On Tuesday, January 19, it will be two years since President Muhammadu Buhari visited Baro in Niger State to commission the Baro River Port. Two years after, Daily Trust on Sunday writes on the condition of the port and its host community.
Despite the unusually thick security atmosphere in the small coastal town of Baro, the villagers and their neighbours thronged out on the bright Saturday morning to witness a remaking of history. It was seen as a new dawn by the joyous, optimistic residents as a port was commissioned.
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President Muhammadu Buhari was choppered into the small but significant town of Baro, in Niger State, that morning of Jnauary 19, 2019, to commission what the administration counted as one of its major achievements.
The commissioning was part of activities lined up to demonstrate the accomplishments of the Buhari administration as he rounded off his first term of four years and sought re-election that year.
Baro itself is not new to official razzmatazz. The Emir of Agaie, Alhaji Yusuf Nuhu, who was among the dignitaries that welcomed the president to his domain on that day, remembered his childhood. As a schoolboy around 1958, he was selected among school children lined up to welcome the late Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who was on a visit to the area.
On another occasion, the emir recalled in an interview with Daily Trust on Sunday that he and his siblings from Agaie travelled to Baro to be part of a welcome party for Queen Elizabeth.
Baro was that important because it was not just a little coastal town with a port, it had the uniqueness of having both a port and a train line linking Minna to the hinterland.
The hitherto small fishing village soon attracted labourers and merchants from the South and up North, such as the grandparents of Baba Isiyaku, a trader from the Angwan Hausawa in Baro.
Isiyaku said his grandparents worked for British trading firms since the days of the Royal Niger Company. Another generation of the family worked for latter companies such as John Holt and UAC. They settled in Baro and inter-married with locals. Isiyaku showed off his Hausa tribal marks, indicating possible origin traceable to Kano.
At its zenith, Baro served as a major haulage point for commodity goods, such as groundnut, cotton and palm kennel, and arrival ports for foreign goods, such as fabrics, kerosene, cement and other condiments, said the village head, Etsu Baro, Mohammed Ndanusa.
Though he did not witness the booming days of the port, the local leader said dockworkers, merchants and other fortune hunters were all over the place, up to Katcha, a village some 19 kilometers away. The Emir of Agaie said he remembered days of his childhood when Baro was home to “a good number of people engaged in loading and uploading goods.”
There are a number of decaying structures, including a forlorn post office building standing between the old town and the new port terminal. These artifacts remind residents of Baro and visitors about the great past of the town.
Hopes and impediments
It was, therefore, with fanfare that the residents of Baro and environs gathered on January 19, 2019 with the high hope of reopening the long forgotten chapter in the town’s history. Locals saw it as the long-awaited trip into the golden future that a lot of them only heard about.
“I drove many myself that morning from far and near into Baro, who wanted to witness the occasion and catch a glimpse of the president, a man they saw as a messiah for their long cry,” recalled a commercial driver, Abdullahi Baban-Nana.
Nda-gana Mohammed, a resident of the town, recalled the euphoria in an interview with Daily Trust on Sunday at the Baro market.
“We were all glad to see that the president himself was coming to our community to commission a big project like this,’’ he said.
The first glint of hope for the resuscitation of Baro port flashed in December 2008 when the administration of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua awarded a N34.8billion contract for the dredging of lower River Niger, from Warri in Delta State to Baro.
The dredging was necessary for the rejuvenation of the two inland ports in Baro and Lokoja. Disuse had contaminated the waterways, making movement of ships impossible.
The abandoning of Baro Port, the Etsu Baro said, started with the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. Hostilities on both sides brought activities to a gradual halt in 1968 after a ship conveying traders undertook a journey of no return.
Residents were, therefore, elated when the Yar’adua administration began the process that could potentially bring life back to their town. Government at the time explained that 572km of the river would be dredged across eight states from Delta through Anambra to Niger. The dredging would impact on some 152 communities by easing haulage of goods and trading activities.
It was estimated that the dredging and functioning of the ports in Lokoja and Baro would reduce the duration of the journey from Onitsha in Anambra State to Baro to around 90 minutes by speedboat instead of over nine hours it takes by road.
The government also awarded the Baro River Port contract in 2009, and with initial mobilisation, the Chinese contractors moved to site, arriving with a torch of hope for the people. The Emir of Agaie told Daily Trust on Sunday that commencement of work on the site attracted investors who sought to establish all manner of businesses in the area.
“Everybody was happy that the lost glory of Baro was coming back. As kids, everyone of us would want to go to Baro,” the emir said.
The happiness brought by the prospect of dredging the lower River Niger and reviving the Baro port was shortlived. The dredging dragged on for years due to lack of funding and was only revisited in 2011 after much cries by concerned stakeholders and pressure from the media.
When the Goodluck Jonathan administration revisited the project, it reviewed the contract sum to about N49billion, as announced by the then minister of transportation, Idris Umar in November, 2011.
