For long, there have been fears that a disaster of unimaginable proportion would one day befall Apapa, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre. The fears emanate from the presence of numerous tank farms that abound in the city; the unending traffic gridlock which gathers people together for possible massive destruction and lately terrorism which target the tank farms and the port facilities in order to touch off unprecedented destruction of lives and property. All these make Apapa an endangered city. Please read on.
The port city of Apapa is under threat – threat from ubiquitous petrol tank farms, threat from terrorist attacks; threat from debilitating traffic gridlock. The city that makes Lagos megacity Nigeria’s commercial capital is indeed sitting on a keg of gunpowder. The level of threat is such that if the warning signals are not addressed by concerned authorities or if only half measures are taken, the port city and environs will one day become a study in destruction of lives and property.
Worse still, Nigeria’s two major seaports are seriously threatened as they would not be spared should any disaster triggered by the factors above befall Apapa.
The most recent warning signal came on Wednesday, June 25 2014, barely two months ago. Two explosions had rocked the commercial city. The first occurred near the gate of Folawiyo Tank Farm on Creek Road Apapa. It was followed some minutes later with another explosion as a Toyota Sienna loaded with explosives and parked along Creek Road also not far from the gate of the tank farm blew up with a loud explosion. The Toyota Sienna car had been parked beside a fire- proof gas tanker. The hope was to trigger more explosions and more destruction, but fortunately, the tanker had emptied its content. The time was around 8.45pm and the usual traffic jam was not there.
The explosion left four people dead and destroyed properties. The destruction affected some nearby buildings, including Churchbell Building, Premier Logistics Building and Enterprise Bank.
Though government authorities including the police tried to conceal the unfortunate reality, the threat of terrorism in Apapa, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, has become a real and present danger.
After the blast, the Lagos State government, the police and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), all said the blast was a gas fire incident. According to the Lagos State Police spokesman, Ngozi Braide, the explosion was caused by a tanker conveying petrol.
“There is nothing whatsoever suggesting that it was a bomb explosion; it was a tanker loaded with fuel that burst into flames,” she said.
But a few days later, Abubakar Shekau , leader of Boko Haram, the violent Islamist sect, claimed responsibility for the attack saying he ordered the strike and lampooned the Lagos State government for claiming it was not a bomb. According to a video he released through the French news agency, AFP, “A bomb went off in Lagos. I ordered (the bomber) who went and detonated it.” Mr. Shekau had said.
“You said it was a fire incident. Well, if you hide it from people you can’t hide it from Allah,” he further boasted.
Earlier the Lagos Commissioner of Police, Umar Manko, had also dismissed the explosion as mere industrial accident, claiming that the incident had nothing to do with Boko Haram activities. Mr. Manko asked Lagosians to carry on with their daily activities. He said as far as Lagos State was concerned there was nothing to fear as regards Boko Haram attacks.
Lagosians, however, are not taken in by these denials and false sense of security. Not with the claim of Boko Haram and the apparent inability of the security agencies to halt the activities of the sect in the areas they have been hitting, even when they inform them of an imminent attack.
Furthermore, whether the explosion was caused by bomb or a gas fire is no longer an issue after a British bomb expert had confirmed that the incident was nothing but a bomb blast. According to AFP, after studying the photographs of the scene showing a destroyed car plus damage to surrounding vehicles, the British Army's former head of bomb disposal said the pictures left no doubt as to the cause.
"This was definitely an incident involving the use of high explosives," Bob Seddon, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and a specialist in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), told AFP in an email exchange after reviewing the images.
"The type of blast effects and fragmentation pattern you would get from a gas explosion are quite different," the former Royal Logistics Corps colonel said, assessing that 25-50 kilos (55-110 pounds) of improvised high explosive were used.
Political and security consultants Control Risks, which has an office in Lagos, also said the Apapa blast was a bombing that killed at least four people. This was contained in a brief note it sent to its foreign business and government clients.
"Drawing on eyewitness sources, Control Risks assess that the incident was a militant attack rather than an industrial accident," the group's senior West Africa analyst, Roddy Barclay, had said.
