By Izuchukwu Ozoemena
Discussions on the deplorable condition of the port access routes in Lagos, will for a long time, be in the public space as long as authorities whose constitutional responsibility continue to indulge in a game of high wire politics and show of bogus promises. This situation formed a background to a special stakeholders’ forum last week in Lagos. The forum was organized as part of the ongoing advocacy to harvest ideas on how best to sanitize operations along a corridor that is critical to the movement of cargo in the sea ports in Lagos.
The recent announcement by Mr Babatunde Fashola, the Minister for Power, Works and Housing, that the Federal Executive Council had appropriated over N70 billon to rework the neglected Apapa/Oshodi expressway part of which is the beleaguered Apapa-Tincan stretch has attracted no excitement at all. That the work would start in the next week as announced sounded laughable and unbelievable. Vice President Osinbajo’s sudden visit to Apapa penultimate week only to dish out orders on how to decongest the traffic gridlock has also not attracted commensurate commendation. He went straight to the naval base in Apapa by air, addressed a couple of people who were hardly in a position to let him into the actual daily experiences of truckers, importers/exporters, freight forwarders and others who ply the route daily.
People’s feeling is understandable. Rather than heave a sigh of relief that at last something positive is about to happen, this gesture continues to raise more questions than answers. At best, it is seen as an afterthought crafted to temporarily assuage the feelings of the neglected people of Lagos and to make them once again fall to the bait of volunteering their votes in the 2019 elections.
Why must this gesture now come from a federal government that promised way back in 2014 that fixing this major artery to the ports would be her first task in Lagos when elected into office? What has happened since 2015 and now when, based on the rigorous campaign mounted for support, people willingly gave out their votes? Why is the promise and so- called contract award taking place just a few months to the end of a 4-year tenure after which the party that has failed to live up to its billing is seeking a re-election? Is it not part of the grand design to regurgitate and recycle an old promise as a vote-catching gimmick for the 2019 elections which President Buhari and his avid supporters are feverishly pursuing? What happens if, as usual, the gullible voters succumb to this trick, vote them in only to get rebuffed thereafter? These are questions people hardly find answers to as they bemoan the fate of commuters and port users who pass through the death zone the Apapa-Tincan road has become following long-time neglect.
The coalition of concerned stakeholders in the port industry logistics chain who congregated in Lagos last week included transporters, representatives of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), truck owners and road haulage operators whose businesses and investments have been suffering owing to crushing traffic gridlock and total neglect of the ports access routes for many years. Talk of those who have been wearing the proverbial shoes and know where they pinch! The groups included the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO) and the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN). Others were the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Association of Nigerian Customs Licensed Agents (ANLCA) and the Association of Registered Freight Forwarders (AREFF). The meeting, they stated, was designed to draw the attention of the federal government that concerned stakeholders will never get tired of drawing national and international attention to the deplorable condition of the ports access roads in Lagos which is now becoming an issue for serial political campaigns.
The audience the VP interacted with and those he chose not to talk with is one aspect of his hurried visit which attracted the umbrage of the coalition. It was strongly felt that the VP would have scored a very strong point if he had sought the views of the representatives of road haulage unions, dock labour, importers/exporters, MAN, freight forwarders, shipping companies, etc to have a first-hand feel of their pulse and the way forward. The forum also stressed the need to constructively engage shipping companies who are largely contributing the traffic malaise by refusing to put in place holding bays for trucks they do business with despite efforts by the Nigerian Ports Authority to make them to comply.
RTEAN Secretary, Tin-Can Chapel, Haulage Section, Chief Godwin Ikeji came down heavily on the federal government on the way and manner the intractable gridlock on the Apapa -Tin Can Island Port axis is being managed. Rather than rushing to award a dubious contract that aimed to catch the people’s votes, he stressed, there is the urgent need for a credible environmental impact assessment report to identify a more enduring solution to the problem.
Lamenting the chronic manpower wastage occurring on daily basis, the RTEAN chieftain highlighted further that the sad traffic development must be ascribed to government’s failure to act timely. He blamed the Nigerian Ports Authority and the Nigerian Shippers’ Council for failing to advise the government before matters got worse.
“What is happing in Lagos Ports is a conspiracy between Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC). As early as 20012, we had started this matter of traffic and there was a blue print. In that blue print we reached an agreement with NPA on the modalities for the movement of empty containers; but, up till date, it has not been enforced”, Ikeji regretted.
On the over N70 billion Apapa-Oshodi road rehabilitation contract which many stakeholders still believe is laced with dubious intentions, the seasoned stakeholder said it was not a sufficient reason to abandon the need for the movement of empty containers through the waterways which is being neglected. He tasked the federal government to construct a terminal over Snake Island through the Naval Dockyards as such a facility could easily accommodate more than 7,000 empty containers. He described as a taboo the specter of security personnel in uniform collecting money and disrupting the free flow of traffic on the ports access routes.
As part of efforts to resolve the menace of traffic gridlock in Apapa, Chairman of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Chief Remi Ogungbemi, suggested that the federal government and the military authorities should reduce the enormous portions of land used to build numerous military barracks around the port environment. These could be transformed into truck parks to help solve the perennial problem of traffic gridlock at Lagos ports. Remi Ogungbemi stressed that the only practical solution to the trucks menace is making appropriate provision for holding bays and realistically reconstructing the roads.
He lamented over how truck drivers spent days, and sometimes weeks, plying a distance of that ordinarily takes only two hours to drop empty containers. He also agonized over the wear and tear trucks incur and the huge amount of money spent to constantly repair them.
In his contribution, the Director- General of the Nigerian Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Mr Olusegun Oshinowo, blamed the government for refusing to factor in the current growth rate in the port environment early enough to keep up with the current developments. He blamed the perennial gridlock in Apapa on overstretched infrastructure as both population and investors’ requirements are n the rise.
“Population is going up and investors are coming into the country to take advantage of opportunities. So, infrastructure of 15 years ago will not be enough for the demands of today. Nobody ever thought that a time would come when we would have as many tank farms as we have in Apapa today. What we have in Apapa now is simply an accumulation of problems of 20 years,’’ he said.
All in all, the forum agreed that rather than playing politics with the road in question, the federal government should urgently convene a presidential summit on the ports access roads. Critical stakeholders must make inputs to enable the federal government make informed decisions that will be devoid of political colorations. It goes beyond the VP sneaking into Apapa, observing the mess in the air and refusing to interact with people who are best placed to tell him exactly what is on ground.