Can the Presidency, Sanwo-Olu Relocate to Apapa?

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Sanwo Olu

SATURDAY FRONTLINE  

By Joseph Ushigiale

What’s going on or happening in Lagos? Suddenly, Lagos is daily on a complete lockdown by traffic snarls. And it comes with very severe consequences: people cannot move about freely to transact their businesses, commuters are detained against their will inside commercial and private vehicles for interminable hours on end and are subjected not only to the vagaries of the weather but also to criminal elements who brazenly operate even in daylight unchallenged. What about the health hazard posed by exhaust fumes on the atmosphere and environment? How about the health of people who are forced against their will to sit inside their vehicles for very long hours without an opportunity to stretch their legs or walk about? These are very bad times if you live in Lagos because the mere thought of driving out is a nightmare.

Why did we get to this low point? I had the privilege of coming across a copy of Daily Times published March 29, 1978. It carried a screaming front-page headline announcing that ‘LAGOS TRAFFIC DEFIES SOLUTION’. Regrettably, 41 years on, nothing has changed, in fact, things are degenerating from bad to worse. So I just kept wondering what Lagos would have looked like if it did not have the status of a federal capital. Perhaps a jungle or Zoo maybe. We are here because people in position of authority failed to plan ahead.

After the civil war, Lagos emerged as the magnet and best destination for business and job seekers. It was a federal capital as well as a commercial hub because of its seaports and international airport. As a result, there was a sudden exponential population growth because of the unexpected influx of fortune seekers from rural areas including neighboring countries who besieged the city. Their arrival also presented new challenges of transportation, housing, education, medicare, security, etc.

Unfortunately, those in authority then failed to act fast probably because the Lagos state government thought that, with Lagos being a capital, it was the federal government’s problem after all. In the end, when the federal capital shifted to Abuja, the chicken finally came home to roost. But credit must be given to the former governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande whose tenure witnessed unprecedented push for infrastructure development across the state.  Had his visionary metro line been allowed to crystallize and not scrapped by the Buhari military junta, Lagos would not be what it is today.

I believe that the current hardship experienced daily by people in the state is avoidable. All across the state, there are potholes slowing down traffic without any intervention. From CMS, Bonny Camp, Akpongbon, Lekki – Epe Expressway, Ozumba Mbadiwe, to Apapa, Surulere, instances abound. Another man-made problem is the lack of proactive traffic management. For instance, if a vehicle like a trailer breaks down on a major road, rather than towing it away to free space to other motorists, all you see are LASTMA officials milling around the vehicle to extort money and the vehicle would be abandoned there for days. The same happened when a container falls off a vehicle, rather than moving it out of the right of way, it is abandoned right there to obstruct other road users.

Worse still are the activities of contractors. These contractors treat road users as if they are doing them a favour and not the other way round. They cordoned off portions of a road without providing adequate alternatives for vehicles to ease their movements. Even when just one lane could be closed, they would choose to close two lanes leaving just one lane for vehicles to squeeze through and the result is usually pandemonium on the road.

Rather than mouthing promises which are akin to motion without movement, I recommend that both the federal and Lagos state governments should adopt radical approaches to tackle this perennial traffic situation that has defied all manner of interventions. I recommend that both the presidency and the governor of Lagos state should work from Apapa for about a month to see firsthand what people are experiencing.    

For instance, at the height of the Boko Haram terrorists’ onslaught in Borno state, where several local government councils came under the sect’s territorial occupation and control; an embarrassed President Muhammadu Buhari, buffeted by local and international pressure summoned his security chiefs to whom he ordered to relocate and set up a command headquarters in Maiduguri to checkmate the rampaging sect.

The presidential directive was intended to ensure that, rather than sitting comfortably in their air-conditioned offices and depending on reports from field commanders, the military high command had to adopt a foot on the ground approach, have the first-hand experience of what was happening in real-time and respond accordingly. The incremental gains recorded by the military in Borno state and the North-east at large so far are eloquent testimonies of that intervention.

Drawing from that success, recently, the governor of Borno state, Prof., Babagana Zulum drafted members of his state executive council to hold a retreat in Damasak. Damasak, a hitherto sprawling agricultural and commercial town, is now a ghost of its old self. It was one of the several local government councils that came under the control of Boko Haram until the terrorists were dislodged by the military.

Giving reasons why he opted to make Damasak the venue for the retreat, Zulum told the exco members that “Damasak as we know it is still a shadow of its era of prosperity. Many citizens, including those from here, rarely visit. But we are here and we are here for a very important, and for me, a historic retreat. The first under my leadership.”   

Further justifying his position, the governor reminded them that they operated under abnormal circumstances which required equally creative ways to solve such problems, adding that choosing a different venue for the retreat would have defeated the prime objective of the retreat. According to him, “I will like to remind us very strongly that our circumstances in Borno State are not normal. If we decide to hold our retreat in Maiduguri, Abuja or perhaps at Obudu Cattle Ranch in Cross Rivers state, we may not be totally true to ourselves and sensitive to the plight of our people.” 