With the threat of terrorism looming in Apapa, all that are needed is increased security alertness, pro-active and pre-emptive actions and strengthening of emergency responses instead of giving the citizens a false sense of security. The security operatives should swing into action to ensure that terrorism does not penetrate into Lagos, let alone take root as is the case now in Abuja, the federal capital instead of denying its unfortunate emergence on the scene.
However, it is reassuring to note that since June 25, the Lagos State government has ordered tighter security at key fuel and infrastructure installations, and beefed up state hospitals' capacity to deal with mass casualty emergencies. However, what the federal government and the various security agencies in the country are doing to stem the incursion of insurgency into Lagos is yet not known.
“Flat denials or no comment from the government are not uncommon in Nigeria, particularly involving Boko Haram, whose five-year insurgency has intensified in the northeast and seen almost daily attacks,” said AFP in the report.
According to a US government official, Boko Haram has the "operational reach to get to Lagos." But he said the "The incident is likely to have been staged by a local Islamist network rather than being planned and coordinated by Boko Haram's core leadership in the northeast.” He also said further attacks were “credible” probably on “soft targets”.
THREAT FROM TANK FARMS
Even before the June 25 terrorist bombing, petroleum products tank farms had been a source of great danger to Apapa and its environs. The tank farms had for years been seen as posing serious threat to lives and property in the port city. On many occasions, security experts have warned that Apapa and the seaports are sitting on a keg of gunpowder because of the proliferation of petroleum products tank farms around them.
Each near disaster has often provided a warning for a greater looming disaster but the authorities would merely mouth solutions to the imminent catastrophe and go home to sleep. For instance, in 2007, there was a fire incident at the same Folawiyo Petrol Tank farm. The incident occurred as a petrol tanker was loading fuel at the gantry. Though the fire was promptly controlled, it sparked fear and panic in the vicinity, serving as reminder that the inhabitants of Apapa are living with danger sitting on their laps.
In January last year (2013), five persons were feared killed and scores injured when an oil barge discharging petrol at the MRS Oil and Gas tank farm jetty exploded within the Tin Can Island Port. Pandemonium seized the entire port city and environs as thick smoke from the inferno billowed into the sky. Business activities in and around the ports were brought to a halt when the barge exploded, shattering glass doors and windows of buildings around the vicinity and causing people within two kilometers radius to scamper for safety. Offices and business activities were closed for the day.
The administrative building of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Ports and Cargo Complex, and a branch of First Bank not far from the explosion scene had their windows shattered and the buildings foundations badly shaken.
It was learnt that the incident occurred because the vessel offloading product, premium motor spirit (PMS), into MRS tank farm was improperly handled causing it to catch fire and later exploded after over 30 minutes of the conflagration.
Last year also, the loading gantry of Aiteo Energy's depot which is among the tens of tank farms lining the Ibru Jetty axis, was engulfed in an inferno, which resulted in the death of one person. The fire which erupted at about 12.30 am that fateful day was put out almost four hours later, following the intervention of the Lagos State Fire Service and the nearby Nigerian Independent Petroleum Company (NIPCO).
The oil marketing firm's loading bay, where petroleum products are loaded into tankers was damaged in the fire incident, which came barely three weeks after the MRS Oil and Gas Limited's fire incident that consumed a barge at the company's main depot in Tin Can Island area of Lagos.
Several of such incidents were recorded last year at some depots in the same Apapa area, which houses virtually all the petroleum depots of major and independent oil marketers in Nigeria. This large concentration of oil tank farms in the area, results in unending traffic gridlocks, occasioned by long queues of petroleum tankers waiting to load petroleum products at the depots.
Besides, the high concentration of oil facilities in the area makes it prone to fire outbreaks and environmental pollutions. The fear of possible disaster of unprecedented proportion continues to haunt residents and business owners in Apapa and environs as most of the firms do not adhere to safety standards recommended by regulatory authorities
Saving the situation
Experts, stakeholders, industry watchers and residents have often clamoured for the relocation of the ubiquitous tank farms. They have also called for a stop of further construction of tank farms in the area. Unfortunately, while the federal government says it would relocate the tank farms, more and more licenses are approved for new ones which spring up close to existing ones.
After the Folawiyo fire which razed about 50 per cent of its gantry fire in 2007, the federal government said it would decongest the Apapa petroleum depots in order to make the area less prone to fire outbreaks.
