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CONSOLIDATING NIGERIA’S TRUE MARITIME PROFILE: A CHALLENGE

By NBF News
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One of the most important challenges facing any nation that has a sizeable coastline and is densely populated is how to maximize trade through its available ports. Nigeria should indeed be one of the world's major sea and river port nations given its geographical nature.

Surprisingly in spite of the fact that the nation has several impressive maritime locations the main trend in Nigerian port development has been negative growth outside of the main port of Lagos.

In a nation of more than a hundred million people and where the bulk of import trade is controlled to a large extent by people who hail from areas of the nation that are near to some major ports on the eastern axis of the coastline the focus of trade on a single port is an anomaly. If ports like Warri, Calabar, and Port Harcourt were being properly utilised the pressure on the Lagos-Apapa complex would be substantially reduced and much of the confusion that attends Nigeria's maritime trade would be rationalised.

However for some strange reason this has not been the case for decades now and the surprising thing is that it seems that most governments so far have not really cared to make effective efforts to remedy this problem. At least that is how it appears to any serious student of Nigeria's maritime profile to date. Apart from the evacuation of oil products from locations like Bonny and Escravos the use of port facilities on the Atlantic coast beyond Lagos is minimal. This is in spite of the fact that the market for imported goods and the need for evacuation of raw materials such as timber, rubber etc. from the territories adjacent to these ports should be regarded as vital elements in building a diverse economic strategy for the nation.

In addition to this the development of some of the major ports like Calabar would enhance the employment of labour in the metropolises where such ports are located. The maintenance of these ports and the constant dredging of the channels leading to them would also provide enhanced development of the shoreline communities. This would in turn improve security and development in the coastal communities over and above that being provided by the presence of the oil and gas industry at the moment.

The true stakeholders of the maritime profile of the nation are the communities that have lived in these territories for centuries but the true beneficiary of effective maritime enhancement is the entire nation. It is interesting to note that in recent years as the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has developed its policy of granting concessions for the management of the nation's ports the control of these concessions have not involved the stakeholders of the regions where the ports exist to any noticeable extent. Instead a close study of the profile of the concessionaires indicate that many of them have gained privileged concessions on the basis of their supposed record of long service in the industry of port management or because of what is perceived as their financial viability.

As a result many of the concessions are being managed as extensions of the personal trading requirements of specific companies. In some cases their operations are enhanced by keeping the ports under them inactive on certain fronts rather than expanding their operations to enable them compete with the main port in Lagos. While this might be good business for the concessionaires it is a debilitating and distressing strategy in terms of the consequences for those who form the bulk of the territory's inhabitants.

Importers in the Eastern states would benefit more if they did not have to travel all the way from say Aba or Onitsha to Lagos for the bulk of their goods. Also the rise in employment that would emanate from the proper operation of a port like Calabar would have a salutary effect on economic growth in the entire South-eastern axis of the nation, These are key issues that the present Administration needs to consider as it proposes to transform the economic profile of the nation because the under-utilisation of Nigeria's maritime potential has remained a core element of the deficiency in economic growth that the nation has been faced with for several decades.

A major factor in the confrontation of this particular issue is political rather than economic and for this reason Dr. Goodluck Jonathan's government should consider it a key target of the process of transformation. This factor is the issue of the strategic initiatives of the main concessionaires who control the ports in the South-South and South-Eastern coastal regions. Many of them cannot be considered regional stakeholders based on their display of social interest outside of the privileged concessions that they hold in the area. The NPA's concession strategy needs to be examined and over-hauled in such a way that stakeholders in the territory will share in the benefits that proper port development can bring.

The people of the areas where major ports exist should be encouraged to participate in the maintenance of channels, the provision of security, and services such as transportation and personnel welfare that the growth of active ports will bring. This must become one of the driving forces behind the transformation of the nation's maritime profile as an important aspect of a new order of economic development. This new order will not only enhance the national economy but also reform the regional economies that should rightly enjoy the benefits of their proximity to some of Nigeria's important but long neglected maritime locations.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and The Bank Stranglers
It might simply be a coincidence but it cannot be overlooked that just as Nigeria's most successful and probably most globally respected economic manager Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala took a huge cut in her World Bank pay and returned to her motherland to serve as Finance Minister a tsunami of bank failures was averted by government intervention.

The world renowned lady's name alone should give Nigeria a cachet of seriousness and responsibility in an economic climate that is growing increasingly dubious, not to say, unstable. The Euro is almost on the verge of default and the Dollar, although still reigning supreme as the global currency is under pressure from the increasing indebtedness of its home economy. While America has always been the world's largest lender as well as its biggest borrower this is the first time in nearly half a century or more that it has actually faced down the near collapse of its economic stability.

The claim that Africa has been isolated from and immunised against these global problems is an illusion and the need to rescue three of Nigeria's main street banks from absolute collapse will certainly exercise the lady's concern as she takes over the national treasury. I suspect that given her penchant for fiscal responsibility in the distribution of government resources she will be inclined to investigate and even to delimit the links between government deposits and the banks that enjoy official confidence.

This will automatically set a new standard for the grading of the banks that enjoy government patronage. The lady has to face this challenge while maintaining the proud reputation that her appointment is apparently based upon and those banks that have been virtually holding the public to ransom, many of which might still be under the shadow of uncertainty that overtook their three colleagues recently, should begin to quake. Many Nigerian bank managers have really been strangling the initiative of public trust with unfair practices and inordinate interest rates and Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala must soon take steps to relax their grip without causing them to go under. We watch and wait with hope.