Zulum told them that “The wisdom of convening this retreat in Damasak, headquarters of Mobbar local government area in the most troubled northern part of Borno State, is to bring all of us, face to face with the realities of our challenges in Borno.” 

The governor reiterated that “We are here to feel their pulse and to remind us of their needs for continued safety; their needs for shelter; their needs for medical care; their needs for water; their needs for schools; their needs for means of livelihoods. When we drove into this lodge, we saw hundreds of our young sons and daughters welcoming us happily. We saw wives, sisters, mothers, and fathers joining they welcome us. Whereas they all wore happy faces, we know that the majority of them are in distress.”

I have taken pains to copiously quote Zulum because his address to his exco members succinctly hit the nail on the head and exposes the well known fact that those who lead us are far detached from the people and the realities on the ground.

The reality today is that the past and current interventions in Apapa have failed to achieve the desired results and therefore there is an urgent need for the federal and Lagos state governments to declare a state of emergency on Apapa gridlock. I am proposing that they should relocate the seat of power to Apapa even if it is just for a few days as Zulum did in Damasak so that government can also share the pains, untold sufferings and the monumental losses suffered by those doing business in Apapa. The experience gathered first hand from Apapa would pave the way for a more proactive and result-driven interventions.  

In the last 15 years or so, the recurring problem of Apapa gridlock has attracted several government interventions which have come in different names like Ports Decongestion, several Presidential Task Forces on Apapa Gridlock and the very recent one headed by the Vice President, Yemi Osibanjo. All of these have been of very little effect and it would appear that Apapa gridlock is jinxed. The more government intervenes, the more the traffic situation progresses from worse to worst.

What is the current scenario? There are only two access points to and from Apapa. The first from Oshodi through Tin Can to Apapa Quays. The other is from Oworonsoki through Funsho Williams Avenue/Surulere to Apapa.  Out of these two access roads, government and most recently AG Dangote Construction have undertaken concrete measures on the Oworonsoki- Apapa axis while the Oshodi – Apapa axis is almost no-go area between Coconut and Tin Can areas as I write.

Pressure from both tankers hauling petroleum products and trucks carrying containers therefore shift to this road making it extremely dangerous to commute safely on this route, since it is the only route available. 

On the other hand, workers and residents of Apapa are passing through their most horrific experiences yet. Every passing day, where you dream of a solution, what confronts you is a more horrific and unimaginable traffic nightmare that leaves you wondering what all this talk of the government countless task forces are all about.

It is frustrating, stressful and a daunting task to survive this once bourgeoning industrial and residential layout that has now become a jungle of a sort. Workers and residents in Apapa can not continue with the suffering and smiling according to the legendary Fela Anikulapo and pretend that all is well; because doing so would be standing truth on its head.

The problem of Apapa gridlock did not start today. Its history dates back to the early year 2000 when the Lagos state government decided to license tank forms along the Creek road axis. In taking that decision, the authorities failed to envision the gloomy prospect of traffic congestion occasioned by the influx of loading trucks and create an alternative evacuation corridor through a dedicated pipeline to the outskirts of Lagos for loading of product. It didn’t need to bear the cost of such an investor. All the Lagos state government ought to do at that time, was to set that as a precondition for the issuance of a license to set up a farm in Apapa.

Today, while the tank farm owners are smiling to the banks, workers and residents are groaning in agony because the state government failed in its duties to protect their interests. In the last two weeks or more, the gridlock that shut down Apapa, spreading to other parts of Lagos left many wondering what impact has the government much-mouthed intervention had on the free movement of people, good and services in and out of Apapa.

Why are the task forces not effective? The answer is obvious. With everything that is Nigerian, the task force has become highly compromised negating the very objective for which its members were mandated with. For instance, there are allegations that every truck is levied N5000 to gain access to the port. 

These task force members comprising of police, navy, army, LASTMA, etc have constituted themselves into collection points where they extort money from the truckers. Apapa roads are dual carriageways, which means that each lane has provision for three cars except where the road narrows at the point of the intersection with the ramp. 

The task force members would collect money from the truckers, condone off two lanes where these trucks would park leaving just a lane for smaller cars and other vehicles. Where the road narrows to two lanes, traffic comes to a full stop. At this point, none of them cares about the long queue of cars building up to as far as over two kilometres with commuters sitting in their vehicles under excruciating heat from the sun.

It is a scenario where commonsense has taken flight giving way to greed, lawlessness, abuse of office and all manner of criminalities. In some cases on some days, a military officer would arrogate to himself the power to guide scores of heavy-duty vehicles to face on-coming traffic. God saves you if you dare stand in their way. It is the same scenario with top military officers, patrol teams etc who take laws into their own hands by endangering other peoples’ lives to drive against traffic.

