Apapa Gridlock Worsens as Presidential Task Force Goes Rogue

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THEFRONTLINES:JOSEPH USHIGIALE - joseph.ushigiale@thisdaylive.com 08023422660 (sms only)

The Frontlines By Joseph Ushigiale

Who are the sole beneficiaries of the current revenue drive being enforced by the Presidential Task Force on Ports Decongestion and Easing Apapa Gridlock?
The question has become pertinent because whoever is vested with the responsibility of supervising the task force, if he is not the sole beneficiary, ought to know by now that the task force has since outlived its usefulness and it is now operating beyond its brief extorting various sums ranging from N50,000 to N200,000 to grant access to port users. To maximum its profiteering, it has also resorted to illegally mounting all manner of obstacles and roadblocks which constitute the revenue collection points all over Apapa to make life utterly unbearable for port users and residents of Apapa.

Across all the security agencies, posting to the task force is a goldmine, place to be and there is a scramble for postings with people bribing those in charge of postings with as much as N150,000. A story is being told of how a police officer with the rank of sergeant serving in Kano suddenly made it big in Lagos.

Sergeant Aliyu Bala (not real name) has been in the force for over 20 years. With his nine children and two wives, life was treacherous. He could hardly feed his family and was perpetually borrowing before month ended to make ends meet. But then, he saw a junior colleague of his who was recently posted to Lagos and just within three months, he came back to Kano with a car and the family was doing well.

Determined to get to the root of this sudden opulence, Bala pressed his colleague for information but his junior colleague only told him Lagos was a jungle and survival was a way of life. Bala got his break when his sister, who resided in Lagos invited him to come and spend some few weeks of his leave with them in Lagos. It was an eye opener for him.

Once he returned to Kano, with the help of his sister, the money was raised, paid and he was transferred to Lagos and to the task force. Today, Bala’s story has changed completely for good. In just about six months since he arrived here, regardless of the initial obstacles of accomodation and resettlement, he has not only rented and furnished his house in Lagos, he has also bought two cars, one for himself and another for his wife. He is also planning to build a befitting house too.

This is just an aspect of the corruption and racketeering going on at the task force. The main revenue drive which is the real reason Apapa gridlock would never ease and rather than finding a solution, the situation is deteriorating, worsening the traffic snarls, making nonsense of the much vaunted ease-to-doing business and holding port users in a vice grip.

Firstly, all available spaces from the National Stadium all through to the ports including areas like Orile Iganmu, Bode Thomas, and Ijora Olopa axis all through to the ports are taken over by vehicles and each vehicle pays N5000 per night for the parking space. For vehicles going to drop off empty containers, the payments range from N50,000 to N100,000 depending on whether it 40 feet or more. Then it costs N200,000 for a transporter to access the port for his cargoes.

“From First Gate to Second Gate, we have about four roadblocks mounted by the security agents and the trucks must part with money before they can move. As we speak, we pay between N1.1 million and N1.2 million per truck as against N100,000 to move our containers out of the port. The cheapest truck you can get to hire is N1 million. We have never experienced it this way before.”

The National Vice President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Kayode Farinto, called for the disbandment of the Presidential Task Team, which he said has become “a money-making machine” –
According to him, clearing agents lose an average of N300 million weekly to illegal collections by NPA security officials, the police and members of the Presidential Task Team, adding that to enter the port, truck operators pay as high as N280,000 to security operatives.

Farinto also lamented the absence of an electronic call-up system, saying that the manual call up system being used by the NPA is fuelling corruption.
“It is high time the NPA began the electronic call-up system. The manual call-up system is full of anomalies and it is encouraging corruption and it looks as if the government is not even ready to stop corruption,” he stated.

Secondly, to make these collections possible, there are various strategic revenue collection check points right on the top of the ramp leading to Ijora Badia for vehicles coming in from Bode Thomas, Orile and Iganmu. Another one is mounted on the right intersection off Eko Bridge immediately after National Theatre towards the ports. If you managed to maneuver them, there is another check point opposite Julius Berger Yard.

Thirdly, before climbing the bridge over 7-Up Bottling company, there is another check point as you come down to join the vehicles coming up the ramp from Surulere and Orile. There is a combined team of security agents who unilaterally block the road with tankers and trucks narrowing it to just very little space for smaller vehicles and buses that have to take turns to squeeze through.

