Engr. Nkpubre Okon Nkpubre is not an ordinary Nigerian. Apart from being the former Managing Director of Nigerdock Plc and Director of Engineering, Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), he is presently the Managing Consultant, Green Seas International Nigeria Limited. He is also the Chairman of Oron Nation Technical Committee on Ibaka Deep Seaport. In an interview with journalists recently, he spoke on the location for the deep seaport project by the Akwa Ibom State Government, among other issues in the maritime industry and beyond. Maritime Bits presents the excerpts.
Against the backdrop that the deep seaport was originally sited at Ibaka in Oron land, why are there controversies surrounding its present location in Ibeno?
Well, ordinarily, there should have been no controversies if the right thing was done. Ibaka Bay in Oron Nation had long been recognised as a natural harbour with a natural draft of about 11meters most suitable for hosting a deep seaport. But because of ethnic politics against Oron Nation which is a minority in Akwa Ibom State, the Akwa Ibom State Government want to abandon the natural harbour to go and dig out an artificial ocean to build a dugout port elsewhere. That is what is generating controversy. Initially, the Ibaka deep seaport, the first deep seaport embarked upon by the Nigerian Government was to be developed under a PPP model between the Federal Government, Akwa Ibom State Government and a core investor with equity in the ratio of 20:20:60 respectively. The Federal Government through a Ministerial Committee set up a Project Delivery Team to carry out due diligence studies for the project. The team worked with consultants through a rigorous procedure to select a site near Ibaka Bay and close to Tom Shot Island as the most preferred location for the deep seaport. The Due Diligence Report was submitted since January 2013 and Outline Business Case was submitted in July 2013. Chief Godswill Akpabio who was Governor of Akwa Ibom State then promised to ensure completion of the deep seaport before leaving office in 2015. Unfortunately, destructive politics set in. The Government of Akwa Ibom State began to work surreptitiously against the location of the deep seaport at the preferred location in Oron Nation. The information given to us by the Implementation Committee for the project is that the Federal Government has relinquished equity in the deep seaport and that the seaport will now be built in the most unusual location in Ibeno as a dugout port. Oron people are vehemently against the relocation of the deep seaport and the construction of a dugout port near their territory.
Since the Federal Government has given an approval for the take-off of construction work, do you think the situation can be redeemed, like reverting to its original location?
Oron people believe that if the falsity and dishonesty involved in the relocation of the deep seaport from Ibaka is exposed, the relocation will be stopped. Why would any sane person abandon a preferred location in a natural harbour close by to go and dig an artificial ocean out of land to build a dugout port? Can you imagine the cost of digging out such an ocean? Where would the millions of cubic meters of dugout earth be dumped? It is a situation like this that makes outsiders look at Nigeria as a very fraudulent country and makes the Transparency International (TI) index of Nigeria to keep declining despite the efforts of the Federal Government. Oron people will do everything legally within their powers to ensure the relocation is stopped. No investor would want to invest in a project surrounded by controversy. We will let our objection to the relocation of the deep seaport from the preferred location known to all the stakeholders. At first, they told us that the relocation was because of a cluster of oil pipelines in Ibaka Bay. When this was debunked they went to procure a cooked-up new assessment document to overturn a previous location assessment carried out by the Project Delivery Team. This cooked-up document makes no sense and can be trashed even by an intelligent secondary school student who is taught statistics. Oron people will do everything to stop the relocation including going to court to challenge the logic and validity of the new location assessment document on which the relocation is based. In Nigeria, you can get approval for anything if you have money and connections. The Federal Government can revoke approvals if there is evidence that the approval was fraudulently obtained.
Why do you think the Government of Akwa Ibom State decided to move the deep seaport to Ibeno instead of the original location in Ibaka?
It is because they do not want the deep seaport to be in Oron Nation.
Why is it that they do not want the seaport to be in Oron nation?
Akwa Ibom State is made up off three major ethnic nationalities namely, Ibibio, Annang, and Oron occupying 15, 8, and 5 local government areas respectively. Before the creation of Akwa Ibom State from Cross River State, Oron people, though small in population in Cross River State, held commanding heights in industry, politics and education to the discomfort of the more populous ethnic groups. These groups started to plan against the interest of Oron people. This led Professor Ayandele, the former Vice Chancellor, University of Calabar (UNICAL) to coin the word Oronphobia. When Oron was put with the other two bigger ethnic nationalities to form Akwa Ibom State, it appeared the concept of Oronphobia became more pronounced. Oron Nation has suffered undue subjugation since the creation of Akwa Ibom State. It is on record that 70 percent of oil accruing to Akwa Ibom State is from Oron land and water territory. This is what has made the state the highest oil producing state in Nigeria. Yet, Oron Nation has been blatantly refused recognition as an oil producing community. Because of this deprivation and marginalization, some people in Oron Nation have muted the idea of Oro Nation leaving Akwa Ibom State to join the Efiks in Cross River State to form Atlantic State. I must say that this is not the desire of the generality of Oron people. It is an idea thrown up by the frustration of unabated subjugation. This may be the real reason why Akwa Ibom State Government donot want to build a deep seaport in Oron Nation. If that is the reason, why can’t they tell Oron people so instead of cooking up spurious reasons as if Oron people are fools? But, must we sacrifice a national heritage as valuable as Ibaka natural harbour because of ethnic divide? If they struggle to build a dugout port at Ibeno which is only 10 kilometres from Ibaka, it means the natural habour at Ibaka will remain a waste for eternity. No Government will approve another port at Ibaka.
