Several decades of infrastructure rot, neglect and poor or zero maintenance culture coupled with rustled up management prescriptions had left public infrastructure including roads, utilities in total ruin and tattiest state. Year in, year out, annual budgets in trillions of naira are made with the focus on building of new infrastructure with little or no provision for maintenance budget.
Among the causalities of this criminal neglect are the Nigerian ports across the country, particularly those in Lagos. The Lagos Port Complex also known as Premiere Port (Apapa Quays) in those days is the earliest (the first) and the largest port in Nigeria.
Established way back 1913 some several decades before this writer was born, the port was financed by the colonial government, thus becoming the busiest port for exporting agricultural produce and importation of goods from countries of the world. Today, Nigeria has six seaports with the Calabar Port now in Cross River State being the first and the oldest seaport in Nigeria.
Apapa, a beautifully carved out port city with all the allurements, well-paved roads and exotic buildings, has suffered serious neglect as the roads leading to the ports became a crying shame with the attendant traffic chaos.
The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), a parastatal agency under the Federal Ministry of Transportation, controls the ports and terminals with the primary business as cargo handling. This involves (a) service delivery to commercial vessels arriving our shores in the form of Pilotage, Towage & Mooring services and (b) service to cargo, which includes all the gamut of activities including cargo receipt from the ship, its storage within the terminal and its delivery to the consignee or owner – the later aspect of its operation which focuses on services to cargo was outsourced under the concession to private terminal operators since 2005/2006.
As a result of massive growth and development over past decades with the location of about 30 petroleum products tank farms in Apapa, it has become a jungle of hundreds of articulated vehicles and petrol tankers which had caused gridlocks in the past few years.
The intractable traffic situation had necessitated presidential intervention with the signing of an Executive Order on Ease of Doing Business at the ports and the visit of the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo to the facility and subsequent inauguration of a presidential taskforce to clear the area of the traffic menace which became a national shame and embarrassment.
Tankers and articulated vehicles’ queue had extended from Apapa to Onipanu on the Ikorodu Expressway, Eko and Ijora bridges, taking the drivers about 40 days and 40 nights to complete their journeys of going into ports to either discharge their containers, commodities or taking them out. In short, between 2017 and 2019, the Apapa traffic was hellacious, with a debilitating effect on the economy.
Compounding the traffic situation was the road reconstruction and rehabilitation being executed by the NPA in collaboration with Flourmills and Dangote stretching from Area B Police Station and the Apapa Port gate along Warehouse road.
However, the NPA, concession in 2005 by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, had intervened with electronic call-up system (ETO), which has resulted in free movement of articulated vehicles in and out of the port complex with the exemption of hiccups caused by the Police who indulge in indiscriminate stoppage of the vehicles for “search and screening” after they had been cleared by the ports authorities and other relevant security agencies.
Without doubt, the NPA’s ETO is a phenomenal and timeous intervention that has magically decongested the ports area. Operationally, the gains of ETO are attested to by all stakeholders including one of the unions in the maritime industry that has constituted itself to an institutional opposition to the NPA management by sometimes giving a bum rap to its initiatives just to attract attention to itself.
The union – Council of Maritime Transport Union and Association (COMTUA) – actually played to the gallery while masquerading as one of the unions in the industry during its recent visit to the Vice-President, Prof. Osinbajo on June 27, 2022 at the Villa. As a matter-of-factly, the visible unions in the sector were Maritime Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MWUN), Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) while the Road Transport Employers’ Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) and the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) but with less interest in port operations are in existence. Indeed, AMATO with focus on maritime trucks movement was the most visible while MWUN was the umbrella body because of its influence arising from membership of dockworkers.
For some critical stakeholders, the successes of ETO, which was inaugurated on February 27, 2021 are unmistakably glaring and self-effacing. As a precursor, the NPA management under the leadership of Mohammed Koko had introduced the following:
– Liberalisation of barge movement on the waterways through LICENSING BARGE OPERATORS which allows cargo evacuation from port terminals which led to reduction of the no of trucks on the road corridor.
