What has a historian got to do with seaports? – Fellows’ seminar by Ayodeji Olukoju

5 June 2024

“There’s more to ports than capital, technology, brick, mortar, bolts and nuts. Policy is critical but it is best enriched by history – the longitudinal perspective,” said Ayodeji Olukoju of the Department of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos.

“Three-quarters of the Earth is covered by water, which makes it a veritable Blue Planet. Consequently, some 90 per cent of global trade is seaborne, with seaports functioning as lynchpins or critical nodes in the global transport-logistics network. Expectedly, seaports, shipping and various aspects of the maritime domain have been studied by scholars across disciplines and nationalities. However, some disciplines, such as History, and nationalities and regions are underrepresented in the scholarly conversation on this subject.”

Pointing out that the question was first posed to him in 1993 shortly after he completed his PhD studies by a Nigerian ports-sector bureaucrat, Olukoju noted that the question “reflects a conception of history as antiquated and irrelevant, a vision of history that is about the rise and fall of kings and about politics and the past, and that a story about the past has little to offer today.”

A vision his work profoundly disputes.

“The study of seaports crosses aspects like economics, politics, maritime development, business, money, urbanisation, labour, trade, piracy, engineering, technology, government policies and national development,” he said.

“Ports are classified by their size and function. Some are multifunctional, others specialised. Some are organic – they grow – while others stagnate and die. They are very sensitive to international dynamics and dependent on the central role of the state. They can be drivers of local development but, equally, can lead to skewed development. They can also be ‘mascots’ for cities – points of economic and cultural development, and innovation hubs.”

“They are windows from the land to the sea and vice versa.”

Olukoju pointed out that ports fall into two categories – natural and artificial. The African coastline lacks natural indentations – in many places it is “straight like a ruler which is a big disadvantage. Few natural harbours mean more money to build and maintain especially for big ships.”

“Site and situation are important in either the growth or decline of ports – a shallow draft and narrow approach means they can’t take big vessels,” he added.

Some of the challenges facing port development include government policies around ownership and control, rivalries, duplications, delays, waste and corruption; rapidly changing technologies affecting shipbuilding, containers, digitisation and automation all of which requires capital to construct, operate and maintain; lack of transportation infrastructure like roads and railways; inter-port competition within and between countries; climate change leading to changing sea levels, flooding and coastal erosion and events like  earthquakes and tsunamis; as well as the implications of the global shift to landlord ports often owned by companies or partnerships based in other countries.

“In the scramble for African deep seaports, PPPs and concessions may boost capacity and efficiency but at the cost of loss of sovereignty,” he explained. “They have produced good results but sovereignty is compromised. Also, often the terms are not properly negotiated. They can sometimes lead to disruption of local ecosystems and livelihoods.”

“Port planners also have to have the ability to project,” he continued, “they can overinvest in so-called booms that later become busts or can face an unexpected boom for which they have inadequate capacity to respond.”

“Ports can also become involved in wars and conflicts leading to blockages and closures.”

Contemporary deep seaport development in Africa

Olukoju’s STIAS project specifically looks at the development of deep seaports in Nigeria and Angola.

His comparison of Nigeria and Angola is based on several commonalities – both are on the Atlantic Ocean, and have long coastlines. They are rich, well-endowed, diverse economies and crude oil exporting giants. They have dense, diverse populations as well as significant relationships with surrounding landlocked countries.  “I’m asking what they have done with this, what gaps are there; and how have they taken advantage of the opportunities and their global capacity?”

He explained that Angola has a 1600 km long coastline and five ports. Lobito – the pilot of his project – is the second-largest and largest deepwater port managing two million tons of cargo annually. It’s also the gateway to the Lobito Corridor – which offers access for European Union countries and the US to critical minerals for the energy transition in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as having a substantial impact on Angolan agricultural exports. “Lobito is well connected and strategic.”

Two notable features are agreements with companies in the United Arab Emirates to develop freight, industry systems, services and infrastructure as well as the SWiFT (Single Window for Facilitation of Trade) project – a maritime single-window system offering electronic submissions via a single online portal.

Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest petroleum exporter, with an 853 km coastline. Apapa is the largest port and Port Harcourt the second largest.  There are also substantial railway links to neighbouring landlocked countries specifically Niger and Chad. “Nigeria aims to be the hub port for Africa in competition with South Africa.”

“There was consensus in January to adopt a single maritime platform,” said Olukoju. “National policy drives port development as an arm of a developmental state. But ports can catalyse development or dissipate resources. I’m looking at the impact on the local economy, on livelihoods and biodiversity.”

He explained that the project will engage with the following questions: Can seaports function as growth poles outside the traditional maritime nations? If so, under what conditions? If not, why not? Can ports skew or stunt development? How far have Nigeria and Angola fulfilled their huge potential in harnessing their maritime domain and terrestrial resources in their national and sub-regional contexts? What are the gaps in their respective hard and soft transport infrastructures? How can they be remedied? How have they fared in the areas of (deep) seaport development and port management? How, if at all, have they harnessed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and continental Transport Corridors? And, how have they managed the ramifications of the influx of global capital?

His STIAS residency has also resulted in looking at the Freeport Saldanha project with Jo-Ansie van Wyk. Freeport Saldanha is the first Special Economic Zone to be located within a port in South Africa catering specifically to the oil and gas, maritime fabrication and repair industries.

Tackling the what ifs

Olukoju rounded out his presentation by highlighting some what ifs. “What if Africa had been endowed with indented coastlines; the Atlantic states had established a multilateral body to negotiate port concessions regionally; colonial boundaries had been abolished; sub-regions had pooled resources to develop single-hub ports; extractive industries were better managed and best practices shared; SWiFT had been adopted decades earlier; maritime nationalism was subordinated to regional fleet development; and, AfCFTA and subregional economic commissions had worked as planned?” he asked.

And returning to his opening question he said: “Politics without historical context equals mischief. Ignorance of the historical context and comparative research can lead to expensive mistakes. It’s important to understand the background relationships where there are a multiplicity of authorities and players.”

“With so many uncontrollable variables this isn’t an easy area in which to make projections and historians are generally not encouraged to do so and perhaps spoil their reputation. But historians should also do more applied research so they can make reasonable projections.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer

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