In early 1975, Nigeria treated the entire world to an unseemly spectacle of gridlock and waste that has since been enshrined in the folklore as the “cement armada.” The cement armada was the culmination of the Yakubu Gowon administration’s ill-advised decision to import 16 million metric tons of cement to build a new army barracks and sundry other “development” projects. The problem was not that cement had been imported for vital construction works, but that, in its hurry, the Gowon government had paid scant regard to the handling capacity of the Lagos Ports.
According to historians Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton, this miscalculation on the part of the Gowon regime did incalculable damage to the Nigerian economy and international reputation, for “As ships bearing cement poured into Lagos harbor, congestion became a major problem. Some ships were forced to wait for as long as a year to unload their cargo, all the while collecting demurrage fees in compensation…. The “cement armada” episode came to epitomize the wasteful mismanagement of government resources that took place under the Gowon regime.”
In Nigeria, the more things change, the more they appear to remain the same, and it is impossible to contemplate recent media reports on the abandonment of more than 10,000 containers at Lagos ports without recalling one of the inglorious episodes of the Gowon era. Early in August, the Nigerian public had reacted with shock to confirmation by the Managing Director of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), Mr. Usman Mohammed, that the commission had finally recovered 693 containers of power equipment previously abandoned at different Lagos ports, some for more than 15 years! Mr. Mohammed blamed the abandonment of the containers for such an inexcusable length of time on tariffs.
The TCN MD’s admission was a precursor to media reports last week that over 10,000 abandoned overtime containers currently litter the Lagos Ports Complex in Apapa, Lagos State, awaiting clearance by their owners. By definition, a piece of cargo is classified as overtime if it is unclaimed by either the importer or clearing agent after 28 days. Addressing reporters, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Apapa Area Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Ms. Nkiru Nwala, blamed the NCS’ failure to move the overtime cargoes from Apapa to the government warehouse in Ikorodu on the high cost of transportation. Said Ms. Nwala: “It costs N550, 000 to move a twenty-foot container from Apapa to Jibowu, a suburb of Lagos, a cost which the command cannot afford to bear.”
While Ms. Nwala is right to bemoan the high cost of transporting stranded containers to the government warehouse, she overlooks the real problem, which is the presence of such a staggering number of abandoned containers in the first place. Why did the owners of such containers abandon them, and why were they not auctioned as mandated by law when they became a menace to the smoothness of everyday operations?
Some clearing agents have blamed their failure to clear their cargoes on the poor state of roads in the country. This is a fraudulent excuse. Were these agents ignorant of the state of roads in the country at the time of importing their containers? It takes little to realise that the situation at the Lagos ports goes right to the heart of what ails Nigeria as a country: people preferring to game the system instead of following simple rules, paying no heed to the common good, and breaking the law with impunity. It’s unfortunate how little has changed since 1975.