port took place more than 60 years ago without the fun-fare and extravagance that attend project commissioning in present Nigeria.
During the colonial era, Baro Port was a very important port. It was the first colonial port and one of the major river ports in the country through which the colonial masters moved raw materials down to Apapa Wharf for shipment to their country. Used for both local and foreign shipments, the river port was linked to a railway line that transported goods to and from the hinterland.
As Geography students in secondary school in the early seventies, we found the lesson on inland water transportation in Nigeria quite exciting. My classmates and I were particularly fascinated by the river ports of Baro, Lokoja and Onitsha. These three river ports were very significant in moving Nigeria’s economy. Our textbooks described to us the efficiency of the river ports –how they made movement of people and goods very easy and efficient down the course of the lower River Niger. How most of Nigeria’s export commodities that comprised groundnuts, cotton, hides and skins, rubber, cocoa and palm produce were shipped to the Apapa Port via the inland waterways. Groundnuts, cotton, hides and skins moved seamlessly from the North down to Apapa Wharf for export while imported goods travelled back the same route.
But after independence, and with the passage of time, these river ports fell into disuse owing to negligence of the river channel that was never dredged even when the colonial masters had that on the cards before leaving the scene. The fate that befell rail transport also befell inland water transportation. The country developed a warped sense of moving bulk cargo as transportation of goods by road with trucks became the preferred transport mode, even with its hazards, destructions and inefficiency.
For many years now, the various administrations in the country have been using the rehabilitation of the waterways as part of their campaign gimmicks. Some have tried to do something but, each time nothing visible was seen to have been done. The rehabilitation of the river ports including Baro has been on the drawing board since the days of the dictator, Sani Abacha. While “commissioning” the port, President Buhari said he assisted in the design of the new river port when he was the chairman of the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under the maximum ruler.
The port, which cost N6 billion to rehabilitate would have taken far less had there been political will to complete important projects at record time. The new port is said to be equipped with a mobile harbour crane, a reach stacker, three forklifts and a transit shed. A Chinese firm, CGCC Global Project Nigeria Limited got the contract for the job.
No doubt, the port if properly utilized will reduce pressure of big trucks on roads and create huge employment opportunities for Nigerians. It may also bring back the days when goods, services and passengers were transported to various destinations in the country through the waterways.
With the ‘commissioning’ of the port, however, one would have expected to see immediate take off of business activities. But one can bet that those equipments will remain idle for a long time, even to the point of rotting away. Government is talking of concessioning the port along with the other river ports of Onitsha, Lokoja and Oguta when completed. What rankles is why government should provide all the equipment after rehabilitation of the ports and then give them out on concession. That aside, the more important questions remain, “Has the lower Niger River actually been dredged to enhance navigation? Two weeks after, what is the level of business activities at the port or does it have to wait until a Chinese firm comes to pick up the cake on a platter? In any case, welcome, Baro Port!
The argument whether the Lower Niger River has been dredged or not reminds me of a Chinese proverb that says that the only time a fisherman tells the truth is when he calls another fisherman a liar.