Sunday, 4th June 2023

Apapa gridlock: How poor state capacity stifles competitiveness

In the last few months, or years depending on who you ask, Lagosians have been complaining about the menace of trucks parked on the roads.

Trucks completely blocking a section of the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway at Second Rainbow inward Mile 2 on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. PHOTO: TONYE BAKARE

In the last few months, or years depending on who you ask, Lagosians have been complaining about the menace of trucks parked on the roads. The trucks are apparently queueing to get access to the ports at Apapa and Tincan Island. In recent weeks the menace has gotten so bad that the presidency had to order a special task force to kick the tankers off the bridges with the governor of Lagos. I hear the trucks have returned already. But what exactly is the problem here? First, a story about state capacity.

If you have ever travelled on Nigerian roads you know that trucks taking over sections of the highway is a common occurrence. Whether it’s the Benin bye-pass, or the section just after Awka, or near Assop falls in Plateau. In each instance, it always starts the same way: One truck parks, and then another, and then another. A stall to sell food opens up, mechanics appear and before you know it, there’s a whole town on the road, to the chagrin of road users.

The core of the problem is the failure of the state to solve a simple problem and the tendency to let these problems fester until they get out of hand. Parking on a highway is a typical case of appropriating public property for personal use. The highway is public property presumably built to let people move themselves and other things from place to place. A single truck parked on a highway should elicit a response by the state in charge of that highway to prevent its misuse. In fact, in most serious countries, the police would show up within minutes of anyone parking on a highway, the goal being to get them off the highway, regardless if they are there by accident or on purpose.

The inability of the state to protect public property is not limited to trucks parking on the highway but is apparent across much of our society. Be it fuel pipelines that continuously get vandalized, electricity cables that miraculously grow wings, manhole covers that go missing every other month, or government vehicles for desertification programs that show up at malls in Lagos. Of course, the failure to protect public property typically starts as a small problem until it is not.

The trucks parked on the roads and bridges in Lagos did not start recently. Those who live in Lagos can testify that they have been parking there for a while. It is just that they had been ignored allowing the problem to get bigger and bigger until the point where it is now a menace to all. The morale of the story is this: it is much easier to deal with problems when they are small. They tend to be a lot more difficult if we allow them fester.

Speaking of the Apapa port, one would be forgiven for thinking that the number of containers passing through the port had something to do with the traffic. Is that really the case? According to UNCTAD only about 1.3 million TEUs (the international standard for measuring container traffic through ports) passed through all Nigerian ports in 2016. This excludes crude oil export cargoes which typically do not pass through Lagos. This is compared to 2.6m TEUs that passed through the port in Durban, South Africa. Jawaharlal port in India did 4.5m TEUs. Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia did 8 million TEUs. Rotterdam in the Netherlands did 12.4m TEUs. Busan in South Korea did 19.4 million TEUs. Finally, Shanghai port in China did 29.8m TEUs. None of the aforementioned ports had trucks parked for days outside them.

The reality is that the Lagos ports do not have that much container traffic. If they don’t have that much traffic, then arguing for container traffic to be moved out is not really a solution. The bigger problem is that the organization at the port is not up to standard. In China, with their mega container traffic, each container stays at the port for less that a day only. In sub-Saharan Africa the average is 30 days. It is anyone’s guess how long containers stay at the ports in Lagos before they are cleared.
The supporting infrastructure to evacuate containers from the ports is also nothing to write home about. Rail lines and pipelines are either non-existent or not functioning. The roads out of the ports are also nothing to write home about. You think we would have learned our lesson but a causal observation of the roads out of the upcoming Lekki deep sea port show that history looks set to repeat itself.
The bottom-line is we cannot be claiming to want a functional economy that creates jobs when we cannot organise ourselves enough to move things in and out of the country efficiently.

Dr. Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.