The roads leading to Apapa, Nigeria’s busiest port city, are in a mess and should be declared a national emergency. It is a mystery how goods continue to flow in and out of its docks, how trucks and trailers defy its dilapidated state to bring profit to their taskmasters, how workers, who earn their living from offices domiciled on its streets, brave the daily assault to put bread on their tables and milk in the fridge.
To understand the gravity of the Apapa situation, one needs to walk on its cratered streets and inhale the sharp smell of smoke that wafts from the bottom of the trucks, trailers and motorcycles that are omnipotent on its roads; one needs to make the sign of the cross and attempt to access the port through one of its two main thoroughfares, via the Marine Bridge or Tin-Can Island axis; one needs to get his or her senses assaulted by the solid waste, urine, faeces and sludge that have overrun the port city and its surrounding creeks and turned it into a hellhole on earth.
Coming through the Ijora and approaching Marine Bridge, the average commuter, usually has to queue up behind rows of trailers that stretch for distances as long as five kilometres and longer.
When the trucks and trailers manage not to breakdown, tip over, or offload their contents on other commuters, they are expected to only occupy either the left or right lane of the road, but the policemen who are expected to enforce the rule collect bribes from impatient truck drivers and allow chaos to reign.
Descending from Marine Bridge into Apapa, a signboard screams “Welcome to Apapa Premier Port”, but what reveals itself beyond the windscreen is a road dotted with innumerable holes and craters huge enough to swallow whole cities. The tar on the “welcome road” is whitewashed and has undergone metastasis to turn to dust; smooth surfaces have become broken things and vehicles wobble from side to side as they navigate the death trap.
It is a curious phenomenon to watch trucks, loaded with heavy goods, navigate these death traps. It is no longer surprising when a truck fails to hit the right momentum in crossing a crater and capsizes, spilling to the ground the content of its trailer. There are numerous tales of how people have been killed under such circumstances, crushed and buried for the sins of those who could have sanctioned the road’s repair. But the tragedy is like the steam that oozes out of a kettle; it soon disappears and business, as usual, continues.
There have been comic attempts to fill some of the potholes and gaping holes, especially those along Airways bus stop, by filling them with sawdust, sometimes a poor mixture of cement-sand. But, of course, when the rain comes, the hypocrisy is exposed and vehicles swim in pools of water.
However, compared to the Tin-Can axis, coming into Apapa via Marine Bridge is like skating through smooth ice. The Tin-Can axis, which is at the end of the Oshodi-Apapa expressway, has been turned into a ghost town. Most commercial vehicles don’t even bother making the trip; they turn around at Coconut bus stop, more than six kilometres from the port. Their reasons are not far-fetched. From Coconut, the road has collapsed; it is a series of gallops and huge holes, and there are trucks that have turned it into a permanent garage.
In Apapa, motorcycles are made for kings. Their drivers, hair caked with dust and sporting dark glasses, are superheroes without capes. They are a commuter’s best chance of beating the constant gridlock, as they flout traffic laws, crossing road dividers to escape a stalemate, braving a sharp bend to avoid an onrushing vehicle and, sometimes, running straight under trucks to come to unfortunate ends, both driver and commuter.
It is not uncommon to find piles of garbage and grime, like goods on display, lying along the sidewalk on Apapa streets. On Creek Road, the stench from these dumps is mixed with the nauseating aroma of caked human excreta and urine, deposited by truck drivers, while they queue for their turn to load up.
In 2014, statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that the Gross Registered Tonnage at the Apapa Port (excluding the Tin-Can port) was 37,041,879, from 1,503 vessels. In 2015, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) recorded revenue of $1.8 billion. Although the numbers have since slightly declined due to the recession, it demonstrates the amount of revenue that flows into the country from Apapa. This, of course, begs the question of why its roads and essence have been left to wither away, like a leaf cut from its source. What Demon haunts Apapa?
The Demon is said to have been created by the federal government during the early 2000s, when the NPA and Ministry of Transport doled out some real estate from the Lagos Port Complex to some oil firms to use as fuel tank farms. This raised, significantly, the number of trucks and tankers streaming into Apapa. Meanwhile, the government made no parking provisions for the new influx of tankers, prompting their drivers to start parking on the highway and inner roads.
Expectedly, companies whose businesses were affected protested against the new nuisances in town, but the tanker drivers resorted to violence and strikes when the state government, in collaboration with some federal government agencies tried to establish some order. And so the Demon grew from strength to strength and has, today, become a monster that cannot be tamed.
It is on record that successive governments have tried to outwit this Demon, but it appears to be a slithery, cunning creature that slips from the grasp even when caught. Take for example the story of the current Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola. As governor of Lagos State, Fashola blamed the federal government, then controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for creating the mess and obstructing the state government from taking charge. He cried and wheezed, spouting lamentations upon lamentations. However, as fate would have it, Fashola was appointed as the head of the very ministry under which the duty of reconstructing Apapa’s roads falls under; but after almost two years on the job without results, Fashola has changed the melody of his dirges.
The tragedy of Apapa is its transition from a palatial neighbourhood to a vulgar zone. Once, it was a quiet, serene part of Lagos, home to fine buildings and elite occupants.
“By the time I went to Apapa, it was probably the most peaceful area in Lagos,” accomplished businessman, Chief Alex Duduyemi, told THISDAY in 2015. “I was forced to go there, after the Tafawa Balewa coup. I used to live in Ikoyi, in the government quarters. Since then, I’ve never lived anywhere other than Apapa. But today, it is horrendous. It’s a different story. It takes me over two hours to get from my house to the office, because of the gridlock on the road. Normally, it should take me between 20 to 30 minutes.”
Today, people like Duduyemi would rather move east, to Victoria Island and Ikoyi and Lekki, rather than stay in Apapa. The port city has lost its former lustre and its decline might just have been sealed if Fashola and his people do not put some action behind their words and squarely confront the Demon that tramples on the commonwealth of all Nigerians.