Those who knew the posh and serenity of Apapa, an elite area of Lagos, about 20 years ago would really be shocked at the level it has degenerated into in the last two decades. Poor management of traffic into and around the port has turned the area into a suburb many dread to even tread. No thanks to the activities of Nigeria’s busiest seaport.
The development of seaports in Nigeria commenced in the mid 19th century. This later led to the opening up of the Lagos Lagoon, culminating in the opening of seaports at Apapa and Port-Harcourt. Then the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was established in 1955 by the Ports Act of 1954.
NPA, as a government agency under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Transport, has the responsibility of providing ports and harbour services for the country’s maritime industry via the provision and operation of cargo handling and quays facilities. Other responsibilities include pilotage and towage services, the supply of water and fuel to vessels at anchorage or mooring buoys, repairs and maintenance of vessels, dredging of waterways, etc.
For many years, the Nigerian economy lost billions from the near-permanent gridlock in and around Nigeria’s only functional Apapa seaport because of the beehive of activities of importers. The port has been massively overstretched as other ports have not been put to use for years.
Apapa’s traffic situation became compounded in the last two decades due to a lack of an efficient structure to manage the parking arrangement for cargo trucks going into and coming out of the ports.
Due to persistent complaints by residents and commuters around the Apapa port corridor concerning the traffic chaos, President Muhammadu Buhari, on April 25, 2019, inaugurated a task force chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN. Kayode Opeifa was the executive vice-chairman in charge of the day-to-day operations of the team. The operation of the task force could not yield the desired solution to the gridlock before the team handed over traffic management to the Lagos State government.
Opeifa said its achievements include the “development and deployment of a Manual Call Up system pending the introduction of an electronic system by the NPA.”
The Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Mrs. Hadiza Bala-Usman, and her team have now introduced the Electronic Call-up system which she said will eliminate human intervention from the process thereby eliminating extortion by enforcement and security officers.
Will this emerge as the trump card that will restore sanity to Apapa and its environs? Bala-Usman lamented that 40-50 percent of trucks causing congestion are actually trying to return empty containers, while shipping companies make billions of naira from importers forfeiting their deposits for returned containers due to congestion in and around the ports, a status quo that pleases many shipping companies.
The NPA boss said that one of the solutions being introduced is to create holding bays outside the ports for empty containers, so that the containers will no longer be returned to the ports, but instead to these holding bays, with shipping companies taking responsibility for picking them from there.
She said “having identified this truck park through a public process, we have listed eight truck parks that have been so certified by Lagos State Government and Nigerian Ports Authority as approved truck parks that all trucks that have the intention of doing business in the port will sit and they will be called upon from there using an electronic call-up.’’
She acknowledged the fact that there will be glitches and teething issues in the deployment of the electronic call-up system, stressing that this development will help complement the drive for a business-friendly and secure environment for port business in Nigeria.
Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu during his recent meeting with the leadership of the NPA agreed that within weeks, the movement of trucks in and out of the Lagos seaports will be organised through a transparent electronic call-up system that will be based on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Sanwo-Olu warned that with the new system any truck that flouts the electronic roster and parks along the Apapa corridor will be impounded by the Taskforce already set up by the Lagos State Government.
Sanwo-Olu expressed optimism on the transparent electronic call-up system, which he said would be complemented with virtual dashboards that will be placed in strategic locations around the seaports, where all stakeholders will monitor the scheduling of container movement.
According to him, in enforcing the new regulations, they are deploying 500 officers of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) to work collaboratively with NPA and deploying more than enough towing vehicles to impound erring trucks, adding that the huge amount to be paid as fine for flouting the call-up system will be a deterrent for drivers not to repeat it.
He noted that Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Vehicle Inspection Service (VIS), and NPA will also ascertain the roadworthiness of trucks before leaving their stations to the seaports to check truck accidents on the highways.
The NPA boss said part of the advantages of the new system was the creation of eight approved parks where all trucks must first be stationed before being electronically called into the seaports, adding that the deadline for operators to register in the electronic call-up system is February 27, 2021.
Ms. Bala Usman announced that the era of individuals depositing empty containers at the seaports was over, adding that empty containers must now be deposited with the shipping companies, which are expected to keep the containers in their holding bays at no cost to individuals who own the shipment.
Industry players and many analysts agree that the e-call up system is a welcome relief to stakeholders, importers, clearing agents, and truck owners who have for many years expressed concerns over worsening gridlock along the access roads at the Tin Can Island Port Complex (TCIPC), caused by the poor condition of the port access roads and extortion by security and traffic control officials.
The Organised Private Sector (OPS) has said the perennial gridlock in the Apapa area of Lagos State was making the federal government of Nigeria lose not less than N6 trillion annually across all sectors of the economy.
On average, 100,000 containers, carrying various cargoes are discharged in Lagos ports monthly. Truckers raised the cost to move a container from the Tin Can Island Port, Lagos, to any other part of the city by 50 percent, from N1.2 million to N1.8 million due to challenges of loading.
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.
Haulage cost from Tin Can Port to any other part of Lagos also increased by more than 1,000 percent from about N100, 000 to about N1.2 million.
As a result of the Apapa gridlock, the real estate sector suffered unquantifiable losses as many residents relocated from the Apapa axis to other places.
The National Vice President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Kayode Farinto, said clearing agents lose an average of N300 million weekly to the illegal collection by the security officials, adding that to enter the port, truck operators pay as much as N280, 000 to security operatives on the road.
It was also learnt that before now, due to the heavy involvement of human agents, the manual system was marred by cases of bribery, extortion, and favoritism on the part of the Task Force mandated to oversee the call-up procedure and this negatively affected port operation, considerably slowed down cargo delivery, caused a sudden rise in haulage and shipping costs, thereby fuelling inflation in the country.
The e-call up system should serve as a game-changer because it would solve the problem of the pre-allocation of trucks to designated parking spaces as freight trucks have to be linked to the tech-enabled system, and drivers would have been allotted a parking section before being granted access into the port.
What this implies is that trucks not connected to the e-call up system would be denied entry into the ports. This would reduce the number of trucks on ground per park, as well as open up more parking spaces to incoming trailers.
In addition, the e-call up system would help shorten the waiting time for cargo trucks to be cleared as the issue of overtime cargoes is said to have been a constant concern as it has encouraged cargo pilferage and excessive charges.
When trucks are quickly assigned parking lots, it reduces the turnaround time for shipments to be unloaded and cleared. Accordingly, freight traffic would be minimized, and corrupt practices like bribery will gradually go away.
By and large, if the NPA’s e-call up system will be fully executed without human interruption, then there will be no possible avenue for truck operators to compromise the process. There will equally be a significant opening up of road spaces for freer vehicle movement in Apapa metropolis and the ease of doing business at the Apapa port should dramatically improve.