Then Energy Minister, Dr. Edmund Daukoru, while assessing the extent of damage caused by the fire incident, noted that the Apapa area was congested and that this posed a lot of insecurity to the area.
Said Daukoru, “The decongestion issue is already recognized by the federal government, and it has decided that no other developer will be allowed to construct tank farms in the area. The present situation is causing both marine and land congestion and government is not happy with the situation.”
Daukoru said henceforth, new depot developers would be allocated space at the Akodo Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki Local Government Area of Lagos State.
“A committee would be set up to look into the report of the situation in Apapa, then take a decision and pass it on to government for ratification,” he said, adding that the options immediately available were to refuse the construction of new tank farms as well as the relocation of some of the existing depots.
He noted that these would result in the immediate development of import facilities in the Akodo Beach area, as well as operators gaining access to the deep-water facilities and free trade zone.
Unfortunately, more than seven years after, the situation has grown from bad to worse as new tank farms have joined existing ones and no depot has been relocated.
The Apapa area houses the petroleum depots of both the major marketers and independent depot operators, which in recent times have been assisting government with the storage of imported products and distribution of same to various parts of the country. This followed the vandalisation of petroleum pipelines, which transported petroleum products to designated depots in the country. Up to now, nothing has been done to repair the pipelines and restore normal distribution of fuel through the pipelines.
Recalcitrant Tank Farms
Worsening the fear of a major disaster in Apapa from tank farms is the inability of most of the tank farms to comply with the directives of the regulator. To prevent recurrent fire incidents, the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), regulator of oil and gas industry activities, issued a directive to oil marketing companies to put in place sufficient safety equipment of internationally approved standards and to make available at every installation of natural gas or petroleum products station, fire fighting and first aid equipment in accordance with good operating practice.
Getting the operators to comply with these relevant environmental policies in their various operating environment has been a major challenge confronting safety managers in the oil and gas industry. Inadequate firefighting equipment or lack of it has been the bane of efforts at handling fire emergencies in the industry.
According to a DPR official, some of the depots in Nigeria do not meet the standards of ordinary filling station and also do not have a single firefighting truck to attend to emergencies. This has been confirmed by even the national assembly.
In 2010, the House of Representatives Committee on Downstream, chaired by Hon. Clever Ikisikpo, had during an inspection of depots and tank farms in Lagos, observed that most of the facilities were in deplorable condition and could not meet the standards for retail stations.
The committee embarked on the tour, following a motion before the sixth assembly, that some tank farms and depots were wrongly situated, while others were not complying with recommended safety standards.
In the course of the oversight visit, the lawmakers also discovered that some of the facilities were situated either near residential areas, schools, military and police barracks or other sensitive areas not approved by relevant environmental laws and regulations.
At the end of the exercise, the committee resolved to recommend appropriate sanctions against the "ancient facilities" that posed health risks and those that were wrongly situated.
Ikisikpo said: "We will sit down and write our report based on what we saw. You can't even go into some of these ancient tank farms that we saw. We are even wondering what the Lagos State government is doing with its environmental laws, when you cannot even go into a tank farm. Those of us who are not from the riverine areas could not even go in for fear of getting drowned."
The committee later recommended that tank farms and depots situated near residential areas, schools, military and police formations and other sensitive areas, be relocated, arguing that since the federal government could relocate Nigeria's capital from Lagos to Abuja, there was no tank farm in the country that was beyond relocation.
"Any tank farm owner who thinks that we can't pull his tank farm from where it is, is deceiving himself, because if the federal government could relocate Nigeria's capital from Lagos to Abuja, there is no tank farm in the country that is beyond relocation, if the need arises," Ikisikpo had told journalists after the facility tour.
But what happened to the committee and its recommendations four years after remains a matter of conjecture.
In 2011, officials of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency shut down five tank farms located in the Kirikiri area over alleged violation of environmental laws. The tank farms - Bovas Petroleum Limited, Swift Oil Limited, Fagbems Petroleum Limited, Index Oil and Gas and Techno Oil Limited, were later reopened after their management signed a Memorandum of Understanding( MoU), with the state government, where in parties agreed that a consultant would conduct a post-impact assessment of the area to ascertain the extent of environmental pollutions. But that is as far as the agency could go.
