Recently, Mallam Danlami Audu, 62, was so pleasantly surprised that he could not hide his feelings. An investment mogul with extensive networks in international haulage business, Audu was a bundle of joy when he visited Lagos on a business inspection trip last December. He said it was a great relief that the protracted Apapa gridlock, which has defied all solutions for more than a decade, has fairly disappeared.
Like other Lagos port users, the businessman confessed that he was shocked that container trucks and tankers that usually flooded the ever-busy Apapa Expressway and sometimes extended to Fadeyi area had disappeared, leaving a free flow of traffic for commuters. “From Coconut to TinCan Island port to Apapa port complex and Ijora-Apapa road were almost totally free,” Audu said.
For decades, evacuating cargoes from Nigeria’s busiest seaports in Apapa area of Lagos has become a clog in the wheel of the seaborne trade, which constitute enormously to the nation’s economy. After several tactics and deployment of technologies over the years, the gridlock had snowballed into a monster getting stronger with no end in sight. According to stakeholders, the situation graduated from natural to man-made, as some powerful cliques appear to be sabotaging efforts to bring the gridlock to an end. The heavy traffic congestion degenerated to all the link roads, making most of them inaccessible, as trucks and tankers spent for weeks and months on the queue before getting to the port. Successive governments tried and failed to tackle the situation, worsening by the day as a result of corruption and vested interests of highly-placed individuals.
However, the situation has greatly improved in the past months as there is free flow of traffic – thanks to technology and tenacious efforts by the state and federal authorities. This, according to Mr Sola Giwa, head of operations, Special Apapa Traffic Management and Enforcement Compliance Team, is achieved by the cooperation between his team and federal officials. His team, which took over from the defunct presidential taskforce, is mandated by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to ensure that Apapa residents and businesses are able to move in and out of the port city. The enforcement team comprises policemen, LASTMA officials, men from the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and NPA security department.
No more touting, racketeering on access roads
Stakeholders said touting, extortion and racketeering on Apapa and Tincan Island ports access roads have been eliminated by the introduction of the electronic call-up system. According to Sola Giwa, senior special assistant to Governor Babajide Sanwo Olu on Central Business District, the introduction of the electronic call-up system has helped a great deal in controlling truck traffic into Apapa ports. Giwa, who doubles as head of operations, Apapa Traffic Management and Enforcement Committee on the implementation of the call up system, however, pointed out that the people, who were formerly benefiting from the Apapa gridlock, are now fighting back.
While insisting that at least 90 per cent success in the management of traffic along Surulere-Western Avenue axis leading to the Lagos Port Complex in Apapa, Giwa attributed the success to collaboration the state government and federal officials, especially the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Trucks Transit Park (TTP).
“Apapa traffic has improved. The Lagos State, the NPA, and TTP, a private firm in charge of managing Eto call-up system, have been managing the traffic going into the port. Before we came, there used to be traffic from Onipanu up to the Apapa Port while on the Mile 2 axis, we used to have traffic as far as Cele and sometimes up to Oshodi to the Tin-Can Port. But that is no longer the case,” he explained.
Giwa, however, added that the electronic call-up is having issues on the Tin-Can axis due to the bad state of the road and ongoing construction as well as the failure of truckers to make use of the transit parks and shipping companies’ empty containers holding-bays. He added that there were initial inefficiencies in the implementation of the call up system and that was because there was no test-run, describing the system as work in progress.
Explaining further, he said that a manual call-up system was formerly used to control truck traffic into the port and it involved human interference leading to static traffic on the port roads, which no longer exists. He blamed some pockets of traffic experienced presently on some truckers who insist on coming to the port even when there is no space at the port terminals to attend to them and, as a result, they try to bribe their way into the port.
To have access to the ports, Giwa explained that truckers are expected to register on Eto app and go to the parks approved by the NPA before they can be called up to the port terminal, all also depending on the availability of space and road situation. He added that Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu gave the enforcement team, comprising the Police, LASTMA, FRSC, and NPA security department, the mandate to ensure that Apapa residents and businesses are able to move in and out of the port city. Lamenting that the capacity of Apapa and Tin-Can ports are already overstretched, Giwa hopes that things will enjoy a new lease when the commencement of Lekki Deep Seaport becomes a reality, and other ports in Nigeria and Lagos witness expansion of infrastructure provision, which will help to decongest Lagos ports.
“Lagos is expanding and the state government is providing infrastructure for businesses to thrive. When we see traffic, we see progress as well as development but the management of the traffic is what we do,” he assured.
Too many checkpoints hinder vehicular movement
Giwa, however, called for the unbundling of the TTP because the inefficiency being currently experienced in traffic management is due to the monopoly of TTP as well as the non-test running of the Eto app before usage. On several occasions, truckers have complained of brazen extortion from them by security agencies, mostly those of the federal government. This is contrary to expectations that the introduction of the electronic call up system would stop all forms of extortion and long hours in traffic.
At a point, it was reported that about 30 toll-points have sprung up in Apapa for the collection of illegal monies. Mohammed Bello-Koko, acting managing director of the NPA, was quoted as saying that such an act was a major disincentive to the smooth implementation of the call up system. Reports also alleged that the security operatives, who were apparently sabotaging the call up system, extort millions of naira from truck drivers on daily basis.
Giwa, who expressed satisfaction with the current traffic situation in the axis, admitted that the success recorded so far is built on the efforts of the presidential taskforce, especially with e-call-up system introduced. With over 3,000 trucks and tankers plying the Lagos ports daily, he described Apapa port as Nigeria’s busiest port.
