What’s the problem with Nigerian ports?

Nov 11, 2022|Noelle Okwedy
This article was first published on the 29th of June, 2018. It was last updated on the 11th of November, 2022.

For a country trying to diversify its exports and foreign exchange earnings, Nigeria’s seaports are seriously deficient.

How many ports are in Nigeria?

According to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the country has six seaports: Apapa and Tin Can in Lagos, the Onne and Port-Harcourt ports in Rivers State, the Warri Port, and the Calabar Port. If we include the Lekki Deep Sea Port completed in November 2022, this makes it seven. But, by many accounts, only the Lagos ports operate anywhere near full capacity.

List of Nigerian ports and their locations

Apapa Quays

Established in 1913, the Apapa Quays is Nigeria's first and largest Port. The Nigerian Ports Authority oversaw its construction and has since been the country's main seaport. The Port is accessible to all types of transportation and is reputable for its impressive handling of heavy goods.

Tin Can Port 

Located in Lagos and 7 kilometres northwest of Apapa Quays, the Tin Can Port facilitates international goods' movement. The current Tin Can Port is a merger of what used to be the Roro and Tin Can Island Ports. It is the second largest Port in Nigeria after Apapa Quays.

Lekki Deep Sea Port

Lekki Port is a recently completed multi-purpose, deep-sea port in the Lagos Free Zone. It is the largest seaport in Nigeria and one of the biggest in West Africa, with double the depth of the Apapa port. It can take 2.5 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, i.e. 20-foot long containers) compared to Apapa port’s 650,000 TEUs.

Onne Port

Onne Port is another major seaport in Nigeria. In addition, it is in one of the world's largest oil and gas-free zones, making it the go-to Port for supporting oil and gas production and operations in Nigeria.

Port Harcourt Port

With a quay length of 1259 metres, Port Harcourt Port makes it to the list as another centre port in Nigeria. It is located in the Niger Delta and has 16 mass oil storage tanks with a capacity of 3,048 tonnes. The Port Harcourt Port is unique because it is in one of the world's largest unrefined petroleum locations. Also, it serves multiple ports, providing pilotage and towage services, and acting as the 'mother port' to a few jetties.

Calabar Port Complex

Before the Nigerian government took over its operations in 1969, the Calabar Port functioned as a historic trade centre for the Eastern and Northern Nigerian states with foreign countries before and during the colonial years. The Port is mainly used for transporting petroleum products from Calabar and Akwa-Ibom.

Warri Port 

The Warri Port was specifically created to transport cargo over short distances to places like Anambra, Imo, Delta, Edo, etc. It is renowned for its swift identification, documentation, and great cargo delivery.

The problems with Nigerian ports

The Apapa and Tin Can Ports account for 70% of imports on average. NPA data shows that the Onne port handled about 80% of Nigeria’s export cargo between 2012 and 2017–but this is because the Onne port is located in an Oil & Gas Free Zone and most of Nigeria’s exports are oil & gas products. Thus, the dispersion of imports across the ports paints a fairer picture of the performance of each one.

Insecurity and structural issues of Nigerian ports

A quick visit to the Port Harcourt port would reveal a surprising level of inactivity. A few people are milling about, but most of them are security personnel, one of whom disclosed that the number of ships docking at the port had decreased over the years. In the past, ships waited for days for space to dock, but now, there are days when no vessels dock at all.

It isn’t immediately clear what happened to Port Harcourt port. Some have blamed the poor functionality of the ports in the South on insecurity, as militancy and piracy increase the cost and risk associated with transporting goods through these areas. This view is sometimes pushed by the federal government, and it has some merit. At the height of a militant uprising driven by frustration at perceived exploitation by the government and international oil companies, kidnapping expatriates was a popular and lucrative activity and remains a moderate threat to this day. This has greatly discouraged foreign investment in the area. However, amnesty was granted to the militants in 2009 as latent insecurity clouded the region.  

Others peddle the narrative that the Lagos ports are most active because it is the country's economic capital. While this is true, and many importers would prefer to receive their goods in Lagos, some of Nigeria’s largest markets are in the East, which makes it bizarre that such little activity is directed to ports closer to the region. 

Part of the problem may be structural. Petroleum imports account for roughly 20% of Nigeria’s imports, most of which comes through the Lagos ports. The absence of a strong network of pipelines for transport and depots for storage has rendered the other ports useless.  

But this is Nigeria, and ethnic politics is never far away. Unsurprisingly, one conspiracy theory suggests that the ports in the South-South have been allowed to deteriorate as part of a ploy between Yoruba and Hausa leaders to weaken the region’s economy. Another fingers an ongoing rivalry in Rivers State between APC and PDP. Most states in the South are non-APC states, whereas the centre—and most other states—are APC-led. Yet, neither of these stories adds up. The deterioration of the Southern ports dates back several years, spanning different presidencies, governors, and leaders at the NPA. It is unlikely that any single individual or group could coordinate a joint venture of neglect here. Moreover, the APC is a relatively new party.  

In 2006, the Obasanjo administration introduced a port reform which forced the NPA to relinquish its active cargo-holding responsibilities to private operators. The part-privatization permitted the NPA to retain its infrastructure, regulation and monitoring responsibility. However, port terminal operators handled cargo handling, maintenance, and security duties.

The implication of inefficient ports

The concession was supposed to make the ports more efficient, but the opposite has happened. In 2015, during a performance review of the Nigerian Ports, the Chairman of the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, Vicky Hasstrup, pointed out some of the successes and failures of the port reform. She noted that while the reform had increased productivity due to strict monitoring of labour, control of extortion and reduction of damages to cargo, it had led to weaker vessel security and longer customs delays. 

Not having efficient seaports is a more significant problem than you would think. For one, roughly 99% of Nigeria’s trade goes through its sea borders, meaning the fate of the country’s trade rests on port efficiency. Also, inefficient port activity impacts the surrounding area–just ask the people who have to deal with traffic in Apapa, where shipping trucks line the side of the road. 

The Apapa problem can partly be addressed by diverting more cargo to the ports in the South. Apapa may be congested, but as the security guard would tell you, there is plenty of room in Port-Harcourt.