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Nation bleeds as gridlock cripples ports’ activities, traps cargoes

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Apapa Wharf

The prolonged neglect of access roads to the Lagos Ports Complex has continued to undermine Nigeria’s seaborne trade, crash revenue, and throw many entrepreneurs out of business.

For Nigerian importers and exporters, the situation has continued to threaten their businesses with no relief in sight. Not only is demurrage accumulating, but the cost of haulage is also skyrocketing at great speed, just as clearing agents have been rendered helpless, and their cries and lamentations unheard by appropriate authorities.

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Unfortunately, efforts by the Federal Government to ensure free movement of cargoes in and out of the seaports through the already collapsed roads are hampered by corruption and exploitation.

While the Federal Government has been long in coming with an effective, long-lasting solution to the problem, but remaining on the drawing board for years planning and strategising, the state government has not done better as it has been doling out promises while things remained unchanged.

Matters, however, got to a head recently when port operators cried out about the unpleasant situation and its attendant effect on the cost of doing business at the nation’s seaports.

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They particularly bemoaned the alleged exploitation by the Presidential Task Team on Apapa Gridlock, which was set up by Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, on April 25, 2019.

The terms of reference of the task force, which was to report directly to the president, include the development of an efficient and effective management plan for the entire port area traffic, including fuel distribution and business district traffic; enforcing the permanent removal of all stationary trucks on the highway, and the development of an effective manual call-up system, pending the introduction of the electronic truck call-up system.

The team is also charged with the implementation of a workable empty container truck handling policy, among others. But the outcry that followed the task force’s operations has shown that it has failed to achieve set objectives.

Following widespread allegations of graft and compromise in the management of the chaotic traffic situation in Apapa, the Federal Government, in December, disbanded the Presidential Task Team, which was led by the former Lagos State Commissioner for Transportation, Kayode Opeifa.

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The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transportation, Dr. Magdalene Ajani, who announced the disbandment, said new traffic management would be set up to control and manage traffic on the port access road.

A day after that, the Minister for Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, announced plans to deploy 200 new security officers to the ports to clear the gridlock, adding that there would be a steering committee headed by Ajani, to sit monthly until the challenges are overcome.

Other members of the committee would be drawn from the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), the Nigeria Shippers Council (NSC), the maritime workers union, the Lagos State government, and safety workers.

He said: “The issue of traffic on these routes is because, in Nigeria, we don’t discipline people who do whatever they like, even when it’s wrong because there is no consequence for any actions. We need security officers to enforce compliance on trucks blocking the roads.

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“The 200 men at the Tin Can and Apapa are to be stationed there daily because Nigerians don’t obey until there are consequences for actions. The NPA and the NSC must have a level of funding to resolve these challenges.

“We need to talk to shippers and traders, especially those around Warri, to see how they can use the Warri Port so that Lagos Ports will be decongested. We can get security to follow the cargoes to that area so that traders from Aba and Onitsha that are ready to use that Port can go there,” he said

Swiftly, stakeholders kicked against the move insisting that the reintroduction of a taskforce on ports access roads would amount to putting old wine in a new skin. They, therefore, called for a permanent solution to the problem to save seaborne trade from total collapse.

According to the President, Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Remi Odugbemi, in a chat with The Guardian, said: “Constituting a new taskforce is not, and cannot be a permanent solution. It would be like setting fire on a bush; all the animals in the bush would run helter-skelter, and by the time the fire settles down and the grass starts growing, the animals would come back.

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“Bringing back the task force is a waste of manpower and resources that can be used to provide other basic amenities for the populace, even the 200 security personnel planned by the government can be deployed to face other security challenges that are confronting our nation, such as Boko Haram and kidnappers,” he said.

For the trucks to permanently leave the roads and bridges, he suggested that the government should put in place an automation device that would regulate/control the movement of every truck and petroleum tanker, including trucks that go to all the factories around Apapa/Tin Can axis.

AMATO, according to him also wants the government to inform every stakeholder, using both the electronic and print media that all trucks and petroleum tankers should leave the roads to their individual private parks and garages, as measures were already in place to start regulating their movement seamlessly.

Odugbemi noted that recycling the old task force team that mismanaged traffic problems on Apapa/Tin Can roads for selfish reasons would further consolidate and promote bribery and extortion of truckers.

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“In the face of apparent failure by the Presidential Taskforce Team (PTT) to resolve the chaotic traffic problem within Apapa/Tin Can axis, it is very disheartening for the government to contemplate the inauguration of another task force comprising the same set of people that compounded the traffic situation in the same area through unlawful, systemic extortion of truckers; operating multiple illegal checkpoints; favoritism; formation of cabals, and the legitimisation of harassment by hoodlums, hooligans, and gangsters, and masterminded the intimidation and violent attacks on truckers,” he stated.

Odugbemi, who fingered human interference as the main reason why the long-standing traffic problems have persisted added: “Why does government prefer the use of taskforce as the solution to traffic problems that require just simple technicality? Or is true that some people at the helm of affairs are benefiting from this extortion, and bribery, hence they prefer a taskforce to automating the system of passing trucks into the seaports?

