Possibly the only mark of distinction Apapa Port at present has is that its name can be read from left to right or from right to left. Nothing much else makes it stand out – positively, that is. The negative aspects are quite overwhelming. As a port, it is dysfunctional because, today, it is quite simply in the wrong place: It is captured by the city on its landside and, therefore, has no functioning, adequate evacuation route. The dual carriageway as is, to the extent that it is passable – given its wretched state (the black-top in places has so many pot holes as to resemble a honeycomb) – leads traffic northwards in order to then plough all the container-bearing lorries and petrol tankers into the daily East-West traffic.
To make things worse, this is the case not because of a lack of attention, but despite there having been a Presidential Task Team now in place for over a year dedicated to solving the problems. This is despite all sorts of pre-election promises, flurries of proclamations and official site visits. This is despite having the Minister of Works (a Lagosian, and former governor of the state), the Minister of Transport, and the Vice President involved, not to mention the Dangote Group. So, what is going wrong or why can’t things be put right?
The cost of the Apapa gridlock
Let us start by addressing the cost of the constant gridlock, so that we all appreciate the issues and the sheer scale of the problem becomes apparent. Most recently, the National President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents complained that the cost of doing business at the Lagos ports has increased by 500 percent as a result of the intractable Apapa gridlock.[i] That is disastrous in an economic situation as dire as that in which Nigeria currently finds itself post-oil-price-crunch and COVID-crash. In case the cost is considered improbably high, MoverDB, the online platform that compares the costs of international shipping and forwarding, computes in its analysis of overseas cargo and freight expenses that the cost of shipping both 20-foot and 40-foot containers to Lagos ports from New York is the most expensive in the world![ii] As the table below shows, shipping from Cape Town to the New York costs half the price.
Indeed, it is four times more expensive to ship goods from the European Union to Nigeria, compared to other African countries like Ghana and South Africa.[iii] If that were not bad enough, Dynamar B.V., the Dutch marine information experts, in its recent in-depth study of ports in West Africa, believes that the economic consequences of the congestion now exceed US$55 million daily, and the situation has increased the cost of inland connections (2020).[iv] If we take the official exchange rate of N384 to the US Dollar, and an average year as 360 days, the economic impact is
N 7.603 trillion. By way of comparison: The adjusted Federal Government Budget as passed by the Senate for 2020 is N 10.805 trillion. In other words, the economic impact is thus on a par with more or less 70 percent of the budget. Or in relation to another benchmark: According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) 2019 GDP ran at N 19.53 trillion – the economic impact of the Apapa gridlock is the equivalent of 36% of Nigeria’s GDP before it fell prey to the double whammy of oil price drop and COVID-19, and is over three times the size of the N 2.3 trillion stimulus package the Federal government has stated it will inject into the economy.
There is only one possible conclusion in light of these numbers: The Apapa gridlock is indeed an economic disaster.
The chronology of disastrous disaster relief
Yet the problem is not new, and its well known. Back in 2018 alarm bells were ringing: On 19 July, State Commissioner of Police, Mr Imohimi Edgal said that the Lagos State Police Command and other relevant agencies are to begin ‘Operation Restore Sanity’ on Friday to free Apapa of gridlock, telling newsmen the Apapa gridlock was a “national disaster’’. The problem which gave rise to the sorry state of roads linking the ports is not limited to mere blocking of roads or activities of tank-farms with no holding bays for trucks.[v]
The news reached Abuja and on 2 August 2018, Minister of Transport Amaechi, who is lord over the ports, stepped in to the fray. He visited then Governor Ambode – and revealed that work on the Apapa corridor of the Lagos-Ibadan Rail project would commence the following week. A typical case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. He proudly declared “What we are trying to do there is to get a good road to evacuate cargos, but it would be faster with the rail. So, while we are working hard to ensure that the rail is delivered by this year ending, the Federal Government has also awarded the contract to deal with the road from Apapa and Tin Can to enable us to evacuate cargos freely which is an addition to the rail.” The rail project was awarded to China’s CCECC and was not delivered by year-end 2018.[vi]
Eight months lapsed until, just prior to inauguration day, namely on 24 May 2019 Vice President Osinbajo gave the Presidential Task Force two more weeks to clear the traffic. “The task force which commenced its assignment on May 24 had up to June 7 to complete the assignment but is now expected to present a formal report at the end of its extended mandate on June 24.”[vii] No doubt not wanting to be outdone by Abuja and in an effort to outshine his predecessor, on 4 June 2019
Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu weighed in, vowing to end the Apapa gridlock within 60 days of his administration. This “coincided with a presidential order to truck and tanker drivers who parked their vehicles on all access roads and bridges to the Apapa ports and environs to vacate within 72 hours.”[viii]
On 16 August, 2019, over six months after his Minister had promised the port rail link would be in place, the Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), disclosed the December deadline in response to stakeholders’ calls for proper integration of rails to ports nationwide.[ix] And another 10 months passed before, on 12 June 2020, Lagos District Manager of NRC, 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.”[x] One might be forgiven saying that such a rail service is firstly a drop in the ocean and secondly hardly likely to be cost-effective.
