Hadiza Bala-Usman

Port failure – The Nation

  • The gridlock horror of the Apapa ports lies in the heart of the companies running them

A lot of hoopla has suffused the narrative. Tons of journalism, many standoffs, scenes of controversy and government posturing have attended the matter. Yet, for years, the Apapa port has remained a major eyesore, an earful and an example of official failure.

For a long time, there have been accusations and counteraccusations. Some have said, it is because we are still operating an old, antiquated transportation mode, and that accounts for the abundance of trucks and trailers on the roads between the ports and major arteries leading to the city. Others have accused the quality of roads, and they assert that it is because there are bad roads that we witness the snail’s pace of movement from port to town. There are also arguments that the trucks have bluntly refused to take advantage of the parking areas, a manic fascination with the road rather than the safe parking areas that cost money to create.

The other complaint goes to the heart of port operations and the red tape involved in getting a trailer into the port to load and leave, which accounts for the core of the headache.

We must note that for a country of such a large population of over 200 million persons and high network and density of international commerce, it is amazing that we have not expanded our port capacity; or more precisely, we have not taken nearly enough advantage of other facilities in the country. This is not a desert country; we have ports in Warri and Koko in Delta State, Port Harcourt in Rivers, Ibom in Akwa Ibom State, etc. They are either working at awfully low capacity, or they are virtually dead. It is not as if they have no traffic. Over 60 percent of port activity happens in Lagos.

In Akwa Ibom State, the Ibom port, still under construction, has a capacity to do as well as Port Harcourt and Warri, and the long line of heavy trucks waiting to collect their goods or wares could as well be in those parts of the country, and easing Lagos of the work load, the loss of man hours, the job losses or idleness, the financial potential amounting to billions of Naira being lost daily.

It boils down to a lack of a grand port policy. The Apapa port was established in 1913, and it constructed its first four deep sea berths in 1921. That was in the heart of colonial period. Since then we have exercised an attitude of resignation and even languor while the volume of commerce has far outstripped capacity. The birth of the Tin Can Island Port was a child of necessity that did not happen until about eight decades after the Apapa Port was born. It was in 1981 it started and was opened in 1997. There has been a sense of dalliance with the ports.

So, why is it that there has not been a policy to decongest Lagos by routing the ships to other ports in an intentional manner? This lack of symmetry that the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) has only paid lip service to for years requires a structural approach in which certain goods and certain ships have to be in Calabar, or Onne or Port Harcourt, or Warri.

In spite of that, the port has been a failure of management. The companies that run the ports under the aegis of the NPA have failed to keep up with modern technology. For instance, rather than deploy modern scanning method, a lot of the work is done manually.

So, an array of problems is making a nightmare of port business. Other than drawbacks in scanning and physical inspection, the customer has to grapple with duplicated charges as well as charges tangential to the cargo, and these affect cargo dwell time. The dwell time is often associated with corruption, and customers’ efforts to meet up with the charges that have no official records. The stacking of containers and the clearing of the container next in line lead to a lot of delays. The customs agents also play their own roles in the delay.  Scanning that should take a few minutes takes up to three hours for just one container. This is unacceptable.

When such procrastination and inefficiencies prevail, it is little wonder that there will be a preponderance of trucks clogging the arteries leading to the ports in Lagos. Lagos State has started work on the Lekki deep sea port, and that promises to ease the matter. But it has been a policy of decentralisation, that will help the economies in other parts of the country as we experienced in the 1970’s in Warri or Calabar or Port Harcourt.

The hobgoblin has been that the lack of good roads account for the gridlock and delay. But the Federal Government has constructed concrete road, a dual-carriage affair that runs from the port all the way to Oworonsoki, and in spite of that, the gridlock remains.  The whipping boy was the road because the trucks are on the road. The Jonathan administration constructed an asphalt road that is now on the verge of being replaced with a concrete one under the works minister Babatunde Raji Fashola. The only part  of the about 17-kilometre road left to complete is between Coconut and Mile Two, a distance of about six kilometres.

The charges in three countries, including Nigeria, show how, through delays and corruption, Nigeria’s vaunted ease of doing business mantra has become empty rhetoric. In Nigeria, customers pay about $457 as terminal charges, $374 for shipping charges. Transportation from port to warehouse is about $2,100. In Tema Port, Ghana, terminal charge amounts to about $280, the shipping charge is $325 and local transport from port to warehouse is about $285. In Durban, South Africa, customers pay $180 as terminal charge, for shipping they pay about $274. Transport from port to warehouse is $208.

It is obvious that the problem is basically that of corruption and inefficiency. The companies running the ports ought to be held accountable for mismanaging the dynamic of port business in Lagos. Two vast parking areas have been provided for the trucks. They do not take advantage of them because of acts of corruption. The trucks do not want to pay because some individuals are playing rogue by using what is called arbitrage, charging the trucks illegal fees. The trucks rather clog on the road than pay exorbitant fees for packing.

Of course we cannot fail to mention that construction of the railway to link the port with other parts of the country will significantly help in decongesting the roads. This will take many trailers and trucks off the roads, thus expanding the lifespan of the roads in addition to easing tremendously the gridlock.

All said, the NPA has to redraw its operational map, and focus on the tedium and inefficiencies. The nation is losing tremendous money not only because of the unnecessary inflation, but also the the delay in business activity. We cannot run a 21st century port with a 20th century amenity. Worse still, we cannot make progress when individual companies are not held accountable. Apapa was a big thriving part of the Nigerian economy. Today, no one wants to go there. It is the great paradox of Nigeria’s underdevelopment.

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