The preponderance of traffic gridlock in Apapa is a referendum on both the Lagos state and the federal government. 

According to figures from the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, “Exports from Nigeria fell 4.6 percent from a year earlier to NGN 1451 billion in June 2019, due to lower shipments of manufactured products (-14.3 percent); agricultural goods (-36.6 percent); raw materials (-34.2 percent); solid minerals (-88.1 percent) and energy goods (-25.4 percent).”

With Apapa and Tin Can ports positioning as Nigeria’s major export terminal, Nigeria’s quest to diversify through non-oil exports would simply be a mirage. From the manufacturing sector comes tales of woes as capacity utilization which is currently between 30%-40% is hardly enough to lift the country out of poverty.

The state of health of the roads and the environment generally should be of major concern to both Lagos state and the federal government. On a daily basis, countless number of vehicles park on the road and bridges with no hope of when it would be their turn to get into the port. These drivers and their apprentices have no conveniences like toilet, bathroom, kitchen etc. Therefore, in the absence of any of these facilities, every driver and apprentice have no other choice than resorting to self-help. They bath, defecate and eat on the road. At night time, they either sleep in their cars or their mats on the median. This same scenario replicates itself daily so long as they remain on the road waiting for their turns to access the ports. 

Of utmost concern again is that in the event of fire outbreak where you have these trucks lined up in a chain format, the catastrophe both in human and vehicular casualties would unquestionably be unimaginable. In a Apapa today, for want of space to park their vehicles, truck drivers have resorted to breaking rules and are so audacious that they could park on any space including the middle of the road and walk away.

Without a doubt, Apapa gridlock has in addition thrown up new challenges which is the exponential growth of commercial motorcyclists in the area. As most vehicles owners park their vehicles at any available space to find their ways around Apapa, you have to be extremely careful so that you are not knocked down by these commercial cyclists whose growth is now constituting a major menace around Apapa.

To resolve this prolonged Apapa gridlock, the federal and Lagos state governments have to be proactive and think out-of-the-box. It has become quite clear to all the stakeholders that all the previous interventions have failed and no further task force can perform any magic to turn around the current state of Apapa.

For Lagos state, there are quick fixes or long hanging fruits that the governor would have easily picked in his first hundred days in office. For example, given the preponderance of potholes dotting Lagos roads, the governor and his team would have declared ‘OPERATION FIX POTHOLES ON LAGOS ROAD IN 100 DAYS’. By now, he would have drawn accolades from across the state.

I also challenge the Lagos governor to expedite action for the completion of the ongoing rail system that has gulp so much money yet nothing to show for it. While doing that, he should also explore other alternatives like the cable car currently being promoted by Ropeways. From investigations, the Ropeways project when completed and inaugurated has the capacity to lift about a million passengers across Lagos daily.

For the ongoing rehabilitation works across the state, to reduce the hardship on people, the contractors should be advised to adopt a night work model whereby work starts from 11pm and ends at 5am giving ways for people to have access to move about freely. In addition, if they must shut down a road, there must be an alternative and a timeframe within which the road must be completed and open to traffic.

On the federal front, one of the ways to do this is to decentralize the ports. Rather than concentrating almost all import and export activities in Apapa and Tincan ports alone, the government should shift emphasis to Warri, Calabar, Onne Ports. These ports need a very little facelift to position them as the gateways for either the export or import of goods and services so as to take off the pressure from Lagos.

While that is being contemplated, a special holding bay should be constructed in a place like Ikorodu of Epe from where a rail line could be linked to ferry all containers from the ports to wait for collection. If this is not feasible, it is even more beneficial if the railways would begin a cargo service between Tincan, Apapa ports to major commercial hubs like, Port Harcourt, Onitsha, Aba, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna etc.

Another opportunity also exists through the waterways where barges could be used to transfer cargo containers to Epe or Ikorodu from where the trucks can now move them to their various destinations by road. The idea of establishing a trucks holding bay in Orile – Iganmu axis should be discouraged if you take cognizance of the present gridlock that perpetually manifests on that stretch leading to Iganmu on a daily basis. As much as possible, emphasis should be put on removing all heavy-duty vehicles from Apapa vicinity.

For the tank farms, the owners and government may have to enter an agreement either to relocate the tank farms elsewhere or build a pipeline that would transport products to a designated loading bay for trucks to pick up and haul to their respective destinations. I also believe that the refurbishing of our refineries in Kaduna, Warri, Port Harcourt would wean Nigeria off the current petroleum products import reliance.

Once these alternatives are adopted and implemented, Apapa gridlock would vanish naturally, the environment would be protected and pressure on Apapa would disappear. Businesses that hitherto relocated would return and prosper and the people of Apapa and environs would heave a great sigh of relief.