– NPA also put in place an Empty Container Policy requiring shipping lines in the container handling space to build holding bays to hold at least 50-65% of their monthly landed containers and removal of at least 80% equivalent in empties or laden export in return voyages.
Closely related to the above, NPA management in recognition of the inelastic nature of port infrastructure and the reality of increased cargo inflow into the country through the ports as a direct benefit of the port concession, defined a Maritime Logistics Ring and directed all shipping lines in the container handling space to relocate their holding bays which were hitherto along the port corridor.
Evidently, the action and the enforcement regime that followed the oversight by the management also reduced the gridlock significantly. Then came ETO which harmonised the structures already created to drive the Eto call-up system.
Hitherto at the peak of the truck gridlocks, the cost of transportation of containers within the Lagos metropolis and its environs was in excess of N1.2 million but with ETO, the same movement is now estimated to be around N300,000 while the traffic is now confined to Apapa and more organized by every assessment even by critics (COMTUA).
The electronic call-up project executed by a technology company (Messrs. Trucks Transit Parks Ltd (TTP)) hired by NPA was built on collaboration with the Lagos State government, which provided the enforcement backbone and it is common knowledge that the Lagos State government has appraised this collaborative effort quite positively.
Today, the turn-around time for trucks engrossing the port particularly Apapa is now less than 24 hours while Tin-Can is still above 24 hours for obvious reason of ongoing road reconstruction. Again, the average amount that was paid by truckers at the peak of the gridlock for empties to access the port was between N150, 000 and N200, 000 per truck and this does not guarantee entry but now to go into the port using the ETO to call-up empty containers only N15,000 is paid from a pre-gate location.
ETO is not all that NPA has to introduce as the managing director of NPA, Mohammed Bello-koko, has also disclosed plans to introduce another app to serve as a competitor to the current ETO system.
According to him, the second app is being created to provide competition and give people alternatives aside from ETO.
For trunkers and other players in the port arena, sanity has returned to Apapa port with daily truck count of about 830 on the average, while Tin-Can is counting about 456 also on the average.
Conscious of the efforts by the Federal Government to diversify the economy from dependence on oil to the non-oil with Agro products as the focal point, NPA introduced some measures first by ensuring that export containers arrive at the ports using barges or through landing jetties already approved. Exports also have priority lanes to the ports and the current uptick in numbers of Agro export containers arriving the port and loaded on board vessels is attributable to this policy.
NPA also directed terminal operators to prioritize export in their operation as shipping lines are quite aware of the consequences from the Authority’s standpoint for compliant export containers not loaded on scheduled voyages. In addition, NPA now handles all the logistics relating to arrival of export containers at the ports and their loading onboard vessels by the terminal operators.
On the checkpoints by security agencies on the port corridor, NPA management has identified the activities of security agencies particularly the police and sometimes, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) as well as some NPA security operatives as the greatest challenge in this regard. The security operatives are alleged to be disrupting the flow of traffic by indiscriminate stopping of trucks.
Police multiple checkpoints have become extortion centres thereby posing a threat to the ETO project.
But NPA appears to be on top of the situation as it is learnt that it is already collaborating with the Lagos State Government to streamline the checkpoints or “extortion points.’’ Credible and dependable sources confirmed that NPA had sought the cooperation and collaboration of the Police High Command with a view to jointly inspecting and identifying illegal and unnecessary checkpoints and dismantle them.
Lagos on its part as NPA’s strategic partner is already reviewing the activities of its operatives to identify and remove extortionists among them while necessary disciplinary measures are being meted to culpable NPA officials.
With the operation of the Electronic Call-up system and the launch of the App called ETO which truckers are expected to use to book turns to enter the ports devoid of human-to-human interface, Nigeria is on the right track of achieving port efficiency and emplacing the ease of doing business at the ports as well as take its rightful place as the regional maritime hub. To the man at the helm, Mohammed Koko and his management team, one cannot but give kudos for this initiative and to urge them to consolidate on the re-engineering and re-inventing of the wheel agenda.
Adesoji, a lawyer, writes from Apapa, Lagos