The vast rain forest of the old East- ern Region of Nigeria captures an area where palm oil vegetation span into the banks of the River Niger and the Atlantic ocean.
Then, the means of transportation was more of the water ways, as the area was not accessible to motor vehicles, so the sea of Palm Oil Mills in the East depended mainly on rivers and sea to move their produce to market outside of the region. These areas that later became the Bite of Biafra not only exported palm oil, but other produce such as yam, cassava, fish among others and it was mainly through the water ways. At the abolition of slave trade, all the slave routes that had palm oil trees dotting the area became routes for the transportation of Palm Oil produce.
The routes, no doubt, were used as routes for the transportation of slaves, as slaves were transported through the water ways from the present Abia, Rivers, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and the five states of the South East including Delta State. Little wonder why the great King Jaja of Opobo the first, king of Amanyinabo Kingdom became a middle man and broker of palm oil business which also had dealings with business colleagues along the coastal lines up to Ndoni in River State and Oseakwa in the current Ihiala Local Government Area and Ossemoto in Oguta Imo State. The search for an easy route to trans- port these produce led to the establishment of the Oseakwa Sea Port before Nigeria’s independence and as it were, Crude Oil had not been found and so was not yet the coun- try’s major source of revenue at the time. Former Premier of the East Central states, Late Dr Micheal Okpara leveraged on this money spinner to establish palm oil farm settlements across the area and its revenue was used for the establishment of Obudu Cattle Ranch, and the provision of all kinds of social security infrastructure. However, the Oseakwa Sea Port, be- came moribund after the civil war, a development that was seen by the Igbos of the South East as a punitive measure against them, alleging that all was done to execute economic block in the area after the declaration of N20 pounds for everyone from that area, hence forfeiting whatever amount of money they had in their bank accounts before the war. Reports had it that the death of Oseakwa Sea Port was made worse when the Nigerian capital was relocated to Abuja from Lagos and an unwritten agreement was made that for Lagos to relinquish the status of the country’s capital, the sea port in the area should be allowed to be made the only officially approved sea port for international businesses and that all other ports in the country should remain under-utilised to boost the Lagos sea port. National Vice President of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Damian Okeke Ogene told New Telegraph that there were deliber- ate policies to further frustrate the South East economy to the advantage of other geopolitical zones.
“Where do we start? We had that economic issue and they had to cut off all the water ways where international organisations bring in relief materials into the then Biafra Republic and they also blocked that Oseakwa Sea Port and made sure that economic activities do not grow in the area. “So this issue you are talking about is not far from it, because that Sea Port is an old one and it has 18 nautical miles to the Atlantic ocean compared with the ports in Lagos.”
Lamentations of South East stakeholders Mr Kingsley Chikezie, National Presi- dent, Importers Association of Nigeria, captured the pains of importers in Nige- ria, especially those from the South East and South South. He said: “We are going through hell in this our business and you know that we are the people that do freight forwarding business in the country and since then we have lost trillions of naira because of the distance of carrying our goods from Lagos to the South East and South South.
“Sometimes you will lose your goods and nobody is there to give account of whatever happened to those goods and sometimes we have criminals that go to steal those goods under the nose of security operatives. “To transport those goods to its final destination is like hell on earth, due to the bad road network and some goods would be involved in accidents by crashing into the valley or getting stuck at a ditch and before you can transfer those goods to another truck its night and sometimes at gun point anything can happen.
“We won’t forget the amount of money we spend at every police check points from Lagos to Onitsha and at the end, the price of those goods would skyrocket because you have to build the money spent on settlement at police check points into the cost of those goods. “And they told us that the South East is landlocked and that vessels cannot come into the water ways to the South East, so we have resigned to our fate in this country.”
President, Children of Farmers Club, Prince Chris Okwuosa, recalled that devel- opment along the coastal lines were booming until the abandonment of the facility. “Oseakwa is first of all beaches where the white Missionaries and businessmen came to do business and it had link to five states through another river called Ukasi to Ossemoto in Oguta Imo State to Ndoni in Rivers state and Delta State.
“A lot of economic opportunities were bound in those days and people took that advantage and it led to the rapid develop- ment of the area connecting the five states, including Abia State. “It was through this Oseakwa Sea Port concept that we created the Children of Farmers Club that won the United Nations award to establish an Agro River Project that was to empower farmers in the five states that are along that coastal line, up to Rivers State and beyond and if the sea port is revived it would have multiplier effect on the agro and socioeconomic development of the old Eastern Region.