“How are we sure that it is not the same set of cabals that have been extorting, cheating, terrorising, humiliating other truckers, and prioritising themselves against other truckers? How are we sure that it is not the same set of people that are lobbying for another task force that would enable them to continue with their nefarious activities?” Odugbemi asked.

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Currently, importers and manufacturers are groaning under the weight of intense congestion at the ports, as millions of cargoes are trapped with no immediate hope of evacuation, a development that has thrown port operators at both Apapa and Tin Can Island ports into confusion. As of now, hundreds of containers are stuck in the terminals, while vessels are unnecessarily delayed on the waters due to limited stacking space.

Statistics available to The Guardian showed that the situation has already trapped about 33 vessels on Nigerian waters since there are no spaces to stack the incoming cargoes at the terminals.

The NPA shipping position revealed that 12 vessels waiting to berth at Apapa Port are currently at the Lagos anchorage. This is even as 21 ships calling at the Tin Can Island Port Complex are also stranded at anchorage due to lack of space to discharge new cargoes at terminals.

When The Guardian monitored the situation around Tin Can Island and its environs, there was long queues of trucks waiting to enter the port, even as the road from Tin Can’s second gate to Liverpool was already taken over by trucks that are trying to exit the port. The situation is not different from the Tin Can first gate to PTML and Coconut areas.

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The development has also led to a sharp rise in haulage costs by truck drivers.

A top executive officer of a terminal in Lagos, who preferred anonymity told The Guardian that the cost of shipping containers into Nigeria has risen by 600 per cent this year.

“In the first half of this year, it cost $1, 000 to ship a 20-feet container to Nigeria from the Far East. Today, the cost for the same service is between $5, 500 and $6, 000,” the executive said.

Worried by the prevailing situation, he said the haulage cost from Tin Can to any other part of Lagos has risen by more than 1, 000 per cent due to the traffic congestion and extortions from the security officers who were posted to the spot to restore normalcy.

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The congestion, which is almost crippling operations at Tin Can Port has now compelled some shipping lines to divert Nigeria-bound cargoes to neighboring ports in Cotonou and Cote D’Ivoire.

“The situation contributes significantly to Nigeria’s galloping inflation as consumers now have to pay more for goods,” the source said.

A managing director of an international beverage company told journalists that his company has run out of the concentrate used in manufacturing one of its soft drinks

“We exhausted our stock and the container loads we imported arrived more than six weeks ago, but have not been able to leave the port,” the managing director, who does not want to be identified, said at a closed-door meeting with select journalists in Lagos.

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The President of the Shippers Association of Lagos, Rev. Jonathan Nicol, also decried the situation, saying their businesses were deeply affected by the anomalies going on at the ports.

He appealed to the Federal Government to fix the roads and save importers from frequent extortion by government agencies in the ports.

He said: “Maritime infrastructure are not in place. The railway is still under construction. Link roads leading to the ports in Lagos-Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports and even Onne Port in Port Harcourt are still under construction making it difficult for trucks to access the port. The number of trucks on the roads is more than what was recorded in 2019 by seven per cent, and the road is not expanded.

“The problems of infrastructure were not created by the shipping lines, or by terminal operators, but because the country has failed to create an enabling environment for seamless trade to go on. This development attracted more challenges as the traffic situation became intractable. What do you call that? It is a failure. Nigerian ports have failed. Now, we are blaming the shipping companies that are also going through stress because there is no place to drop containers. All the terminals are filled up, and we now have export cargoes overwhelming the port due to the new directive on export proceed number by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Where will they drop their containers? We are facing massive congestion, because the roads are blocked.

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“So, the question is what is wrong with us? There is no decorum again in the system, everybody is doing whatever he/she likes and there is nobody to check this. The Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), which is supposed to be the economic regulator is overwhelmed. It will solve one problem today and a bigger problem comes the next day. This is the situation at our ports today, and it is so unfortunate,” he said.

A clearing agent who operates at the Tin Can Island Port, Emmanuel Onyeme, said despite the disbandment of the presidential task team, the traffic situation persists due to roadblocks mounted by security and traffic management officials, as well as the failure of the government to open up completed portions of the road as promised by the permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transportation.

He said, “The traffic situation on ports access roads remains the same. Although they said that the PTT has been disbanded, the same set of people are still coming out in the night to carry out their normal shady activities.
If the government said that it disbanded the Presidential Task Force, let it open the road so that we have free movement. With the blockades on the road, how will the road be free? If you come to Tin Can Port today, only a few containers exit daily while many people are paying demurrage on trapped cargoes.

“So, we are begging the government to open up the road along Tin Can access road. The contractor on that road is not helping matters. The cost of transportation has gone so high that as of now, the cost of haulage from Tin Can Port to Ladipo, in Mushin is N1.7m because there is no road, and the whole place is blocked,” he said.

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The Chairman, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Tin Can Island Chapter, Segun Oduntan, said there hasn’t been any respite on the road for truckers despite the minister’s visit to the port recently.

