The plight of ports at the Nigeria's eastern and delta coastlines may have been compounded by sea robbery and militancy even as some technical challenges linger.
Vanguard Maritime Report investigations reveal that the spate of attacks has not been contained even after seize fire with militants about three years ago.
Consequently, international shipping firms have placed high-risk rating in the freight charges, a situation which has made cost of shipments to the ports uncompetitive.
For example while it costs shipment from China to Lagos would cost about $1,500 same consignments going to Calabar costs between $4,000 to $4,500.
In addition to the cost challenges investigations by Vanguard Maritime Report also indicated some technical short-comings in the ports such as shallow berths and draft deficiency of the channels.
The ports currently have berth depth of between 6 - 11 meters compared to the Lagos port with berth depth ranging from 9 - 13.5 meters.
Standard port berths in other West African countries like Accra, Ghana is 19 metres, Lome, Togo is 16 metres, Cameroon at 16 metres and Cotonou, Benin Republic at 15 metres.
With this technical deficiency the ports at the eastern and delta coastlines would not be able to take size of container-bearing vessels that normally call at standard ports, except for specialised vessels constructed as flat bottom which many international shipping firms have not been willing to use.
The other technical deficiency with the ports, Vanguard Maritime Report investigations show, is that the draught of the channels are below standard.
For the channel leading to the ports, Lagos port has a draught of 13.5 meters, that of Port Harcourt is between 7.1 - 9.1 meters, that of Warri stands at between 6.4 - 7.6 meters, Onne has between 8 - 11 meters and Calabar has 6.4 meters during high tide and 5.4 meters during low tide.
Meanwhile, stakeholders in the maritime industry have attributed the situation of the ports to government neglect despite the huge potential for development of the areas and the Nigerian economy.
They also believe the full functioning of the ports in the Eastern and Delta areas would decongest the Lagos ports while increasing the nation's maritime industry capacity in terms of volume of cargo through-put and clearing turn-around time.
The stakeholders disclosed that besides the technical deficiencies and the criminal attacks which had dented the risk ratings of the ports, the space sizes of the berths of the ports in the eastern and delta area, cargo handling equipment as well as the quays of the ports are adequate to operate effectively and efficiently.
Apart from the above seeming disadvantage, the quays, operational space, the cargo handling equipment are available to give port speedy and cheaper port services compared to those in Lagos, operators say.
The industry operators believe the government could have intervened in those identified deficiencies and bring the ports to good use.
Michael Ogodo, Chairman Shippers Association of Cross Rivers State, SACRS, told Vanguard Maritime Report that the Calabar port as it is has the capacity to receive ocean going vessels and should be exploited by federal government through provision of incentives to stakeholders.
According to Ogodo, "Yes, the port has what it takes to receive bigger vessels if the channel is dredged.
The SACRS chairman said though there seem to be a surge in shipping activities in Calabar port, it is driven by petroleum import which is not beneficial to the economy of the people.
According to Ogodo, only commercial imports can benefit the people and that has stopped some years back. He said export goods from the state have to be taken to Lagos before they are shipped out of the country.
The SACRS boss said 1999 and 2007 when Donald Duke was governor of the state, and the TINAPA and LAFARGE Africa PLC projects were on-going, a MaerskLine ship was calling at the port every fourth night and that they (shippers) took advantage of that to do direct export from there.
Six months before the completion of the projects during the regime governor Liyel Imoke, Ogodo said they had gone to the governor to intervene as Mearsk Line had said it could no longer come to Calabar at the completion of the project.
He stressed that the efforts of the governor did not yield any positive result as the federal government did not respond positively to pleas by the state governor.
He noted that apart from the shallow nature of the ports' channels, the berths' depths are okay to receive most vessels. The other issue, he explained, is the constant pirates' attacks on ships calling at the port.
He listed the obstacles to development and utilization of the Eastern and Delta ports including the absence of import and export cargoes, the difficult navigational area and the frequent attacks on vessels forced up the cost of freight by over 150 percent.
Consequently, according to him, while a consignment from China to Lagos would cost about $1,500 same consignments going to Calabar costs between $4,000 to $4,500.
