How Calabar Port Dredging Became Jinxed .
In the recent history of Nigerian public sector dredging campaigns, the dredging of the 84-nautical mile Calabar port channel has become a bottomless pit where multimillion dollars of taxpayers’ money continue to pour in without results. The latest incident in this bizarre theatre of failed projects is the 2006 award of a dredging contract for US$56million dollars and hundreds of millions of Naira in counterpart funding, all of which went down the drain when the project was abandoned by the foreign dredging contractors in December 2007. The two dredge contractors, Jan de Nul and Van Oord, got the entire length of the channel divided between them by the federal government. While Van Oord was to dredge Km 0 -46 for US$26.5million, Jan de Nul was saddled with dredging Km 46 -84 for US$30million. They were to scoop out 25 million cubic metres of spoil and achieve an overall draught of -8 metres. At the end of such a campaign, the Calabar seaport built as part of the second generation of modern ports in the country in response to the perceived lack of harbor space in the 1980s, would have been rehabilitated and should take some of the pressure out of Lagos and Port Harcourt seaports. But alas, it was not to be. While the two companies started work on October 19, 2006, they demobilized from the location in December 2007 with mission unaccomplished!
How could such a thing happen? How did a bungling of this magnitude take place and the nation lost so much money and keeps losing opportunities and facilities that should have been there to serve the growing socio-economic needs of Nigerians living in that part of the country? Why, in spite of the chest-beating by the Obasanjo administration about good corporate governance on contracts and due process and all, did the supervisors of this project concede such a defeat when they could have done much better via simple bargaining, if they knew how? Was patriotism lacking or did graft play its notorious role?
DDH investigations have uncovered that a mix of red-tape, incompetence and political power meddling at the federal and state levels accounted for the helpless situation where the project was left at the mercy of the contractors who had a poorly defined contract placed in their laps. As one of the officials who monitored the project execution confided in the magazine, these two contractors knew that the job would not be well concluded due to the antecedents just before the award of the contract. In summary, they relied on this loophole to abandon the project site when it was just about 80% completed, having met the specified quantum of spoil dredged from the channel but with over 12 nautical miles untouched and without any buoys on the dredged part whatsoever. What a waste of public funds!
One commentator (names withheld) who was contributing to a presentation made at the recently concluded Nigerian dredging summit in Abuja blamed the Federal Ministry of Transport officials who he said took over the management of the Calabar dredging project and negotiations leading to its commissioning. He maintained that they were not versed to know their way around the intricate negotiations involved in Nigerian public sector dredging projects. In his opinion, the Calabar dredging project was jinxed due to the use of volume of spoil as the major measure of performance in the contract instead of specifying that the contractors should achieve a targeted draught all through the length of the channel. After due investigations conducted by the magazine, this observation was found to be correct. Indeed the story of the Calabar port dredging of 2006 by Jan de Nul and Van Oord should be investigated by the anti-corruption agencies if not to recover the huge sums lost to the contractors but also to sanction public servants who performed less than laudable roles in such a badly executed project. As at the time of this writing, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is revisiting the dredging project with a view to do it again, hopefully correctly this time. But what went wrong with the first exercise?
According to findings by the magazine, survey for the Calabar dredging contract was done in 2002 and the processes of contract award were initiated using the figures from the survey. Sources close to the project informed us that the NPA then wrote to the Federal Ministry of Transport (FMOT) which began to handle the matter from that point. The project was later forwarded to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) but the crux of the matter was that before the contract was awarded, three years had passed and it was not until 2005 that the contract was signed. DDH also gathered that despite the overlong delay, it took another year for financial matters to be settled for the contractors who only mobilized to site in 2006. By this time, according to a surveyor who knows the Calabar port terrain very well, the level of siltation at the port channel was very much higher than the figures recorded in the survey upon which the contract was based. Still, the supervising officials at the FMOT permitted the project to project to proceed and for public funds to be committed to a project they ought to know was dead on arrival. This is also where corporate governance profile of the contractors was questionable since they knew that the terms of engagement had considerably changed and there was no way they could deliver on successful execution of the contract. In fact, one NPA staff who was assigned to one of the contractors during the project execution phase confided in the magazine that the contractors knew when they were mobilizing to site in 2006 that the contract details were already degraded at the time of mobilization to site but went ahead in the foreknowledge that they would apply for a variation and claim more money to accomplish the task.
