Shuttering Nigeria’s Eastern Seaports: The Consequences of a Punitive Policy

by Mazi Ohuabunwa, OFR (

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 with the obvious answer.” My friend, the war ended about 58 years ago.”

Process matters on its face value

                   Sam Ohuabunwa, OFR

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 seaports – Lagos 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, hide 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. Later, the ports in Calabar and Warri were developed to support the export of the newly discovered crude petroleum.

The Eastern seaports of Port Harcourt and Calabar served as major gateways for the import of textile, including Indian Madras, automobile parts, stockfish, 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 centers 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 Nigeria/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, a 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 (CI).

Thus, as long as the war lasted, all shipments into and out of Nigeria were concentrated at the Apapa wharf in Lagos. And when the war ended, and the pressure piled on Apapa, resulting in the famous cement armada and flour armada, that clogged that seaport. Rather than reopen the Eastern seaports fully, the Federal Government preferred to build a new wharf facility around Apapa called Tin-Can Island Port. Everybody, from all over Nigeria, then felt compelled to move into Lagos, whether you are exporting or importing. The mass exodus of many people from the Southeast and other parts of Nigeria and the resultant population explosion in the Lagos metropolis have their roots from this central government’s punitive policy measure.

Sometime later when the pressure was mounted on the government to relax this policy and reopen the shuttered Eastern seaports, it was discovered that the wharves had silted and had become too shallow to admit big ships. The Federal Government has, since then, not found money to sufficiently dredge the ports to allow big containerized ships to berth at the Eastern seaports. Beyond this infrastructural handicap, the central government of Nigeria and some of its agencies have restricted the importation of certain items to ONLY the Apapa wharf, thus foreclosing the use of the Eastern seaports, 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 subsequently de-marketed by the approving agencies. Some are called cargo airports, but the only cargo they carry are coffins of Easterners going home for burials or for Christmas holidays. The truth is that the punitive policies against Eastern Nigeria enacted during the war have not been fully lifted. They were lifted only in words, not in practice. The result is that Nigeria is shortchanging itself. The amount of losses which importers and exporters are incurring from the chronic logjam at the Lagos ports are huge and thus play a major role in depressing the gross domestic product.

Shuttering the NEEC is evil

Central Nigerian government policy has been to shutter the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor (NEEC) since eve of the Civil War. Port Harcourt City wharf and rail station used to be at parity with those of Lagos until 1966.

For several decades, the armada of heavy articulated vehicles, in addition to causing untold hardship to road users, constitute enormous additional stationary weights on the bridges and flyovers as they lumber from Lagos wharves to all parts of Nigeria. This excessive load eventually causes premature structural failures of roads which we often feel their effects and of course, pay the price in frequent repairs. Despite previous repairs, the Third Mainland Bridge may soon be closed for repairs again 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 seaports facilities shall surely create traffic nightmares of unimaginable proportions.

People may try to deny this reality and say that the policy has changed. But the test of the change of the policy is to see the Eastern seaports 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 deep seaports to relieve the current stress in the Lagos metro area? If the policy has changed, why would importers and exporters not be encouraged to use the Eastern port facilities, both sea and air? If the policies have changed, why are the conditions for using the Eastern ports, even in their current substandard states, particularly in costs, levies and bureaucratic processes, so prohibitive?

Nigeria is denying itself the benefits of decentralizing port operations and other economic activities. Indeed, when Eastern Nigerians push for restructuring of Nigeria, part of their grouse is the 58-year shuttering of the Nigerian Eastern Economic Corridor (NEEC), except for oil and gas export terminals. As our people say, whoever is pinning another on the ground is also holding oneself down too.

When my friend finished this expose, I shouted w-a-o! And then I said a prayer: God, please, bring this war to a complete end – in word and in deed too. My friend said a loud “Amen”. When we looked up, the traffic had inched forward, but just 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.

Culled from Guardian Newspaper (Lagos)