“Federal Government should find it as a matter of economic policy to revive that sea port to check mate over dependency on petroleum and diversify our revenue base,” he said. Landlocked nature of South East The over dependency on Lagos sea ports gave rise to the concept that the South East is landlocked, hence the fate of the South East has become that of a cockroach that would always be guilty in a jury presided by birds and against this backdrop the geopolitical zone has to resign to its fate. It has been concluded that vessels cannot anchor along those lines hence the businessmen and women in the area have to rely on the existing ports.
Edem Etugwan, an engineer, however contend that this has also been the fate of the Calabar Port that is underutilised with only small ship and badges conveying goods to the hinterlands. “Calabar was the first capital of Nigeria before Lagos and it is my firm belief that the same politics was played to marginalise us here and they are claiming that the South East is landlocked when we all know that the area is just like Cross River and Akwa Ibom State .” Etugwan noted that the variability of the ports in the old Eastern Region would create employment for the people in the area and also open up opportunities for the people.
“We have graduates in our place and after youth service they move to Lagos in search of white collar jobs which they don’t always secure and again the economy of scale in the Region would blossom,” he said. A Professor of Economics and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof Uche Nwogwugwu, see the fate of the Oseakwa Sea Port as an economic conspiracy against a people.
“Modern and developed economies have come to appreciate the fact and the need for every region to generate their revenue and develop and manage their resources and the rival of the ports in Eastern Nigeria is part of the resource control and that is another way forward for our country,” he said Former governor of Imo State, Chief Ikedi Ohakim, had while in office been on the vanguard of the actualisation that the area is not landlocked. Ohakim had along with his fellow governors of the South East set up South East Economic Corporation with the aim of bringing to the fore the need to develop the economy of the area, but his regime was short-lived. According to his submissions at the first Chinua Achebe International Conference, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 2017, “The South East is not landlocked. It is only our economy that is locked. One quick way of unlocking the economy of South East is through marine business.”
“Contrary to the impression that the South East is landlocked, the truth is that it has one of the potentially deepest seaports in the country at Osemoto/Oseokwa in Imo and Anambra States. “A seaport was designated there in 1959, but the project was abandoned and the admiralty membership erased for obvious political reasons. African Development Bank (ADB) feasibility report on this is unambiguous.
“Oseokwa (Ihiala LGA, Anambra State) and Osemoto (Oguta LGA, Imo State) are the deepest natural harbors in the country (over 20m deep) and offer real naval and marine transportation platforms if devel- oped. Besides, it lies only 18 nautical miles to the Atlantic Ocean and a strategic hub for the oil industry and inland dry-docks to promote trade.
“This potential seaport has the capac- ity of handling over 35 per cent of marine business in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, it was the attraction to these potentials that made my administration in Imo State to site the Oguta Wonder Lake and Resort Centre in the area to encourage the Federal Government and foreign investors.
“If Ndigbo pursue and complete the sea- port, it will also open up over 3,000 square kilometers of the most fertile agricultural land that has one of the highest alluvial deposits which has been in existence for well over a million years” “My pursuit of this revolutionary proj- ect attracted both national and interna- tional panic and may have cost me second tenure as governor. “This deep seaport will create over two million jobs, directly and indirectly, in marine business, oil and gas, power, education, housing, agro-food industry, entertainment, tourism, etc. With that type of setting, Igbo youths will have no need to crisscross the country in search of jobs and in the process endangering their young lives.” Ohakim’s submissions have given the much needed impetus for an alternative sea port in the country following the his- tory of the Oseakwa Sea Port as narrated by Chief Lexy Nwangwu, an internation- ally certified Freight Forwarder. Nwangwu, though retired is a Fellow, Chartered Institute of Freight Forwarders in London and Wales as well as Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Freight Forwarders, Customs and Brokers. He said, “Oseakwa Sea Port when I was young, staying with my uncle who was a school Headmaster at Ebeneza School, Akwa in Ihiala Local Government Area was very viable and full of economic activities.