Recent calls for Relocation
Following the recent bomb blast near a tank farm and the total breakdown of traffic on the port access roads, the calls for the relocation of the tank farms have become more stringent. Many operators and experts have been suggesting permanent and short term solutions to the problem. During one of his visits to the troubled area recently, Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola cried out in frustration:
“Why are we transporting fuel by road, why can’t we do it by rail? Now make no mistake about it. There is a side of their business that we must listen to. We are the ones using the fuel and about 3,000 trucks load here every day and they have to come here. So this is the place we put fuel; why can’t we pump fuel across the country, from Atlas Cove to Mosinmi and all of that. Why are those facilities not working; what has happened to them? Those are the questions that if we ask ourselves and if we tackle them, will provide a final and long term solution. So it is us really that are the problem and if we sit down and think about it and the agency of the federal government, managing the port, managing fuel should also get up and see what is happening.
“It is not enough to sit down and place adverts to say there is fuel at a pump price. What is the cost of taking that fuel to the people? What is the real purpose, why do I have fuel if it cannot take me to my office? So it is a really hard choice for government and the citizens, but I am sure we can do it,” he said.
The Lagos State governor expressed disgust at the level of contribution of tankers and port-bound trucks to the pains Lagosians are going through in trying to transit through Apapa to other areas for their daily businesses.
Since the end of June when the rains became heavier in line with the Lagos climate, Apapa and environs have become a no-go area because of flooding which has worsened the deplorable state of the roads. Transiting through the port town to other areas in Lagos is now like passing through hell. The long-standing spectre of tankers and trucks occupying a greater part of the roads is now a child’s play when compared with the current practice of total occupation, a development which has become so hopeless that people who do business in Apapa literally trek on a daily basis as no more space is left for them on the road.
However, owing to the public outcry and the repeated visits of Governor Fashola and his spirited efforts, some palliatives have been applied. But the clamour for long term measures continues with relocation of the tank farms as part of the ultimate solution.
In fact, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) on July 9, 2014 issued an ultimatum calling for the relocation of the tank farms in a petition to the federal government. The union complained bitterly against the unending traffic gridlock on the Apapa/ Oshodi axis of the expressway which has practically shut down economic and other activities in the area and inflicted untold hardship to residents of the city and its environs.
“We observe with dismay that petrol tankers and trailers have permanently taken over the access roads to our sea ports, Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports in particular. The resultant gridlock caused by the indiscriminate parking of the petrol tankers and trailers that daily load petrol from the tank farms along the access roads to the sea ports have made movement of people and goods in and out of our sea ports and work places within the Apapa industrial/commercial area impossible,” the union said in the petition signed by its scribe, Aham Ubani.
The maritime workers union referred to deep pot-holes along the road, which are better described as gullies that have now turned death traps and have contributed in no small measure to the excruciating traffic gridlock on the road. The workers decried the utter neglect of the access roads which has not only compromised the efficiency and service delivery of the ports, but has also impacted negatively on the national economy.
The union said it had repeatedly called on government to relocate the tank farms along the Tin Can and Apapa Ports access roads for both safety of lives, properties and economic reasons. It expressed surprise that in spite of the assurances given that the tank farms would be relocated, till date, nothing has been done.
Consequently, the MWUN slammed a fourteen (14) day ultimatum within which “all the pot-holes along the port access roads must be fixed; all the tank farms built along the port access roads be relocated to another place where it would not inhibit free flow of traffic and all the petrol tankers and trailers be removed from the port access roads.”
However, this ultimatum was withdrawn as it was about to expire after the Navy had moved in to restore some sanity on the road and other port access roads.
THREAT FROM TRAFFIC GRIDLOCK
To say that the worsened traffic gridlock on the port access roads especially Trinity-Coconut-2nd Gate axis, is a threat to safety and security of lives and property is to say the obvious. Many road users have expressed such fears. However, the twin blasts at Creek Road, near the Folawiyo Tank Farm, accentuated the fear and brought the security threat posed by the traffic gridlock to the fore.
Jolted by the twin blasts that killed four people, the Nigerian Navy (NN) quickly moved into action to decongest the road to eliminate the security threat. A 24-hour daily operation to decongest the Apapa traffic was launched by the Navy spearheaded by the Flag Officer Commanding Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Ilesanmi Alade.