Whereas they were tasked to scoop out 25 million cubic metres which according to the survey will achieve a draught of -8 metres through the 84 kilometres from Calabar to the sea (Fairway Buoy), after three years, the fast rising siltation levels of the river made nonsense of any plan to still achieve that target. The contract made provision for a variation of only 5% below or above the volume, for which NPA would reconcile accounts with the contractors. But, according to our informants, only Van Oord completed scooping its share of the specified volume in the Km 0- 46 stretch of the channel. Jan de Nul achieved its share of the the specified volume after dredging from Km 46 -72. This left a very long stretch of 12 kilometres yet to be dredged. According to our findings, three months to achieving this milestone, Jan de Nul notified the federal government through the NPA that contract variation was necessary if they had to continue dredging to Km 84. DDH was informed that the volume of spoil was much higher at that end of the river because of heavier tidal rains towards the sea. In summary, because there was insufficient response to the contractors at this point, Jan de Nul pulled out of the site and this became the beginning of the jinx that eventually befell the Calabar dredging campaign of 2006. The company demobilized from site on December 19, 2007.
Another major disaster that hit the Calabar port dredging project was the absence of buoys all along the 84-km length of the channel. Buoys are the markers that inform mariners about the various draughts along the channel, helping them to keep their ships from running aground. Especially along the 84 kilometres of the Calabar channel, it is held on good authority that no foreign master who did not know the lay of the land from previous experience could possibly bring his ship into or out of port without a high risk of grounding. There are points along the channel said to require almost a 60-degree turn and wide expanses measuring hundreds of metres in width and these would pose a serious challenge to mariners if buoys were not in place. to complicate matters more, there is absolutely no lighting at night. Even at the time of this writing, all informants who responded to DDH inquiries confirmed that not a single buoy could be sighted by any mariner sailing up or down the waterway and this is responsible for the grounding of many vessels that ply the route. So, the lack of buoys becomes one of the major complaints about the Calabar seaport operation: no buoys and no lighting. So that if one were to be the master of a foreign ship coming into port for the first time or returning after some long period of absence , it would be like voodoo navigation bringing big ships or even any ship of any reasonable size into port. When DDH inquired why the absence of buoys, the magazine was told that the last time buoys were laid along the channel was after the 1996 dredging campaign done by the Chinese. The Obasanjo administration in 1999 had verified that the Chinese who got the contract duly executed it but no buoys were laid due to its non-provision in the contract. DDH gathered that directives were given by government and buoys were installed. These buoys, however, were not monitored nor maintained as there was no standing routine for doing this at the Calabar port unlike Lagos and Port Harcourt where channel management companies are in place. So that by the time the duo of Jan de Nul and Van Oord arrived the scene and had done the incomplete dredging in 2006/2007, there were no buoys left standing along the channel. This further compounded the problems of mariners.
1996 CCECC dredging campaign
On the N3 billion dredging contract awarded to the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC) by General Sani Abacha to dredge the Calabar port in 1996, DDH can reveal that the official government position on the project was that it succeeded. Though curious, this position was said to have been confirmed by the Christopher Kolade Panel on Contracts Awards, Etc, set up by the Obasanjo administration in 1999. It will be recalled that soon after the Obasanjo administration came into office, it set up this panel to review all contracts and official actions by the previous military regimes that held sway prior to that time. Our informants on the Calabar dredging campaign confirmed to DDH that lots of petitions were forwarded to this panel by several communities and prominent indigenes of Cross River state who had various grudges against the CCECC. If the project succeeded, why the litany of petitions, you may ask? Well, for the first time, the communities experienced Chinese stinginess at very close range. One of our informants who was assigned as a technical official supervising the Chinese contractors said that the CCECC came into the Calabar area with about 400 Chinese workers and descended on the contract site with the serious of a Samurai and the silence of a monk. Not even a cook nor a driver nor messenger was employed from the communities, all came straight from China. Our informant said it remained for the CCECC to bring vegetables from China as all food items, water and as he put, the equivalent of every pin was imported from China. When the local governments bordering the contract site came for the payment of any royalties or levies like on trucks or official vehicles, they were completely rebuffed by the Chinese who did not even employ any public relations officer from around or from Nigeria: they had no public relations or community officer and spoke very little English. So the relations with the community were at an abysmal low point as they tried to wield their available federal government muscle to escape any spending of any money in these communities.
Secondly, it was revealed that some of the communities approached the Chinese to dump some of the sand that was being scooped out from the seabed for them for their onward use or for sale, but the request was also refused. Instead, the Chinese demanded payment and gave them a rate for which the demanded sand stockpile can be made possible. Even a prominent indigene from the area who had served as a finance minister during the military junta had made requests for sand to be pumped for him as a spin-off of the dredging project but was flatly refused by the stingy Chinese.
Our informant however confirmed that in terms of doing the work of deepening the channel to -8 metres, the Chinese did it, even though their implements or technology may not have matched European models or implements. Thus, the local communities and the prominent indigenes petitioned to see if a pound of flesh of any sort could be extracted from such a hard customer which, when the Kolade panel examined found to hold no water. He said the panel employed independent surveyors who undertook comprehensive surveys and came out with a clean health report for the CCECC. Only the fact of the absence of buoys was indicated after the report which was not a fault of the CCECC and government took steps to correct it. However, taking a long look at the problem, the buoys installed then did not last for a very long time, leaving the Calabar port with its seeming traditional problems.