Another two months lapsed before, on 30 August 2020 the press reported that “ongoing reconstruction work on Creek Road and Liverpool Road in Apapa, Lagos, may have compelled the Presidential Task Force on Apapa gridlock to force the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing to temporarily open the Tin Can Island truck transit park to ease the perennial gridlock along the port access road. It was gathered that the presidential task force managing the Apapa gridlock has directed that the transit park be opened to take trucks off the roads, though the park is yet to be completed and officially handed over to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). The truck park has been under construction for more than ten years. The project has, however, suffered delay despite repeated assurances by the Federal Ministry of Power, Works, and Housing that it would be completed in April 2019.’’[xi]
The price of the lack of a solution
What is at stake? Lagos’s ports handle about 80 percent of all shipping traffic. And the problem is not just outside their gates, but inside them. The difficulties include:
- Failure by shipping firms to provide holding bays for empty containers. This is responsible for ports’ congestion, operators have said.[xii]
- Existing terminals are not used at full capacity[xiii] Apapa runs at 82 percent, Tin Can Island at 44 percent.
- Low port capacity utilisation: Only 38 and 40 percent of installed stevedoring and other port-related capacities are deployed regularly at dockyards and approximately 40 percent of businesses located around the port communities have either relocated to other areas, or have scaled down [xiv][xv]
- The maritime sector’s contribution to GDP in Nigeria is a minimal 0.05 percent.[xvi]
- The maritime ports sector currently employs about 35,000 Nigerians. This is low when compared to South Africa where maritime and allied sectors currently provide about 700,000 direct and indirect jobs.[xvii]
- And last but not least, the Nigerian economy is currently losing about N600bn in customs revenue, an estimated US$10bn in non-oil exports and about N 2.5 trillion in corporate revenue in the ports industry on an annual basis according to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and other members of the Organised Private Sector (OPS) in 2018.[xviii]
Solutions in sight?
Does it surprise anyone that Apapa Port, Lagos State, has lost its status as West Africa’s leading and busiest container port to Lome Port in neighbouring Republic of Togo? Data from Dynamar reveals that Lome Port upstaged the Lagos facility largely as a result of wide-ranging implemented reforms, as well as container traffic. Consequently, the port’s earnings have grown more than threefold since 2013.[xix].
Given such a massive hit to the economy, surely one of the first things that a clear-thinking Federal government would be doing is solving the Apapa gridlock as quickly as possible and not letting first weeks, then months, then years slip by. Such delays are tantamount to gross negligence. Today, admittedly, Apapa Port is (like Lagos Airport) simply in the wrong place – unless you reactivate the rail network big time that is. The geography is always going to be a challenge if you try and funnel the containers out by road. A few years ago, one proposal was to route road haulage toward Badagry and then up a new outer ring road heading for Ijegun and then Ota. The proposal was not taken up because of the cost. In light of what the economy is losing each day, that cost appears insignificant. Admittedly, even such a silver bullet might not have worked, because given the speed at which Lagos is growing and the sloth’s pace at which right-of-way issues get resolved, by the time such a proposal would have been realized, with all the pile-driving required across the in part marshy terrain, what was conceived as an ‘outer’ ring might well have become ‘a second inner ring’ running parallel to the Apapa-Oworonshoki Expressway – and, therefore, potentially not an expressway at all.
Be that as it may, despite the government being cash-strapped, the erstwhile cherished government cash cow, the National Ports Authority (based at Marina opposite Apapa and thus in full view of the problem), is forgoing revenue by the day. The underlying reason for this financial turpitude seems to be a mixture of two factors. Firstly, the two ministries involved are acting to type and therefore as silos: The Ministry of Transport is focusing on trophy rail projects and not on port efficiency, cargo evacuation, etc. And the Ministry of Works is busy with Federal roads elsewhere. Secondly, and perhaps even more worryingly, there seems to be a complete absence of any integrated forward planning. (One consequence is that another quango, the Presidential Task Force, has long since mutated into a permanent institution like the erstwhile task force on power.)
The same combination of factors already threatens to ensure that the new deep-sea port in Lekki, once operational, will face similar issues. Surely the Chinese PPP partners, who may be hoping to take over ownership should there be any default on repayments, are aware of the difficulties and assume this will also be a reason for default and for them to claim ownership. Remember, that the Chinese Habour Engineering Company, who is the main player in the Lekki Deep Sea Port and has already nominated the CEO for the project company, has previously claimed a piece of the sovereign territory of Sir Lanka as its own in the form of the seaport it built there – after the Sri Lankans had to default on payment. The Lekki-Epe Expressway is in part almost impassable and given that it is not even dualized just down the road from the Free Trade Zone the potential for congestion is already firmly in place.
The net result of such institutional torpidity is that when the country can least afford to lose money and is searching frantically for internally generated revenue, it is seemingly quite oblivious to the single greatest source of such: Apapa. And consequently, tous ca change mais tous c’est la meme chose: Members of the task force come and go. While the hapless residents of Lagos State suffer from the permanent traffic congestion and gag on diesel fumes of the trucks, the Nigerian economy gags on the astronomical losses And even when you think you have escaped the traffic snarl, a peek in your rear-view mirror of the chaos still reads Apapa correctly. It is surreal.
[xix] https://guardian.ng/sunday-magazine/inefficiency-high-charges-infrastructure-dearth-de-marketing-nigerian-ports/ ; needless to say, the border closure impacted on that growth.
Image by Anja from Pixabay