In the light of the twin explosions, Rear Admiral Ilesanmi Alade, told the media at the commencement of the operation, code named, “operation Gbale” that heavy traffic gridlock was posing a serious security threat to Apapa and its environs. He said the Navy had to move in to restore some sanity to the road in order to ensure that people do not become “sitting ducks for acts of terror.”
With “Operation Gbale,” a Yoruba word for sweeping, Rear Admiral Alade said the Navy wanted to ensure that the traffic gridlock that had kept Apapa on lockdown for weeks was ameliorated and a lasting solution proffered.
Deploying the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Beecroft and Wey, led by Beecroft Commanding Officer, Commodore Ovenseri Uwadiae, to the flash points, the naval personnel soon set about wiping recalcitrant tanker drivers to shape. The operation extended down to Mile 2 area, Berger up to Tin-Can Island area, Ijora, Liverpool, Marine Beach and all the adjourning roads leading to Apapa.
Alade and his men were aided by the air wing of the NN which flew across Apapa and its environs to feed the ground personnel with aerial photographs and videos of the traffic situations in various areas. This helped the personnel in taking proactive decisions in decongesting the area.
At the media chat marking the commencement of the operation, Rear Admiral Alade had said, “The Apapa gridlock has affected a lot of businesses and also created security problems in this particular area and we are most concerned giving the security situation in the country. It was considered a serious problem and that was why the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Jibrin Usman, directed us to take necessary measures immediately to allow the free- flow of traffic and allow legitimate businesses to thrive.
“Before carrying out the operation, we contacted other security agencies and other stakeholders like the Lagos State Government, police, Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA),” he said.
Notably, the Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, also visited the area for on-the-spot assessment of the state of Apapa roads and its environs especially Creek Road, Coconut and Liverpool areas. The Minister commended the Navy for its operation and the palliatives it has applied on the road.
Obanikoro, who was received by the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Ilesanmi Alade, the Commanding Officer, NNS Beecroft and WEY, Commodore Ovenseri Uwadiae and Commodore James Iliya, urged the state government to build a permanent holding bay for trucks and tankers as part of the permanent solution. Like previous federal government officials, he reiterated the federal government would relocate the tank farms away from Apapa.
“I am here majorly to familiarize myself with the activities of the Navy around the port area. I know for sometime now, we have been looking at the security implications of trailers and trucks to use the road as a park rather than for movement.
“Given the activities of Boko Haram and other elements within the society who would like to negatively take advantage of the chaotic situation around the port, so the Navy moved in to clear the area and I am happy with what I have seen so far.
“All these standing trucks have been moved and a passage has been created so that there will be a smooth vehicular passage in and around the port, thus eliminating the security implications of having trucks and containers just littering the entire streets.
“I have been briefed by the FOC that the entire area has been broken into eight and naval officers have been assigned and are still on the road to ensure free traffic and they have almost completely eliminated the congestion except for the issues we have with the roads, which is affecting movement.
“But as you can see, Julius Berger Construction firm is trying to bring some sort of relief. I have it on good authority that there is significant improvement and I commend the navy for bringing in other stakeholders to ensure that the situation is contained.
“Though there is significant socio-economic benefit of having traffic free movement in and out of the port, the element that is key to us, which prompted the navy to swing into action is the security issue.”
“So, the state government should join hands with NPA and other stakeholders in finding a lasting solution. Bear in mind that it is not the navy’s duty to clear traffic and so, their effort towards ending the gridlock cannot be permanent.”
He also said the 500 truck capacity being constructed by the federal government at Tin Can Island would serve as transit holding bay, adding that efforts are on ground to speed up the rehabilitation of the roads to ensure free flow of traffic.
Obanikoro said that the move was still in the pipelines to relocate the tank farms because of the security implications. “There are plans and we are also working with all the stakeholders to ensure that the area is kept under check. It is not easy to close all these things overnight but what is important is to call for more vigilance on the part of the operators,” he said.
“Let me assure that all the security agencies in this country are well aware and alert to what is at stake and everything humanly possible is being done to contain such misfortune.”
But as a stakeholder observed, what is needed in the present situation is action, not words.