Yet, with all its pledges, the Jonathan administration could not complete the port project, making it a campaign issue for the then opposition All Progressives Congress (APC).
Billions down the drain
It is not only the hope and expectation of residents that have dipped with the stalled project, billions of naira has also gone with it, making campaigners and concerned residents wonder why the government would undertake the final push to salvage the huge investment.
The port has a length of 150 metres, 7,000 square metres cargo stacking yard, a transit shed of 3,600 square metres and an estimated capacity of 5,000 TEU at a time.
In a motion presented at the Senate in November 2019, the senator representing Niger South, Mohammed Bima Enagi, bemoaned the condition of the port as he presented a portrait of what is fast fitting the features of a white elephant project. Enagi reminded his colleagues of the staggering N40b expended by the Federal Government to make the port work, without any result.
While it is unclear how the minister arrived at the figure, it is clear from Daily Trust on Sunday’s findings that the project and issues around it have consumed funds in huge drops.
Aside a multibillion naira dredging contract and cost of building the port at Baro, the government variously awarded contract for different aspects of the project, including auxiliary components, such as road networks.
In 2017, the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), the agency responsible for ports such as Baro’s, said it was spending N100m on maintenance and dredging of the lower River Niger area, covering Baro.
In May, 2018, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) awarded a N703m contract for dredging of the turning base of the port.
The Buhari administration also announced that it awarded a contract of N10.6 for the construction of road from Gulu to Baro on September last year.
The Jonathan administration, in December 2014, approved the award of contract for Agaie-Katcha-Baro road at the cost of N17.5b.
The ‘jinxed’ road affecting Baro port
So far, the contract for the construction of the 52.3 kilometre Agaie-Katcha-Baro road has been awarded three times: in 2009, 2012 and 2012. The last award in January 2015 was another possible campaign stunt for the 2015 election a few months away. The Federal Government awarded the contract to pave way for the road for easy access between the port and rest of the hinterland, through the main federal road linking up Baro and Agaie to Bida and Mokwa on the southern plank, and Minna and Lambata on the northern side.
To everyone’s dismay, however, the road, which was billed for completion in 12 months when the contract was awarded, dragged on, six years after.
On a visit to Baro last weekend, Daily Trust on Sunday discovered that the road off Agaie-Bida road has been abandoned by the contractor as there was no sign of workers or any working tool like heavy-duty vehicles.
The condition of the road also varied in stages. About half-way from Agaie to Katcha is completed with asphalt overlay and shoulder drains. The second half linking up to Katcha is graded and paved but without the granules needed before asphalting.
From Katcha, however, a traveller is faced with a nightmare. Cars and other vehicles meander through a turgid terrain in what was more like a bush path – barely any trace is there to suggest that a road once existed there. As a riverine community, the area is dotted with water channels and tributaries, yet there is no bridge to help commuters cross the water channels. For years, according to residents, the communities come together to maintain about five wooden bridges that links the rest of the world.
Our reporter traced the offices of the contractor handling the project in search for answers on why the site was abandoned, but no official of the company was willing to talk. The managing director was said to be unavailable at the time. A guard at the gate requested that a note be left for the managing director on the purpose of the visit. The company is yet to get back to Daily Trust on Sunday.
“It’s like what we had was a cosmetic commissioning because the port is not functioning at all,” said Mohammed in a voice deep with anger and disappointment.
Baba Dzukogi, a writer and community mobiliser, said he saw through this right from the announcement in January 2019, that the president was coming to commission the port at Baro.
“The time they chose actually did not give any strong confidence that it was a serious business,” he said.
The Secretary to the Government of Niger State, Ahmed Ibrahim Matane, said since the commissioning of the port by President Buhari two years ago, it has been dormant.
It was gathered that the depth of the Niger River is currently below the minimum draught required for navigation. The dredging was designed to cover 2.5 to three meters initially. However, a long time of disuse and high rate of siltation has set the clock back on the project.
“The issue of drainage has gone back to square one. It is like the money used for the drainage was just misused,” said Baro resident, Mohammed. According to him, some portions of the river are covered by sand, such that one can walk from one end to another.
Quoting the minister of transportation, Matane said sustainable operation of the Baro port would require holistic dredging of the River Niger, from Baro port down to the Atlantic Ocean. He said that was the only way cargoes could move without hindrance.
When the location was visited last Sunday, our reporter saw a fine but deserted structure, with only few security personnel posted to guard the facilities.
The expansive compound stood sedentary and lonely by the river bank. The building looked tidy and sparkled from newness. But the first sign of inactivity is the gate rails, which is all covered in sand. The giant gate into the compound was in chains and lock.
It was all quite inside the compound but for the occasional breeze from the river and moving wind. Off the vicinity of the terminal building, small boats and canoes navigate, conveying fishermen and commuters.