In fact, in a recent news feature, the Calabar seaport was in the news for the wrong reasons. According to a Guardian report on April 12, 2009, the general manager of Ecomarine Terminals at Calabar, Mr. Kingsley Iheanacho, had to complain to the Transport Minister, Alh. Ibrahim Bio, during a recent visit to the port that poor dredging of the port constituted a frustration to its proper operational efficiency. The Minister had earlier declared that the contractors had abandoned site.
According to Iheanacho, "The Calabar Port has been bewitched by no conclusion of the channel dredging to a draft that would allow seafaring vessels to call the port directly and as at today, it is the number one deterrent to trade facilitation in spite of incentives provided by the Cross River State Government and the Port Operator, ECM Terminals."
He continued: "The port has the capacity to hold two million tons of cargo annually, but with the present scenario, we are only utilising 25 per cent of our capacity even as at December 2008, considering the number of vessels worked.”
It can therefore be seen that the 2006 dredging campaign by Jan de Nul and Van Oord leaves much to be desired and all the dramatis personae in that dredging campaign ought to be called back for reckoning: the public officials of FMOT, why they proceeded on a contract that was clearly behind schedule, in deficit of accurate figures and riddled with very poor definition; the two dredging companies, why they went ahead with a dredging campaign which was obviously doomed from the start because it was based on outdated specifications, being signed three clear years from the date of conception without amendment of its relevant clauses. It is possible the attraction here was the multimillion dollar and local Naira counterpart-funding price tag. But these are matters they ought to explain and be held responsible for as a deterrent so that no future public sector dredging projects around the country is compromised because the immediate actors are incompetent or deceitful or think Nigerians cannot understand the rudiments of arcane dredging technology.
Efforts made to get the views of the two contractors were not fruitful. After many approaches for comment which were rebuffed, an expatriate official of Van Oord who came to the telephone answered that we should contact the NPA for anything we want to know on the stalled project. Jan de Nul could not be reached at all.
New dredging to be done
Perhaps the only solace in the whole saga is that NPA has moved to redeem the damage. DDH gathered that adverts have been placed by NPA for new surveys to be done of the Calabar channel to find out the real situation on the ground preparatory to re-awarding the contract. In fact, the magazine can authoritatively report that even the Warri port will receive the same treatment as the 96km Warri- Escravos channel also needs dredging to accommodate vessels coming into port. Survey for the Warri port has been planned for the purpose of the proposed dredging campaign and advertisement in local papers have been made for quotations. As at end of September, we were reliably informed that the list of shortlisted applicants for the survey has been passed on to higher quarters in the contract award process for the survey programme. However, officials of the NPA spoken to say that buoys and lighting are two very important things that have to be done as a matter of essence whenever the new dredging campaign for the two ports are being undertaken. Equally important they say is the need to establish proactive channel management organizations for the two ports just like the joint ventures serving Lagos and Port Harcourt seaports. Without this, they say, the problems in the two ports will continue to be compounded since buoys especially require constant monitoring and management due to frequent bashings they receive from passing ships, etc.
The misfortune of the Calabar seaport dredging could be said to be compounded, on one hand, by the faraway status of the locality. Calabar in Nigerian maritime trade could be compared to Antarctica, everyone knows it is there but very few want to visit it. In fact, when a civil servant is transferred to Calabar, it is easily seen as a punitive measure. The extent to which this perception can be said to still be holding sway in Nigerian socio-economic and political life is now ameliorated by the recent developments in tourism industry embarked upon by governments in that state which has given rise to the Tinapa excitement. But on the other hand, the remoteness of that location may have contributed to its suitability as a locale for failed marine projects, especially dredging. And this failure may also have something to do with the unpopularity of the seaport to Aba and Onitsha traders who continue to prefer landing their containers in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Otherwise, how come the General Sani Abacha dredging campaign of the same channel in 1996 recorded no appreciable result. The dark-goggled general had given a N3 billion Naira capital dredging contract to China Construction and Civil Engineering Company to dredge the same 84 kilometres! What has not become known are the specifications for the job. And knowing the Chinese, if one doesn’t even know what he wants, how can they expect the Chinese to make up for the shortage of specs and definition. To date, no good record of that dredging campaign has been made public and mariners never stopped complaining that the Calabar channel was not navigable. Then come the duo of Jan de Nul and Van Oord ten years later and embarked on dredging the same Calabar channel and all we have got for it is a litany of complaints from all and sundry.