Lekki ports: Beyond the fanfare
The official pageantry displayed at the commissioning by President Muhammadu Buhari of the $1.5 billion Chinese-funded Lekki deep seaport in Lagos is perhaps in salute of the significance of the project; but while the seaport is commendable, there are palpable signs of the inadequate planning also associated with its predecessors in the Apapa and Tin Can Island ports. The fear therefore that the encumbrances around the new port may overshadow the benefits is not unfounded. But it is not too late for government to begin to make necessary amends with the hope that the facility will help grow Nigeria’s ailing economy.
The Lekki Deep Sea Port is believed to be one of the biggest in West Africa and projected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in addition to easing cargo congestion that costs billions of dollars in yearly revenue. It is no doubt a commendable move, especially at a time when the country is shopping for patient capital. However, residents within the vicinity may not be singing the same tune in a few months’ time when the facility becomes fully operational due to traffic congestion, as the already over-burdened road infrastructure is expected to still serve the port and refinery. To avoid another Apapa scenario, it is high time the government made other ports operational, rather than concentrating all such assets in Lagos.
With the Apapa corridor accounting for an estimated 70 per cent of international merchandise trade—imports and exports alongside the poor efficiency and traffic situation along the axis, there are concerns that poor planning, especially as regards evacuation of cargo from the new deep seaport may be another crisis brewing. Indeed, the port — whose container terminal is able to handle at least 2.5 million 20-foot standard containers per year — will be operated as a joint venture between the Nigerian government, Lagos State, Singapore-based Tolaram Group and state-owned China Harbor Engineering Company. Both foreign companies own a majority stake of 75 per cent in the project.
Nigeria’s population grows daily at an inversely proportional rate to available infrastructure. The story of the Apapa and the Tin-Can Island Ports shares the same theme with Nigeria’s extremely overburdened social and physical infrastructure. While the Lekki Deep Seaport appears to offer some relief to the problems of Apapa ports, the future of the project is dependent on a network of infrastructure that will avert a repeat of Apapa’s mess. As it stands, the $1.5 billion project, may be toeing the path of Apapa ports and will only compound the woes of the Lekki-Epe corridor when the Dangote Refinery is completed. Once again, Nigeria has failed to plan!
Worthy to note is that the benefits from the new deep seaport are premised on the port’s cumulative delivery capacity anchored on efficient intermodal transportation systems that appears to have run into a major hitch. Since the commencement of serious work on the Lekki Deep Seaports some years ago, there have been questions and concerns about what the mode of evacuation of cargoes from the port would be. But the promoters of the project have, in response to the complaints, always assured that they were working on the concerns being raised by the stakeholders. As operations begin gradually at the port and a refinery equally nearing completion, the die is cast.
Apapa, which plays host to Nigeria’s two busiest ports – Apapa and Tin-Can Island – that together control 75 per cent of import and export activities, has for too long been bedeviled by persistent gridlock occasioned by unwholesome activities of truckers. This situation, apart from its effect on daily movement of motorists, residents and commuters in and out of Apapa, has crippled businesses in the port city, crashed property value in the prime location and left over 40 per cent of the buildings in Apapa GRA currently empty.
With the commissioning of the new port, an estimated N65 million was said to have been lost as cargoes got trapped at the Lagos port following the Nigerian Ports Authority’s (NPA) total closure of the facility and restriction of access to port users over President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit. Paralysing business activities in an existing port for a yet-to-be commissioned facility reeks of inefficiency, poor planning and economic sabotage. The National Public Relations Officer of Association of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (AREFFN), Taiwo Fatomilola, lamented that huge losses are being incurred on the trapped cargoes at the port. The Taskforce Chairman of ANLCA at Tin Can Port, Rilwan Amuni, condemned the action, saying there was no prior notice or sensitisation for port users, as many freight forwarders are stranded inside the port and unable to take delivery of their already examined cargoes.
As elections approach, the need to leverage certain projects for campaigns is at variance with the goals and benefits they offer without due process. It would be recalled that concerns have been raised about the evacuation plan for cargoes at the new deep seaport. Similarly, the Dangote Group Executive Director, Devakumar Edwin, had told journalists that the plan is to transport refined petroleum products by road and through the seaports when it begins operation. According to him, the refinery has a total tanker loading facility of 2,900 for dispatch by road to areas that could not be delivered by marine facilities. If these numbers are taken into context alongside the estimated number of vessels expected at the Lekki Deep Seaport, it would be difficult to avoid another Apapa nightmare in a very short while on the Lekki axis.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State had recently wondered how residents of Lagos survive traffic congestion, saying he does not know if Saturdays and Sundays will be enough for Lagos residents to rest. Also, the Danne Institute for Research, a Lagos-based research institute, in its Connectivity and Productivity Report stated that Lagos State loses about N4 trillion yearly as a result of its notorious traffic congestion problem. The loss is the economic cost of the estimated 14.12 million hours lost by Lagosians while commuting to work every day. The findings reinforce concerns by members of the Organised Private Sector (OPS) on the ease of doing business in the state, especially as it relates to the daily movement of goods and people.
Authorities say the new deep seaport on the eastern edge of Lagos would divert traffic from congested ports and shore up earnings, with expected economic benefits of more than $360 billion. Experts, however, argue it would make a “minimal difference” if existing pitfalls are not removed, including ensuring connections between ports and inland areas. Indeed, such projected earnings will only become a reality when appropriate plans are implemented. Nigeria’s port economy lacks essential logistics processes, with a plethora of interconnected ills that has led to a lengthy and cumbersome cargo evacuation/ delivery procedure. All these have contributed to the high cost of doing business in the country and poor living conditions of many Lagosians who suffer from the trauma of living with trucks.
With the failure of several executive orders and visits by the high and mighty in Abuja, Apapa ports have remained Nigeria’s Achilles heels and the Lekki Deep Seaport may readily compound the issues. Beyond politics, stakeholders need to take seriously the extension of a rail connection out of Lekki and expansion of the roads along the Lekki corridor. The Deep seaport may achieve wonders but the huge price to pay is presently hidden from the sales promotion bandied about by its promoters, government officials and private land developers. Like Apapa ports, a more daunting challenge will be changing the focus of government agencies from revenue generation to that of value service delivery. This is the beginning of the true change and efficient port operation.