A 100KVA generating set sat idle. Its surrounding was all clean, an evidence that it was hardly ever activated. Cobwebs and bird nests could be seen inside the generating house, while rodents’ excrete pile up by the perforated building-evidence that other beings other than humans were putting the place to ‘good’ use.
The summary of the story of Baro is that of a small village which rose rapidly in significance but suffered a sudden collapse.
“Anybody who knew Baro then (before collapse of the port) and came to see it thereafter will shed tears because it became a ghost of itself,” Emir of Agaie said.
A visit to the town confirms that the emir was not being hyperbolic. Residents of Baro interviewed by our reporter painted a sordid story of the port and a people who invested hope in the project for both economic and social salvation.
A resident, Jummai Mai-tuwo, said they had expected that the port would pick up so that the mobility challenges in the area would be addressed. “The roads are bad around here,” she said.
According to her, the town is currently deserted and visitors are reluctant to visit, even on market days because of the labour required to make the journey.
The condition of the connecting roads affect social and commercial activities in the area. Jummai said the sick who needed attention beyond the capacity of the small dispensary in the town suffer a great deal in struggle to access care. “Many lives have been lost in this way,” she added.
Residents such as Mohammed had high hopes that the Baro port revival would not only affect the community in terms of direct jobs, but also some other indirect benefits “like constant power supply and good hospital.” He envisioned that “The Federal Government would not put a project like this anywhere without good roads.”
At present, Baro, according to residents, gets electricity once in a long while. “The light is very epileptic. If we see light today it takes even two months before we see it again; and they come to share bills,” said Mohammed.
The source of drinking water in Baro, Daily Trust on Sunday learnt, is an untreated river. Some individuals with the means, however, dig wells in their compounds for better and easier access to water.
“Poverty level here is very high,” Mohammed said, repeating the last part of the sentence for emphasis. He said some youths in the town were tempted to engage in stealing because “there’s no job to do.” Mohammed is, however, hopeful that “when the port becomes functional they will get jobs there.”
Road network only hindrance, NIWA insists
The general manager, corporate affairs of the NIWA, Dard’au Jibril, said lack of access road was hindering the utilisation of the port.
“The dredging was done from 2009 to 2012 and has been completed. The water was opened up for business. What hasn’t been done is the complementary aspect of the dredging in the other ports. At Lokoja port, the work is still ongoing. Baro port is completed and commissioned. Onitsha port is completed, commissioned and undergoing concession. Oguta port is also ongoing,’’ he said.
But as previously reported by Daily Trust, the situation of the port has not changed.
“The Federal Government has allocated some parts of the construction of the road and the Niger State Government is also pushing in the same road matter,.
The port was designed for international standard and it can take whatever it was designed for – barges and others. But if barges come to the port, how can the goods be evacuated to other parts of the North as there’s no access road,’’ he asked.
We’re handicapped – Niger government
Ahmed Matane, the Secretary to the Niger State Government, said they were unable to do much to salvage the project because both the port and the road linking it to Agaie belong to the Federal Government.
He said the state government was also handicapped in terms of the resources needed to change the lot of the people of the area.
Matane said Governor Abubakar Sani Bello was “unwavering” in his call on the Federal Government and other relevant bodies to ensure that the port comes upstream.
He said the state government had provided the cooperation required by federal agencies to complete the project, saying, however, that there was little they could do on their own.
He said the state government had a plan of opening the Baro area with the establishment of an industrial park and opening up an area called Empire Hills, where colonial officials lived, for tourism. Matane, however, added that none of those things could work out without the ports coming alive and the road network that would ease transportation.
He countered allegations by some campaigners who accused the state government of not showing enough concern to save the day. He said the administration had engaged the government of South Korea for support regarding rehabilitating the rail network as an alternative means of transportation for movement of goods to and from the port.
Monarch, residents appeal
The prayer of both the Emir of Agaie and residents of Baro interviewed is the completion of this project in their lifetime.
“My parents spoke a lot about the Baro port, how it brought wealth and made this place lively and developed. I want to see that happen again,” a 53-year-old Isiyaku said.
In August, federal lawmakers from the Niger South, who visited Baro to assess the state of things, appealed to the Federal Government to ensure that all components are completed and operational before 2023.
Senator Muhammad Bima Enagi, who led other state legislators and council chairmen to the project site in Baro town, said there was the need to re-dredge the Lower River Niger from Warri to Baro.
He also said the Lambata-Bida and Agaie-Katcha-Baro and Baro-Abaji roads, which link the port, must be promptly reconstructed. Another appeal they made was for the rehabilitation of the rail line linking Baro to Minna.
The chairman of a Minna-based civil society group, Blue Revolution Initiative, M.D Abubakar, said he and his members were almost giving up because their cries to get attention to the abandoned project were not heard.
While some concerned persons and residents are expressing despair, the Emir of Agaie is still upbeat. “We are still very optimistic. We would want to see that this project commissioned by President Buhari becomes fully functional during his time,” he said.