Nigeria Rediscovers the Niger River

Penny Wisdom

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By Emeka Uzoatu

The Niger River, in case you’re unaware, is the second longest body of flowing water in the African continent. After the further up Nile, of course. It traverses a legion nautical miles en route from the Futa Jallon in Guinea to the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Therefore, the rise of Onitsha on its more southerly course as one of the major trading posts on this twisting route from time immemorial is not by chance.

Among other factors, it has been linked to the town’s unique topography. According to the well-told tale, of all the settlements along the river’s undulating course, only the town had a natural ‘port’. Without much stress, boats found enough landing to dock, load and, or offload wares and passengers.

Artificed as though by Providence, this made it possible for massive human settlement therein. It naturally presented a ready-made opportunity for the trading of goods from the hinterland. This saw people from all corners either settling in the enclave or bringing their wares for bulk sale in the burgeoning marketplace it proffered.

This was to take another life when the Scottish adventurer Mungo Park navigated the Niger’s embouchure to the Atlantic and took the message home. How this was to lead the town’s importance in trading with Europeans, colonialism and evangelism is now history. 

Businesswise, it now houses the biggest market in West Africa. Attracting clientele from far afield along the west and central coast of Africa, it’s believed that when the town sneezes economically, most of this region catches cold.

It’s on this count that the reason for the reported jubilation all over the city, as the Managing Director of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA)  George Muoghalu recently commissioned the river port, is not far to fetch. What with the rigours suffered by the by-now enlarged trading population in the city to bring their goods overland from distant places.

No doubt, the celebration was hinged on all the ancillary advantages accruable from the exercise. All pertaining to the perceived boost it’ll give to economic activities in the city and region. Not only will jobs be created but there will be a drastic reduction of the numerous bottlenecks and red tapes tied to the clearing of goods from these more distant ports.

In turn, it’ll also see to the decongestion currently being experienced in these ports, such as the ones in Lagos. Let alone the added reduction of the pressure the haulage of these goods from thence inflict on our beleaguered highways.

A man walks on the Niger Bridge with the port in the background.

It could also not have been any less so given the port’s haunting antecedents. Built in the Second Republic when Shehu Shagari was president, it had lain fallow ever since. Remaining so even after 2012 when then president Goodluck Jonathan had refurbished and re-commissioned it.

However, now that the dust raised by the ‘celebration’ is settling, a proper assessment of the latest development has come to the fore. According to Muoghalu, what had taken place was that NIWA had commenced a ‘test run’ of container movement between the Onne port in Rivers state and the Onitsha port. The aim is to explore the erstwhile neglected huge potentials of inland water transportation via partnership with the Barge Operators Association. In effect the implication is that it has only been graduated into a bonded warehouse.

A palliative measure, it’s believed to be in lieu of its full operation by the first quarter of 2021. By when it is hoped that it would have been duly concessioned to an operator from the private operator expected to fully realize its touted potentials.

The concessioning apart, there is a need for its gazetting into law according to Don Ebubeogu, a former president of the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture. According to him, only this can give it a legal status of operation.

Other foreseeable hitches to the achievement of the port’s El Dorado of promises include the navigability or otherwise of the river route from Onne to Onitsha. A major hindrance being the inconclusive effort to dredge it under the last regime for the envisaged ‘intractable coastal erosion’ it’ll cause in the Niger Delta region.

As well, some of the other waterways the barges will pass through, like the Forcados River, are notably not only overridden with silt, but also have major obstacles lining its winding course.

All said and done, though, this well advertised and celebrated ‘test run’  by our heroes present is quite commendable. All the more so, if seen through, it may yet break the jinx bewitching this laudable project.  

Emeka Uzoatu, a seasoned journalist and writer, is the editor of He writes the occasional column, Penny Wisdom.