Back in November 2017, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo made a “helicopter assessment” of the traffic congestion that has for close to a decade blighted the Apapa area. After descending, he promised long-suffering residents and businesses who have to move imported goods and supplies from Apapa ports a solution. He ordered the Nigerian Ports Authority and the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing to work on one.
Not much has changed. The chokehold on Apapa, one of the major arteries of the Nigerian economy, has hardly slackened. It is estimated by the Seaport Terminal Operators Association to cost Nigeria $55 million every day in lost economic activity i.e. the productive activities hundreds of thousands cannot engage in as people and cargo sit for hours and hours in the traffic.
The economy grows while policymakers are sleeping
The story of the Apapa and the Tin-Can Island Ports is the same story with Nigeria’s extremely overburdened social and physical infrastructure. It is as if Nigerian policymakers slept soundly as the economy grew, failing to look ahead and plan for the infrastructure needs that expanding economic activities create.
In fact, the stock of infrastructure has declined in some respects as the economy expanded. Nigeria’s imports have grown from about $6.9 billion in 1990 to $71.6 billion in 2015 while cargo throughputs (total volume of cargo discharged and loaded at ports) in Nigeria rose from 57,473,350 tonnes in 2007 to 73,175,127 tonnes in 2018. The tariffs and taxes that the government captured from this remarkable growth are not at all evident in the immediate vicinity the trade passed through.
Prior to the concession of Nigeria’s seaport in 2005 to private operators, Nigerian ports easily ranked amongst the most inefficient in the world, plagued by outdated and inadequate equipment and archaic processes. Ships waited an average of 21 days to berth. Private port managers (APMT Terminals, Apapa Bulk Terminals, ECM Terminals, etc.) to whom terminals were concessioned in 2005 have invested over N250 billion in equipment and have significantly improved the process of offloading cargo from ships and storing them for evacuation from the ports.
This in a way has created a problem – the faster cargos are off-loaded the more cargos are ready to be collected. There has been no investment in upgrading or expanding roads around the port, hence the endless queue of trucks waiting to go into or leave the port complex.
Meanwhile, the railway around Apapa (and in much of Nigeria) steadily collapsed from the 1970s, thus diverting traffic to the roads. Some factories around Apapa were originally designed, according to Hakeem Olanrewaju [former chairman of the Council of Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria], to have supplies and products transferred to and from their facilities through the rail system.
A very lucrative failure
There are two essential components to any public failure in Nigeria – the objective difficulty and the organization of a market around the pain the difficulty creates by those who have the responsibility to solve the problem.
The painful port congestion in Apapa seems to have created its own racket. Earlier this month, truck owners and clearing agents complained that they were being “extorted” by security officials at the port, forced to pay as high as N280,000 just to access cargo.
According to the Association of Maritime Truck Owners, several complaints made to the Nigerian Ports Authority have fallen on deaf ears. The Vice-President’s order from above has little bearing on what goes on on the ground. A car importer who is based in Canada told Arbiterz that the cost of hiring a truck (to carry cargos from inside the port complex) has risen from N500,000:00 t0 N1,500,000:00 in about ten months due to the illicit payments to fast-track entry and exit.
The snail-pace traffic is rolling back into the ports especially after the #EndSARS protests, by preventing workers from offloading ships, has led to a queue of ships waiting for cargoes to be offloaded.
Many businesses and residents have moved out of Apapa, an area that used to be home to elite Nigerians such as the late Obafemi Awolowo and had a community of well-heeled expatriates. The exodus has left in its wake a somewhat desolate collection of formerly very fashionable neighborhoods and depressed house prices.
It is not as easy for thousands of businesses and business people who have to ship inputs and goods through Apapa to leave Nigeria as residents and businesses have abandoned Apapa. They are working around the mess. A lot of Nigeria-bound cargo is now being transported to ports in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Benin Republic, and Togo. Thus, in 2018, Togo’s Lome Port became the leading container port in the whole of West Africa, having witnessed a three-fold traffic growth within the five previous years. It has Nigeria’s sleeping policymakers to thank.
Nigeria’s economy and specifically, its international trade that comes through Apapa, could finance an efficient infrastructure in and outside the ports if only politicians and policymakers had the time to plan it.
Relief at Hand?
The Lagos State Government has announced it is taking over management of the traffic around the ports from the Presidential Taskforce Team. Businesses and residents will not be holding their breath as the same Nigerian factors are likely to militate against the Lagos state traffic managers making a durable difference.
However, there are three projects that will provide some relief:
- In exchange for a tax break, the Dangote Group is constructing a 35-km road leading to the ports. This is yet to have any impact on the bottleneck around the access area to the port and thus on time, it takes to take things out of the ports.
- The $1.1 billion port at Lekki that the Tolaram Group (makers of the popular Indomie Noodles) announced in 2019 that it had secured financing for. While this will be an efficient port, trucks evacuating cargoes will contend with the traffic along the Lekki axis. Without the construction of supporting infrastructures such as alternative access roads and railway, the port may end up creating another Apapa. Lagos State Government lacks the funds to build the two other major roads that were planned alongside the tolled Lekki-Epe Expressway but has lacked the resoluteness to fund through a public-private partnership.
- The biggest of the concessionaires, APMT Terminals had constructed a rail line at the ports in 2013 “to provide an alternate (sic) to road transport for customers”. APMT has invested $80 million to reconnect the ports rail line to the national rail line, taking advantage of the Lagos-Ibadan railway line that just became operational on Monday, December 7, 2020. Trains will move cargoes to Alagomeji Terminals in Yaba and Ijoko Terminals in Ogun State from where trucks would evacuate them (rather than travel to Apapa).
The Lagos District Manager of Nigerian Railway Corporation, Jerry Oche, said, “A train is made up of 19 wagons and each of the wagons can take one 40-feet or two 20-feet containers. So, if we are doing 40-feet, that is 19 trucks off the road and if it is 20-feet, that is 38 trucks off the road per trip. We are starting with two trips per day and we hope to increase it in no distant time.”
All this will provide some relief from the congestion at Apapa. But only an integrated transport system for Lagos and Nigeria will provide a lasting solution. Without this, current plans will amount to displacing floodwater from one part of the city to another rather than creating a drainage system.