The Intractable Apapa Gridlock

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Are truck and tanker drivers and their owners bigger and more powerful than the federal and state governments? Why then is it difficult to tame them in order to ease movement in and out of Apapa? Asks Davidson Iriekpen

For residents of Apapa and those who transact business in the area, the last two weeks have been horrendous. The traffic situation into the port city has been an abiding source of heartache and nightmare. Everyday of last week, they spent three to four hours to get to their destinations, which is very dangerous to their mental health. The usually one-lane access left for commuters and cars have been taken over by trucks and tankers, leaving them into total disappointment and frustration.

The electronic e-Call Up platform, an innovative approach initiated by the Nigerian Port Authority (NPA) and the Lagos State government, which had breathed relief for residents and motorists plying the corridor, has collapsed. The innovation which had substantially decongested major access roads into the port city has failed abysmally.

The significance of the e-Call Up System is that instead of queuing up on the roads leading to the ports, importers and exporters are supposed to log in online to indicate the movement of their trucks towards the ports. The ports authority would then give the necessary approval to ensure that the inflow and outflow of trucks is orderly.

Under that framework, the Nigeria Ports Authority has provided 17 designated and approved truck parks where trucks are required to wait before they are given what is called truck pass. It is a pre-gate system. You are called up. You wait at the provided pre-gate location. When it is your turn you approach the ports, or exit. Cargo owners are also required to stop returning empty containers to the ports.

For the two weeks that the electronic call-up system lasted, truckers had gently filed into the seaports without any hindrance to relief of other road users.

The ever-busy Wharf road, leading to Apapa Port was vacated by deviant trucks that used to clog the roads, streets and bridges. Sanity was thought to be gradually returning to the Apapa corridor.

Even the police, operatives of the Federal Road Safety Corps and other law enforcement agents who were seriously benefitting and profiting from the confusion, were beginning to feels the heat. Their bribes were dwindling.

But with the collapse of the e-Call Up system, the trucks and tankers have returned with much ferocity, frustrating movement in and out of business district. This has left many observers and analysts wondering if anything can ever work in Nigeria? They also wonder if the tanker and truck drivers and their owners are bigger than the government?

Recall that following public outcry over the intractable gridlock in Apapa, President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019 gave an ultimatum to the trailer drivers to vacate Apapa roads and bridges within 72 hours. Before then, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu had reportedly vowed to end the Apapa gridlock within 60 days of his administration, though he later denied the claim.

The presidential directive followed an emergency meeting convened by Buhari and chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on April 25, 2019. A taskforce headed by Osinbajo, which was set up following the meeting immediately swung into action. The terms of reference of the taskforce, which was to report directly to the president, included 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. It also included the implementation of a workable Empty Container Truck handling policy, among others.

This was followed by the withdrawal of the Nigerian Navy personnel and all other military formations from traffic management duties in the Apapa area, while military and paramilitary checkpoints in front of the ports and environs were to be dismantled.

In their place, the police and Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) were authorised to move to the area as the lead traffic management agency, while the NPA was asked to commence the immediate use of the Lilipond Terminal and Trailer Park A as truck Transit Park. The taskforce had two weeks to complete its assignment.

By December 2020, when the taskforce ended its assignment and declared that 95 per cent of its job had been done, commuters, motorists and stakeholders did not see any significant improvement. Instead allegations of extortion and corruption trailed its activities.

From then till now, the chaos and confusion in and out of Apapa have never ceased. Instead of leaving at least one lane for cars, truck and tanker drivers with the assitance of policemen and others have virtually taken over the link roads, thereby, making life hellish for residents, workers and commuters.

Meanwhile, the endless construction works around the Liverpool Roundabouts and the Mile 2-Tin-Can axis of the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway have worsened the situation, making the gridlock to defy all known logic. Currently, what road users see are truck drivers parking recklessly at the middle of the roads without respecting the rights of other road users.

Amidst the chaos, uniformed personnel on duty reportedly fleece the truck drivers. All that is needed to jump the queue is to bribe the uniformed personnel. From Eko Bridge to Creek Road in Apapa, there are over 18 checkpoints where truck and trailer drivers cleared after parting with bribes not less than N1,000 in the full glare of people day and night. If they want the policemen to escort them, the bribe increases to as much as between N5,000 to N10,000.

Many believe that the chaos on Apapa roads is certainly a national embarrassment. They believe that there are readily no solution available on hand to address the problem. Even hoodlums and traffic armed robbers have cashed in on the situation to unleash their nefarious activities on innocent citizens by dispossessing them of their valuables and sometimes maiming their victims.

Last December, following public outcry, the Lagos State government vowed to set up a special team to takeover traffic management from the PTT. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, after an unscheduled inspection of the roads to have a first hand assessment of traffic situation at the ports and its environ, said a stakeholders’ meeting, involving the NPA, haulage transport unions, port operators, among others would be convened to work out means of solving the protracted traffic gridlock in Apapa, as well as having a more efficient, effective port operations in the general interest of the publics. The outcome of the meeting was the e-Call Up System that failed woefully.

The governor even went ahead to issue a stern warning to individuals and maritime operators that want to reverse the progress being recorded along the Apapa corridor. He vowed that the state government would resist any attempt from any quarters to bring back the problem. He threatened to publish the names of uncooperative stakeholders who do not want the Apapa gridlock to ease off. All the threats have come to nothing but mere words.

Even stakeholders operating within and around the seaports frequently indulge in blame game, accusing each other of responsibility for the confusion in the port city. While the Committee of Freight Forwarders and Maritime Truckers (COFFAMAT) blamed the NPA officials, Presidential Taskforce on Port Decongestion and the police for the corruption that allowed truck drivers to park indiscriminately on the road, the Council of Maritime Transport Union and Association (COMTUA) absolved the police and the taskforce, accusing COFFAMAT, truck drivers and other stakeholders of not playing by the rules.

As a way out of the melee, a former National Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Joe Sanni, suggested the need for stakeholders in the maritime industry to come together to form a committee of relevant players in the sector to bring sanity to the area. He said being victims of the effect of the gridlock in terms of economic and health concerns, they would take the issue seriously.

Sanni added that the best way out is the formation of a stakeholders’ committee with a definite rule of engagement to manage the traffic situation in and around Apapa. He pointed out that once the rules of engagement are agreed upon by all, offenders cannot only be sanctioned but can also be taken to court.

While that is still in the pipeline, a businessman, Justice Okeke, who has often been frustrated over the traffic crisis in Apapa, said: “Apapa is just an ungoverned territory. Even though there is absence of government in every aspect of our lives in Nigeria, the one in Apapa is really appalling. One does not always see government presence in the area. Everything is just in complete disarray. The police and other traffic officials that are in charge of bringing sanity to the area are always helping themselves.”

Another stakeholder, Olarenwaju Adewale, expressed concern for the bridges which the truck and tanker drivers constantly park on everyday and everynight without anybody raising any eyebrow. According to him, this is a threat to lives and infrastructure.

“For about eight years consecutively, truck and tanker drivers have constantly parked on the bridges everyday and everynight, every week, month and year without anybody saying anything. This, in my opinion is a huge threat to human lives and infrastructure. I am not pessimist but I believe that this could be danger waiting to happen.”

While businesses, mental health and the neighbourhood are being left to suffer, Nigerians are anxiously waiting for the federal and state governments to urgently act to save the country from what is happening in Apapa.