Cameroon’s huge deep-sea port is ready to go. But the issue of who will control the terminal remains unresolved, while locals wonder if they will benefit from the project.
Amid rainy season drizzles, scores of labourers are busy tidying main road stretches in Kribi, a seaside tourist hangout in Cameroon’s South Region.
“We are preparing for a likely visit by the President of the Republic. He is awaited here to personally inaugurate the Kribi deep-sea port in the days ahead,” says Moussa Tanko, one of the sweat-soaked workers. After a pause, though, he adds: “Well, we hope it will not be another false alarm as has been the case several times in the recent past.”
Touted to become the most modern port platform along the West African coast, the Kribi port complex – spread over 26,000ha with a 20km coastal facade – is sandwiched between thick equatorial forests and the deep blue sea. According to the government, the port, whose investment remains unrivalled in the region, will serve as a launch pad for economic growth.
“The construction of the Kribi deep-sea port marks the start of a new era for the development of economies of Cameroon and Central Africa,” says Louis-Paul Motazé, president of a steering committee overseeing the project. “It will fast track the country’s and sub-region’s industrialisation.”
The ambitious project is segmented into three phases scheduled to end in 2040, but the first of these stages is nearly complete, with the China Harbour Engineering Company finishing its works in June 2014. The costs for this phase were set at $568m, with 85% coming from a loan from China’s EXIM bank and the rest funded by the Cameroonian government.
Fitted with basic infrastructure, the 16-22 metre-deep port has the capacity to anchor ships weighing up to 100,000 tons. It welcomed its first large vessel in July 2014 amid much celebration.
“Today’s ceremony marks our symbolic blessing to the Kribi port,” declared Patrice Guiamba at the time, in his capacity as a spokesperson for local indigenous communities. “Many doubted the implementation of the project when it was announced, but now it is clear it was not another deceptive election campaign promise.”
One year down the road, however, the excitement amongst the seaside resort’s 55,000 residents has considerably chilled. The competition for the contract to control the terminal has still yet to be resolved, postponing the port’s inauguration, while the promised benefits to locals have yet to be felt.
Competition for control
When the government was first seeking an operator for the container terminal, 10 firms submitted tenders. In June 2013, Economy and Planning Minister, Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi, announced that the French firm, Bolloré Africa Logistics, had won the bid. But in January 2014, Prime Minister Philémon Yang declared the franchise bidding process had in fact been “unfruitful”. In October 2014, Yang then said the number of bidders had been narrowed down to three.
One of those in the running is a consortium including Bolloré, the French-owned shipping line CMA CGM, and China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. Another competitor is a consortium including the Filipino International Container Services Inc (ICTSI) and port operator APM Terminals. And the final contestant is French-owned operator, Necotrans.
The decision is reportedly awaiting action from the president, with some insiders suggesting some in government are reluctant to give Bolloré monopoly control over the country’s container terminals. The French company also runs the terminal at Douala port, where it has come under attack for overcharging users and slowing down retrieval operations.
While the country waits, however, frustrations are growing.
“I don’t understand the raison d’être behind building a port on schedule and then allowing it to lie fallow all this while. It was expected to go operational in the second half of last year and would have generated substantial amounts of money by now,” says an official from China Harbour Engineering Company, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the firm.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea
The inhabitants of Kribi are also waiting for the venture to start operating, but in the meantime the population has grown as job-seeking migrants move to the area.
The population is estimated to rise to 100,000 within the next few years. But already, food prices and rents have been rising, forcing some residents to move away.
For many, this situation evokes memories of the dashed expectations of the much-vaunted World Bank-funded Chad-Cameroon Pipeline around a decade ago.
“It feels like the scenario is being remade,” says Grégoire Mba Mba, former mayor of Kribi and spokesperson for indigenous communities. “Many displaced people still complain they have not received indemnities. Besides, how do you explain the fact that of the 1,125 workers for the project’s first phase, over 600, including truck drivers, were ferried in from China?
“We were promised 30% of all subcontracts and 30% of all jobs generated by the project. If our children who have been to school fail to get jobs here, then we would have failed woefully.”
A local resident, Paul Meme Divahe, echoes these concerns. “The second phase of the project is due to start this year and there are no guarantees that Cameroonians will be given priority in recruitment,” he says. “Sure, the project will generate hundreds of jobs, but apart from manual labour, what will the local youths get? Nothing.”
The government disputes this, however, and claims Kribi port will not only transform the area for the better, but that it will link up with other parts of the country through new roads and rails. This, the government says, will create some 20,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Elsewhere, Cam Iron, a subsidiary of Australia’s Sundance Resources, has concluded a deal for the exploitation of iron ore at Mbalam, which will be conveyed to the port for export via a 500km rail link. The deal, which is expected to generate some 12,000 jobs, will also add $600m in taxes.
“That’s only a tip of the huge iceberg of awaited gains for the economy, when you add Cameroon Alumina, the joint venture company of [India’s] Hindalco, [Dubai’s] Dubal [and US Hydromine], which is readying to begin exploiting bauxite, and Minim-Martap and Ngaoundal in the north of the country, for a period of 60 years,” says the government’s Motazé. “We cannot ask for more.”
Critics still worry Kribi will only ease China and other foreign investors’ extraction of the country’s natural resources, but local traditional chiefs – some accused of receiving government kickbacks to cool rising tempers – insist such claims are unfounded.
“No matter what the faultfinders say about the project designed to facilitate Chinese exploitation of our natural resources, we are proud and Cameroon will be proud of Kribi,” says Eko Roosevelt, a local traditional ruler. “It is a spectacular win-win achievement for the country and the sub-region at large.”
Ntaryike Divine Jr