Don’t you think that the fear of the state government is not misplaced because there is fear that Oron may leave Akwa Ibom State to form Atlantic State in the future making Akwa Ibom State to lose the deep seaport eventually?
Dangote is building a massive refinery in Lekki not because he is from Lagos State but because Lekki is the most suitable location for such a large scale refinery. If Ibaka Deep Sea Port is built in Oron Nation and Oron Nation happens to move out of Akwa Ibom State in future, will it change the ownership and management structure of the deep seaport? After all, the core investor who is investing 60 percent in the project is not from Akwa Ibom State. The Federal Government was very committed to the Ibaka deep seaport. That was why a Ministerial Steering Committee was inaugurated to drive it. The SWOT analysis for the project listed the natural harbour at Ibaka as a major strength of the project. But probably because of underhand dealings for the relocation of the deep seaport from the preferred location at Ibaka, the Federal Government lost interest and decided to relinquish equity in the project. When I demanded explanation from the Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State in charge of the deep seaport project, he told me that the Federal Government do not have money anymore to invest in the deep seaport. But recently, the Minister of Transportation announced the intention of the Federal Government to increase the tonnage of sea transportation in Nigeria by investing in deep seaports in Delta State. So it is possible that the Federal Government relinquished equity due to the ugly politics of relocation. Ibaka Bay is a national treasure most suitable for a deep seaport. Nothing can justify the removal of Ibaka deep seaport from there.
Don’t you think that politics of siting a project might delay the take-off and make the project unrealistic and if there is no actualization there will be a negative backlash on the economy of the state and even Cross River should Oron leave Akwa Ibom State? Don’t you think it is better to engage than to disengage?
The location of a major infrastructure as a deep seaport should never be subject to ethnic politics. It is decisions like this that is making Africa undeveloped. There are basic economic criteria for siting production and service infrastructures such as a deep seaport. These criteria are unambiguous. I have gone through the official due diligence report for Ibaka deep seaport. The location they want to move the port to is the most unsuitable and it was earlier rejected based on the location assessment done by the Project Delivery Team. The area is clustered with oil pipelines and offshore platforms making navigation almost impossible. The shore is also exposed to high waves. That is why they are forced to recourse to a dugout port. They will still need to build a very costly wave barrier in addition to digging out an ocean from land. This is a crazy choice. The Chairperson of the Implementation Committee is a lawyer. She is handicapped. She cannot have the intuition of an engineering mind. When the Calabar Port was to be built, Ibaka Bay was the preferred location. But politics caused the port to be moved up the Cross River. The port is now a white elephant project with little or no patronage. When Nigeria wanted to build an export refinery, Ibaka was the preferred location. Politics tried to influence the export refinery to be located elsewhere. There was controversy. The project was abandoned. The planned dugout port at Ibeno is already showing signs of failure. Ibaka deep seaport under the drive of the Federal Government was to be completed in 2015. Till now there is nothing on ground apart from paper work which I learnt has already gulped billions of Naira. It took them six years to fight for relocation. It will take them possibly another six years to dig out an ocean of one square kilometre from land. By this time, other deep seaport might have been operational. It is better for the project to be stopped if they cannot return to its original location in Ibaka and to be built in a shorter time and at a much cheaper cost.
What is your take on the financial implication of a dug-out-port juxtaposed with the cost of building a port in a natural harbour?
The cost implications will definitely be enormous and comparatively much more higher than building a deep seaport at a natural habour at Ibaka. We do not have many dugout ports in the world and comparative cost data are not easily available. But we are talking about digging an area of one square kilometre to a depth of 20 meters. This is likely to generate a volume of loose sand and debris close to 50 million cubic meters. Where and how are they going to dispose of this volume of stuff? From my engineering intuition, I can tell you that this is a costly venture. When comparative cost analysis was carried out for different locations during due diligence studies for Ibaka deep seaport, the preferred location at Ibaka had a cost figure lower than the Ibeno location. The comparison was for building a normal port at Ibeno coast not a dugout port. If you then add the cost of digging out an ocean, then you can imagine what the cost difference would be.
Against the backdrop of the Federal Government has relinquishing its equity in the project, it is now left for Akwa Ibom State and the core investor. What if they go ahead and build the dugout port?
We pray that they will not go ahead with the relocation and the building of the dugout port. No sensible investor will choose to abandon a natural harbour which will cost him less to go and waste his funds in digging out a costly artificial ocean. If they go ahead, people will be forced to believe that the so called core investor is only a front. People who have stolen humongous amount of money from government want to use this vain project to launder such funds. It is a deprivation like this that gives rise to ethnic violence. If they go ahead to relocate and build a dugout port, the project may suffer violence during construction and operations stages.
What is the way forward?
Oron Nation has written a petition signed by both traditional and community leaders both at home and in the diaspora. We have forwarded this petition to relevant authorities. We intend to also let our grievances known to all stakeholders. We are exploring legal action to challenge the logic of the document on which the relocation was based. We still have other actions we intend to embark on against the relocation and the dugout port. We are hoping that they would see reasons and stop the relocation. The way forward is for the Government of Akwa Ibom State to return of the deep seaport to its original location in Ibaka.