Failure is writ large on the renewed mandate by the Federal Government to clear the stubborn gridlock hindering smooth operations in the Apapa seaports in Lagos. For this reason, President Muhammadu Buhari, in May, gave the truck drivers that have become a nuisance there and beyond a 72-hour ultimatum to vacate the roads. What is more, the President gave two weeks to a task force to sanitise the area. Two weeks after the mandate expired, it is apparent that very little has changed. It is a bitter blow that Buhari’s team has missed the deadline.
Although the Presidential Task Force chaired by the Vice-President commenced operations immediately after Buhari’s order, the lamentation from residents, business owners and visitors to Apapa is still loud. The initial relief they experienced after a few trucks were evacuated quickly evaporated. As a result, the intolerable traffic woes are back at Coconut, Second Rainbow, Berger Yard, Mile-2, Trinity, Otto Wolfe and other strategic routes in the Apapa area.
Cognisant of its impotence, the government has extended the deadline by another two weeks. Whichever way, the fresh extension can only provide a temporary solution. As soon as it completes its assignment, the recalcitrant truck drivers would return to parking on the highways. Alternatively, they would relocate to other highways in the state.
Already, some of the trucks sent packing from Apapa have meandered their way to the Badagry and Oshodi expressways. Thus, this is just a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, in this case, the other parts of Lagos. Besides, official estimates state that 5,000 articulated vehicles go to Apapa daily for business. They (the trucks) end up creating choking traffic. The dilapidated roads and absence of parking bays for trucks are major issues that plague Apapa. In a new viral video, a 40-foot container fell on three cars in the gridlock. Inexcusably, the government has abandoned the roads.
For years, the Nigerian economy has sustained huge losses because of the traffic mess. In 2017, Africa’s wealthiest man, Aliko Dangote, put the daily loss at N20 billion (or N140 billion weekly). The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria states that exports suffer delay of up to two to three weeks because of the shambolic operations at the ports. The Organised Private Sector says 40 per cent of businesses there have relocated, and industrial capacity utilisation fallen to 38 per cent. Other business concerns pay huge sums for goods haulage from the ports. Residents are leaving in droves, unable to access their homes, while hoodlums take advantage of the bedlam to rob. With this, the traffic sore spread to other bridges in the commercial capital.
For the few trucks that escape the traffic, they encounter further setback from the inefficient operations at the Tin Can Island and Apapa ports, which together account for more than 60 per cent of Nigeria’s maritime trade. In 2018, the Cashew Farmers Association of Nigeria complained that exporters of agricultural produce and other goods lost $10 billion annually to the traffic turmoil.
With the economy in stagflation, this is absurd. According to the immediate past Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, the government needs about N100 billion to reconstruct the Apapa roads. This is peanuts considering that it collects revenue estimated by ports operators at about N2 trillion from Apapa yearly. The Federal Government should be ready to move mountains to restore the roads.
Simultaneously, it should within a year overhaul port operations. In October 2011, the then Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, partly did this. After a presidential directive, she sacked 10 agencies from the ports. They included the Directorate of Naval Intelligence, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria. This worked for about three months before everything broke down again. For the past few years, the scanners have packed up. It is ridiculous that the Ministry of Finance, which oversees the Nigeria Customs Service, has allowed the manual vetting of goods. Worse, an Executive Order in 2017, by the then acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, to aid smooth operations, has had no impact.
It is a major reason why trade (cargo throughput) at the Apapa ports was estimated at 71.5 million tonnes in 2018, which is grossly low. In comparison, the Port of Shanghai, the biggest in the world, processed 744 million tonnes of cargo in 2012, says the Ship Global Technology magazine. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development states that many global seaports are targeting efficient operations on the back of new technologies, rating terminals in China, the Netherlands and other Asian countries as the best performers. Ports in Dubai, Rotterdam and Singapore have adopted the Internet of Things, advanced sensors, automatic positioning, equipment intelligent diagnosis, cargo monitoring and vessel arrival forecasting and cloud computing, among others, to enhance their operations, says maritime website, Safety4Sea.com.
Nigeria’s nonchalance has translated to a boom for its neighbours. The ports in Cotonou, Lomé, Tema and Takoradi are breaking new grounds, collaborating with ports from Europe to boost their maritime industry. Incidentally, most of their imports end up in Nigeria, which loses huge income in the process. Buhari should take a personal interest in the maritime crisis.
Crucially, the ports need an integrated transport solution anchored on solid connecting roads, modern rail system and increased draught capacity. The ministries of transportation and finance should expand the other ports in Warri, Onne, Koko, Calabar and Port Harcourt. Most of the public agencies in the ports are pointless. The NCS has to ensure that the scanners and other technologies are put in operation. The use of technology should be sustained. This is the global best practice in port operations: the reduction of human interface reduces costs, promotes efficiency and eliminates corruption.
A responsible government enforces its laws. Currently, it seems as if the truck owners are more powerful than the government; it should hand out stiff penalties and fines to them, and clamp down on the military personnel extorting money from port users.
The Federal Government should speedily collaborate with the Lagos and Ogun state governments to facilitate the acquisition of land by private investors for the construction of holding bays, where the truckers should be compelled to park their vehicles.