He explained that the same reason is responsible for the hike in the insurance on both the ship and the cargo
He recommended that government should acquire small vessels that do rounds from Lagos to Calabar, Port Harcourt and Warri, taking consignments from Lagos to these ports as well as bringing export cargoes back to Lagos as an immediate quick win measure, while provision of security, dredging of the channel and giving concession to shipping lines should be the long term sustainable measure.
Industry chiefs speak
Similarly, National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Tony Iju Nwabunike, agreed with Ogodo on the issues of dredging of the channels and concession to shipping lines.
He listed the non-functional ports including Warri, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Koko and even the new port in Delta State.
Nwabunike noted that the federal government has not yet taken a decision with the concessionaires and shipping companies whom they have actually given the nod to bring in consignments to those areas.
He further explained: "Another problem about these ports is the freights; the freight has been the problem of these ports because those freights are higher than the freight at the Lagos ports.
"People are actually looking forward to getting things cheaper when they import. Most importantly, the consumers are more in Lagos but if there is competitive rate on the freight differentials, or putting them in very low level freight differentials, I think they can use these ports.
"So, I'm actually asking the federal government to make those ports user-friendly, if they make those ports very user-friendly, we can actually import through those ports.
"It is important to decentralize like I always say, it is very important to decentralize so that people will use it.
"If you are importing from China, some are saying $2,500, & 3,500 for 20 feet container and $4000 to $5000 for the 40 feet container. If they can actually sail in the same rate or bring it a little bit down, people will now say, okay because of one thousand dollars they can go to eastern ports and do the business," he concluded.
Speaking on the issue, Managing Director of PTOL, Lizzy Ovbude, blamed the neglect on government policies as well as the concessioning exercise.
She said: "I know that when NPA was still the master sea dock, to improve traffic in the Eastern flank, NPA had to give about 30 percent discount. That was some years back, before the concessioning.
"They gave about 30 percent discount to vessels that are willing to come to the Eastern ports. That was a kind of encouragement to enable vessels to come to this part of the country. But after the concessioning, there has been no such encouragement.
"For Port Harcourt port, I don't know whether it is a kind of conspiracy from ship owners; you know that the shipping industry is dominated by foreigners. "They own the vessels. I do know that we have done a lot of marketing campaigns from Port Harcourt ports here. We have been to clients at Enugu, Aba, Onitsha, Nnewi, which is the Eastern flank, who import through Lagos and made them know that we are actually back. They have shown a lot of interest but one issue we have always had is the vessels to bring such cargo, that is, containerized vessels.
"Before now, we had reached an agreement with two shipping lines who agreed to come and as we were doing the marketing campaign, they suddenly withdrew their vessels.
"And you know, when you have been to a client once, twice and they are showing interest and suddenly everything goes down, they will not take you seriously anymore.
"That is what the shipping companies have made us look like. And up until now, we still have clients that have been calling, making enquires on vessels that could come.
"They are all foreign ship owners and if they say they are not coming, we cannot force them to come. And that is why you see the importers go to Lagos and begin to truck their cargo down."
Efforts to get the reaction of the NPA proved abortive as neither of the Assistant General Managers in the Corporate and Strategic Communications of the Authority, Isah Sewuad and Ibrahim Nasiru, picked their calls.
Former Managing Director of the NPA, Habib Abdullahi, had said that the low level of the river which makes the siltation (rate of return of sand to the channel after dredging) level very high is the cause of the delay in the dredging of the channel.
Abdullahi, who spoke through the then General Manager in charge of Public Affairs, Emmanuel Ebubuegu, said "The study of geography tells us that at the lower course of the river, the level of sedimentation is very high. Incidentally, the ports of Warri, Calaber and Port Harcourt are all situated at the lower course of river. If you do not do something to address the hindrance properly, you will always be fighting with nature."
For Warri port, he said in 2015 the Authority had commenced the process leading to the dredging of the channel by engaging the services of two firms to do the preliminary work.
He said the two firms are Royal Ascony, which is looking at the break waters, and Ace Consulting that is working on the pre-dredging.
Three years after nothing has been done, only confirming the fears in some quarters that the neglect of the Eastern and Delta ports is deliberate.