Around the Lily Pond warehouse area, that is the only space that you have to drive on the main expressway, further down, the remaining part of the road is sufficiently blocked by tankers and other road users are forced to divert to Malu road and make a U-turn by Mobil station and take an untarred side street to link Airways in front. Most times, some of these overzealous security agents still forcefully send other road users off the road clearing it for trailers and tankers that have paid them to gain access to the ports.

The part of the road right from Airways/Flour Mills to the main port is blocked by trailers and trucks waiting to get into the port. On the Creek Road to Tin Can/Liverpool axis, trailers are parked on both sides of the roads leaving very little room for other vehicle users to maneuver their way out. Meanwhile, the entire inner roads including Burma, Warehouse, Calcutta, Randle have all been taken over by trailers and trucks that literally block access with impunity. This is because, the task force deliberately connives with the road construction company to use huge concrete slabs to block access to vehicles on roads they have no manpower to superintend for revenue collection.

Thus, in the last few months, Apapa has completely become a no-go-area as the nefarious activities of these unscrupulous task force personnel cripple activities in the port. Ironically, as the nation’s economy gradually grinds to a halt because of the dysfunctional ports, the task force smiles daily to the bank with loads of ill gotten cash.

Already, the nefarious activities of these security agents is putting importers, clearing agents and truck owners unease and they are worried over the worsening gridlock on the port access road at the Tin Can Island Port Complex (TCIPC) in Lagos. They accused officials of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) security department, police and the Presidential Task Team on Apapa gridlock, who were deployed to manage the traffic of extortion.

A truck owner and an executive member of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Sanni Bala, said the security agents including the Presidential Task Team demand huge sums, ranging from N70,000 to N200,000, depending on the ‘bargaining power’ of the truck driver, to be allowed into the port.

According to him, “Unlawful extortion by NPA security officials, police and the Presidential Task Team along Apapa and Tin Can Port road axis has become a daily occurrence and an institutionalised phenomenon that is taking a serious toll on the income of truck owners and exacerbating the plight of motorists.”

His position was corroborated by the Chairman of AMATO Remi Ogungbemi who asserted that “What is happening at Tin Can is a situation of the more you look, the less you see. Business is going on as usual and the Task Team has refused to leave because they are benefiting from the chaos. They have formed a cartel and if you are not in that group, they will not pass your truck no matter who you are”.

However, this intractable gridlock and illegal activities of the task force have started impacting negatively on the the cost of shipping containers into Nigeria, which has risen by 600 per cent.
On average, 100,000 containers, carrying various cargos are discharged in Lagos ports monthly.
With shipping companies now charging $6,000 to ship a container to Nigeria, it costs shippers in Nigeria $600 million (N234 billion) every month to transport 100,000 containers to Nigeria according to a recent THISDAY report.

As a result of the blockage of the roads in and around the ports, millions of containers are trapped in the ports and shipping companies have had to stay at anchorages for between three to four months incurring various surcharges due to circumstances beyond their control.
Numbers obtained by a THISDAY investigation revealed that in the first half of this year, it cost $1,000 to ship a 20-foot container to Nigeria from the Far East.

Today, the cost charged by shipping lines for the same service is between $5,500 and $6,000.
Also, haulage cost from Tin Can Port to any other part of Lagos has risen by more than 1,000 per cent from about N100, 000 to about N1.2 million

In addition, due to the massive congestion at Tin Can and Apapa ports, many shipping lines have started diverting Nigeria-bound cargoes to neighbouring ports in Cotonou and Ivory Coast. A coronary of this is that it contributes to Nigeria’s galloping inflation as consumers now have to pay more for goods.
Besides, importers, clearing agents and truck owners have expressed concerns over worsening gridlock along the port access road at the Tin Can Island Port Complex (TCIPC), Lagos, accusing officials of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Security Department, police and the Presidential Task Team on Apapa gridlock, who were deployed to manage traffic in the area of extortion.

It would be recalled that in February, the House of Representatives had resolved to investigate the extortion of truck drivers in Apapa by security operatives.
The resolution was made after lawmakers identified extortion by security officials as being a major factor responsible for the traffic challenges as operatives delayed the movement of trucks drivers who refused to cooperate with them.