“You need to see how importers and agents are crying, especially those who have goods that are trapped at the port with the high cost of demurrage. So what intervention has the minister’s visit made? The minister’s visit has not changed anything because when he and his team came for the inspection, they did not inform any stakeholder. We are the ones that can give the minister first-hand information. How can a contractor be bigger than the ministry? He said.

The President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Increase Uche, told The Guardian that his members are not finding things easy at the ports.

Uche said cargo clearance and evacuation from the port, and movement of empty containers to the port have become Herculean tasks, and blamed the worsening situation on the stoppage of container striping at the port, as well as the stoppage of barge operations, which he claimed, were hitherto reducing pressure on the roads.

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“When the port congestion came to a climax, what importers and freight forwarders did was to find a way of stripping the containers so that they can return the empties without stress, and that was what brought down haulage charges,” he explained.

He added that container stripping saves cost and removes the impediment of trying to return empty containers from the hinterland to the ports.

The NPA had earlier threatened to sanction bonded terminals that were engaged in container stripping. It stated that: “Resumption of stripping activities would only be reconsidered after the port access roads have been cleared of all impediments,”

On the empty container, the Assistant General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications, Ibrahim Nasiru, in a statement said: “Shipping companies are to be responsible for the movement of empty containers from their holding bays to the port. Consignees are to drop empty boxes at the designated empty container holding bays,”

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It warned that, “failure of shipping companies to remove empty containers at the holding bay will attract sanctions.”

According to him, the NPA assured stakeholders that the problem of congestion and rent seeking on access roads to the ports, would soon become history with the scheduled deployment of an electronic-call up system for trucks this year.

The Managing Director of Nigerian Port Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala Usman said the authority was working with the Lagos State government to create truck parks at designated areas.

She said: “The Lagos State government plans to give a designated truck park at Orile, where trucks will park until their cargo is cleared electronically before they can proceed to the port. We are planning to deploy an e-call-up system in 2021. We will provide an electronic call-up system within the ports and designation truck parks. Trucks will no more be parked randomly on the road. We are going to have a designated park and truckers can only enter the ports when they are called upon. The e-call up will also remove human intervention and eliminate corrupt practices.”

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Bala Usman assured that the electronic call up system would bring fresh hope to shipping activities in Nigerian ports.

She said: “The bad roads make truck drivers hang around the ports lobbying for cargo lifting. So, we must have e-call up where the trucks parks are linked to port locations, so that each truck can only start going to the port if it is called upon. That is what we need to do and we have concluded on that system.”

The scheme, which would be financed by a private company, Trucks Transit Parks Limited, under a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement, with the NPA will cost about N7b to deploy.

When fully operational, the electronic call-up system will save Nigeria a whooping N140 billion weekly economic loss and another $10 billion yearly loss of agro products.

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A source at the NPA said, “The company presented a business case for regulated truck traffic regime, which shows that the system will save the country N140b weekly economic loss, 40 per cent of businesses that have left Apapa, will return. There will be an end to 7-14 days cargo reception delay; consequent damage to perishable export products, and reverse the $10b annual loss of agro products.

“That is not all, this effort will also save our bridges around Lagos mainland, which are old and fragile, and can no longer support abuse by trucks. This will also put an end to the unavailability of public funding for shared common infrastructure.”

The Managing Director of Trucks Transit Parks Limited (TTP), Jama Onwubuariri, said the electronic call-up system would transform Apapa and bring the port city alive again.

He said: “Our Company has partnered with the NPA to provide solutions to the truck traffic challenges in Nigeria. The TTP aims to decongest Apapa, improve traffic flow, and ultimately facilitate the efficiency and productivity of the ports. TTP will do this through the use of technology.

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“Our operation is based on an electronic call up system called Ètò, through which trucks movements will be scheduled from the originating points of the trucks, to a park, then to a holding bay/pre-gate and then programmed in batches (on a first-come-first-served basis) to access the ports. Thus, all trucks are expected to remain within approved parks until they are scheduled to access the ports or are moving from one park to another. The idea is to prohibit illegal or indiscriminate parking of trucks along the roads.

“Therefore, law enforcement agents have been set up to enforce compliance and tow, or fine offending trucks/truckers. Hence, an electronic call-up system that will drive the check-in, and checkout of trucks from each location has been put in place to achieve this. In addition to batching, and scheduling of trucks movement, TTP would also offer add-on, or ancillary services such as truck wash, tyre change, truck service, accommodation, etc., at designated parks.”

He added that the main objectives of the company’s operations are to improve ports efficiency, decongesting traffic gridlock, improving traffic flow within the Apapa logistics ring, improve accountability and eliminate extortion and improve ease of doing business.

On how it intends to achieve it, he said, “We will deploy electronic truck scheduling, park, truck and traffic management platform called Ètò, provide modern truck parks and holding bay facilities with hub amenities, use of ICT hardware such as access control, law enforcement/traffic agents to enforce compliance and registration of all ports bound trucks and drivers on Ètò.”

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