One factor that has not helped matters is the heavy presence of many police checkpoints, which slow vehicular movement. Giwa called on the State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, to reduce the number of checkpoints on the roads leading to the ports and reduce the travel time for truckers. Reduction of checkpoints would also address the claim of extortion by the police, he said. He also called on the Federal Government to hasten the ongoing road construction along Tin-Can Island and fix the bad portions of the road along Ijora to Apapa in order to ensure free vehicular traffic in the area.
Giwa added that his team has stopped tankers from parking indiscriminately along the major roads and bridges in the state, insisting that stakeholders will experience better improved traffic flow when the police reduce the number of checkpoints along the Apapa axis – though the police deserve commendations for checking fake papers and documents to complement the electronic call-up system in order to stop people from cutting corners.
Tackling other challenges
Other problems identified are extortion by “area boys” (National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and the Road Transport Employers Association (RTEAN) also hinder the progress of the free flow of vehicles in Apapa. Other issues include bad portions of the roads, the heavy presence of tank farms and a lack of compliance by some truckers.
He, however, said that the over-sensitisation of Apapa traffic crisis is also fueling the corruption, adding that most drivers lie to the truck owners about the traffic situation in order to swindle them. Giwa stated that the checkpoints impede the free flow of vehicles and may also provide a venue for extortion, which the team was working to eliminate. “I am calling on the Commissioner of Police in Lagos, AIG Hakeem Odumosu, to reduce the number of checkpoints between Apapa and Ijora and also from Mile 2 to Tin Can. They said the checkpoints were to check criminal activities, but the people didn’t want them. Even though what the police at the checkpoints collect is just like N2000. At every point that you get to, the police will stop them and collect something. The stoppage slows down traffic movement and also gives room for corruption. If the motorist pays N2000, they will tell a lie that they paid more than that and pass it on to the consumers,” he said.
NPA boss lauds electronic call-up system
In a recent interview coming barely five months after assuming office, Acting Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Mohammed Bello-Koko, also disclosed that the incremental deployment of the electronic call-up infrastructure for cargo trucks, launched in February last year, has to a large extent resolved the endemic Apapa vehicular gridlock. He explained that while NPA is not unmindful of the pains of Apapa residents, what remains is to address the gridlock caused by the failed portion along the Mile 2 – Tin-Can Port road, insisting that as soon as the entire stretch of the Tin-Can Port highway is completed, the perennial gridlock within Apapa would be completely eliminated.
Debunking insinuations that the ‘Eto’ system has been compromised, Bello-Koko said, “The ‘Eto’ truck booking system was launched in February, and when I assumed office my first act was to carry out a comprehensive review of the system and we directed the system manager to immediately address all areas of deficiencies. These infrastructure upgrades coupled with the support of the Lagos State Government and other stakeholders, the vehicular gridlock along the Ijora – Apapa axis had reduced by over 80 percent and I am sure residents of Apapa can attest to this.”
While enthusing that NPA has fully embraced multimodal transportation by encouraging better use of barges and port-rail for the movement of laden and empty containers in and out of the ports, a development that has brought significant reduction in the cost of doing business at the ports, he added that a fully automated transit truck park was established while 29 satellite parks were approved to ensure that trucks coming to do business in the port are properly profiled and verified before accessing the port. Out of the 29 parks, about eight have met the required standards, which include installation of bollards, CCTVs, automated gate systems and relevant IT equipment.
Bello-Koko noted that apart from few isolated cases, where some truck drivers try to subvert the system by not adhering strictly to the truck manifest arrangement with its attendant disruption, the e-call up has been able to streamline cargo evacuation and truck movements, thereby bringing a level of sanity to the roads. He equally attributed the elimination of the Apapa gridlock to the new policy introduced by NPA, which compelled shipping lines to ship out no less than 80 per cent of the number of containers shipped in for every voyage, be it empty containers or export cargo.
“Over time, we discovered that most shipping lines were storing their empty containers in Nigeria, which was cheaper for them, but we have introduced a policy whereby shipping companies should to take back 80 percent of the laden containers they brought into the country from the stock of empties and export cargo, this has also reduced the number of trucks with empty containers waiting on the roads.
“What this meant in a lay man’s language is that if a vessel brings 100 containers for instance, such vessel must take back 80 containers, which must be among the empties and export containers, without which she would not be allowed to sail out of the ports.”
The NPA boss declared that more than 80,000 trucks have so far registered on the ‘Eto’ platform. However, only 16,000 trucks have met the minimum safety standards, which he said is an indication that more work is needed to enthrone safety and prevent accidents within the port area. There will be continuous improvement of ETO system, including the deployment of additional physical and IT infrastructure as well as grant approval for more transit parks to cushion the excruciating pains of truckers he noted.
Shedding more light on the provision of the barge services to ease movement of cargo out of the seaports, the NPA Managing Director said barge operators are now being guided by the revised standard operating procedures (SOP) in order to ensure efficient and safe barge operations. He stressed that owners of barges must comply with the new safety guidelines if they wish to do business at the port.
“When we approved the use of the barges, we soon discovered that many of them (operators) did not have radio communication equipment onboard and we directed them to install the equipment. We also insist that these barges must be sea worthy before they are allowed to sail so as to forestall a situation where they breakdown at the middle of the channel, which would cause massive disruptions to shipping.
“We are also developing an electronic call-up system for the barges, just like what we have for the trucks on the roads so as to ensure that we streamline their operations. There is a department in the NPA charged with the responsibility. In the last few weeks, we have also received proposals for the deployment of very large self-propelled barges, we are being careful, but we are studying all that, the PPP Unit of NPA is working on that,” Bello-Koko said.