“That was in 1961 and it was one of the most developed areas in the old Eastern Region of Nigeria and as at then there was the biggest private oil mill in the area which is Akwa and the market was called Ose and putting it together it is called Oseakwa. “It was owned by one woman called Nnenne and she is late now and people who deal on Palm Oil at Isieke Oil Mill owned by government as well as Azia Oil Mill also owned by government carry their produce to Oseakwa for trade, because there were not much of access roads or train to market the palm oil only by the water to all the parts of the country. “This continued until after the civil war and business stopped at the sea port and if you go there now you would dis- cover that it is a sorry site and recluse of its former self.”
Continuing, Nwangwu stated that the economic viability of Oseakwa Sea Port is beyond what most Nigerians know, add- ing that it would be a new dawn for the economy of the country, especially the Maritime sector. “The Maritime economy is called the Blue Economy according to the African Union (AU), and Oseakwa can be devel- oped into a big sea port, because it is about 60 feet deep and a little dredging it will be the deepest port in the country and that would improve the economy of the state including Nigeria in general.” Nwangwu lamented that it was abandoned in 1959, but for the oil palm busi- ness that sustained it until after the civil war He further posited that to revive the Oseakwa Sea Port is one that has lots of processes, even though the issue of sea port is in the Exclusive list in the Constitution, meaning that it is only Federal government that can do so.
He was however quick to explain the procedure for the Federal Government and international bodies approval. “You must start with the basics, which demands the training of the needed man- power to drive the process and you know that we have the Department of Transportation and faculty of Transportation in our Universities here in Eastern Nigeria. “But they don’t have well qualified teachers and we need them to train those that would work at the sea port when it comes on stream.
“We have School of Transportation at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) and I took part in making sure that it was accredited the same day the University of Lagos was accredited. “The first batch of the institution that was accredited by FIATA the International organisation that controls the Maritime sec- tor, they were six, that is one per geopoliti- cal zone in the country and we had one in Lagos State, then in the East its in Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), as well as Ibrahim Babangida University and the Nigerian Institute for Transport Technically (NITT), Zaria, among others. “FUTO is doing well and it is among the best in the country and before you establish or revive the port you need to train the operators and we need professionals to go to the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, as professionals and teach the students in that department, just as it is being done in LAUTECH, that came on stream before UNILAG and UNN. “When that is done, we can approach the Federal Government to grant us the approv- al to start the project and we have people in the South East who are businessmen and women as well as industrialists that are desirous of driving the process, because it would be to their own advantage and when we get that we can now go for FIATA, the international organisation that controls the Maritime economy through the government of Nigeria, because the body doesn’t deal with component states. “Currently, Akwa Ibom State is building a sea port through the approval of the Fed- eral Government and that would also be a place we can understudy what they are doing and you know that we have other Ports such as Koko, Burutu, UAC, Oneh, Port 1, Port 2 as well as Ocean Capital, Calabar Port and Free Zone which later relocated to Dubai before the Nigerian government could realize it’s importance. “All these ports are under-utilised due to certain deliberate policy of some cabals to frustrate the Old Eastern Nigeria Maritime economy for other parts of the country to thrive better,” he said.
Agenda for South East governors Though most governments of the South East and South South may have gone into water transportation, there has not been any united effort to make a case for the Os- eakwa Sea Port. In Imo State, Governor Hope Uzodimma has continued to sustain the water trans- portation sector which is made manifest in the Njaba River and Oguta Lake. Governor Charles Soludo of Anambra State has also commenced the prospects of Water Transportation along the Omabala, Oseakwa, Ulasi and River Niger through the instrumentality of Mr Emeka Orji the Chairman of Onitsha South Local Govern- ment Area. Also, the Rivers State Government has been on this development for long, but there seem to be no synergy among these governors and their governments. Former President, South East Chamber of Commerce, Mines and Agriculture, Engr Amaobi Nzewi, noted that the body is ready to partner with the governors to actualise the project. “We have the Chamber of Commerce, Mines and Agriculture as well as the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), ready to work hand in hand for this to be realized. “All that our governors should do is to call us and let us have meetings and make a proposition in that regard and though it is in the Exclusive list the Federal Govern- ment can give some form of waiver like it is done in the power sector,” he said. There is no longer room for the geopo- litical zones to continue to lament over the abandonment of the Oseakwa Sea Port, but according to late Dr Dozie Ikedife, former President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo: “It doesn’t stop at our people demanding for the Presidency of Nigeria or for the actu- alisation of a Republic of Biafra, but what is instructive is the economic independence of the area through trade, commerce and industry and that should be our point of departure,” he said.