The House took the resolution following a motion titled “Urgent Need to Investigate the unwarranted Extortion of Truck Operators and other Port users by Law Enforcement Agents at Apapa Port,” moved by Hon. Olusola Fatoba from Ekiti State.

Moving the motion, Fatoba had said truck operators pay as high as N300,000 to gain access into the port.
He said the House was worried that law enforcement agents that are supposed to maintain law and order at the port had formed a “cartel” in cahoots with port officials, extorting money from the transporters.
He said the “ugly trend” had been going on unabated for years, “but became worse after naval officers were removed from the operations, as the sum of N60,000 to N100,000 was extorted when the naval officers were in charge of the operation.”

He said the House was also worried that as a result of the activities of law enforcement agents in Apapa “a truck may spend up to two months before gaining access into the terminal, which is causing a lot of hardships and a huge increase in the cost of doing business which may inevitably lead to unrest and breakdown of law and order by the frustrated and oppressed truck operators.The Again in one of its recent resolution, the House of Representatives urged the Federal Government to should pay attention to the construction of access roads linking seaports in the Apapa area of Lagos State. It also accused the presidential task force set up to decongest the ports of extortion and worsening the gridlock in the area. The House specifically asked that a greater part of two months revenue generated by the Apapa Port, TinCan Island Port, Kirikiri Lighter Terminal and PTML be committed to the construction of all the access roads for optimal revenue for the country.
In addition, the House urged the Nigerian Ports Authority and relevant security agencies to halt extortion activities going on at the ports and the access roads.

The Federal Government was asked to ‘immediately disband the Presidential Task Force on the Ports Access Roads, having outlived its usefulness and for participating in extortion and contributing to congestion of the ports access roads’.

But the Vice Chairman of the task force, Kayode Opeifa has disagreed with calls for the disbandment of the task force vouching that it was doing a fantastic job. At a virtual dialogue held by the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, debunked media reports about traffic congestion in Apapa, referring to it as a non-recurring traffic.

While the controversy over whether the task force should be disbanded or not is still raging on the front burners, it is commendable that Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwaolu has inaugurated a task force to enforce driving against traffic which is a major cause of gridlock and fatal accidents and deaths on Lagos roads.
The inauguration could not have come at a better time than now that Apapa gridlock knows no solutions and the situation is further exacerbated by one-way drivers actively abetted by some security agents for a fee. The question is: Can it curtail activities of these racketeering security agents who carry out this illegal duty with so much impunity and reckless abandon?

Some years ago, there was a fire outbreak at the Yinka Folawiyo tank farm. It took the early intervention of men of the fire service and others to put the fire under control and avert any severe damage to other facilities. Today, with the situation in Apapa, any major outbreak would sound the death knell of Apapa and Nigeria and the world would be thrown into morning. This is not a doomsday’s prediction but a fact that is waiting to happen. But those in authorities can make hay while the sun shines.

As the federal government continually reinvents the wheels by setting up one failed task force after another to proffer solutions to Apapa gridlock without any success, why has someone not thought about reducing the pressure on the Lagos ports by diversifying cargoes to the eastern ports of Calabar, Port Harcourt, Warri and Onitsha? After all, people from the South-east are the major importers of cargoes into this country. Other neighboring landlocked countries like Chad, Niger etc that import through Nigeria, would find Port Harcourt and Calabar ports as proximate to their destinations instead of Lagos.

As both the port decongestion and Apapa gridlock have defied all manner of solutions, the federal government should as a last resort create a rail evacuation corridor just like it is done in advanced countries to evacuate cargoes from the port to a safe corridor where they can be hauled to their respective destinations.
Although the original Apapa industrial ports design did not make provision for tank farms as you currently have on Creek Road. However, it incorporated a holding bay for trucks awaiting their cargoes, successive administrations decided to parcel out and sell off these designated holding bays to former generals and their cronies and depriving the trucks the much much needed space to park inside the port. The result is what we are reaping today.

Therefore, if we are serious about bringing a lasting solution to port congestion, the federal government should, as a matter of national interest, revoke the sale of all the trucks holding bay areas from the retired generals and past heads of state and their cronies who bought them to restore sanity to the ports and Apapa.