Lagos: Reflecting on port-city relations

Tin Can Port

By Simeon Akin Omole

The correlation between ports and urbanization has been a focus of interdisciplinary studies for over five decades. Origins of many cities are in fact traceable to their ports, initially serving as trading posts, with the port as natural interface of land and maritime connections. Lagos, with a population of about twenty million, and host to West Africa’s leading seaports in Apapa and Tin can Island, aligns with the thesis that ‘ports and cities are historically linked’.

The evolution of Lagos as a port-city from a collection of islands, contained in present day local government areas of Lagos Island, Eti Osa, Amuwo Odofin and Apapa dates back to the 15th century when Portuguese explorers and traders arrived. It was however, not until “August 1913, with the attainment of a sixteen-foot draught over the bar for seven consecutive months, that the long-desired goal of port development at Lagos was achieved: ocean-going shipping could now enter the port for the first time in its history” (Olukoju 1992). Thereafter, with the German Woermann Line blazing the trail, other European shipping lines commenced direct sailings to Lagos in February 1914.

By early 20th century, the port in Lagos had become so pre eminent and important to the economy of Nigeria and the region that it had earned itself an appellation as ‘the Liverpool of West Africa’ (Trenton 2004). The establishment of the Nigerian Ports Authority by an Act in 1954, partly to address issues associated with the multiplicity of agencies running the affairs of the port, up until that time, ceded the overall coordinating authority for Lagos and other Nigerian ports to the NPA (Olukoju 1992).

The political economy of the evolution of Lagos as a Port city has been the life work of eminent scholars in the mode of Ogundana, Olukoju and Badejo, from whose pioneering works I have personally found inspiration. It is therefore not my intention here to re invent the wheel.

As Lagos, the host state of Nigeria’s and indeed West Africa’s busiest seaports, gears up to mark 50 years of its creation, my particular focus in this piece is to reflect on ports and shipping operations and how this affect the relationship with the host city (state) – Lagos. My interest in Port–City relations has been sparked, first as a stakeholder in the industry and second, having witnessed firsthand, transmutation of the Apapa port and Tin can island maritime corridor over the last twenty four years.

Undoubtedly, Apapa and Tin can island ports have immensely contributed to the prosperity of their host communities. Not only do ports play an important role in global supply chains by facilitating trade, they equally require local employment for effective operations. However, with improved technology resulting in more efficient cargo handling equipment now introduced to port operations, this benefit has become marginal in terms of its derivable advantage to the host city. The concessioning of the port to private terminal operators in 2006 further exacerbated the situation as significant number of port workers were disengaged by the new private operators, thereby quite substantially eroding the benefit of employment generation by the port.

While advances in cargo handling technology and private sector competencies in managing the concessioned terminals may have meant improved productivity for the ports, this in itself has resulted in externalities such as congestion due to port related road traffic. For example, the Tin can Island port handled a general cargo throughput of 7,372,042 metric tons in 2006 same year the ports were concessioned. In 2014 the cargo throughput handled by the port that year alone had risen to 17, 503,304. In terms of containerized cargo, during this period, 210,002 TEUS (Twenty foot equivalent units) were handled in Tincan port; this figure had climbed to 891,638 TEUS by 2014 alone (NPA).

Considering that there has not been any expansion done to the approach to the ports, in anticipation of increased cargo throughput experienced, the implication of this for port–city relation has been negative. The increase in the number of trucks coming to pick cargo from the port further exacerbated traffic congestion in the Apapa – Tin can maritime corridor. For many who have no business in Apapa, transiting through the corridor is an anathema. The road congestion can be such that you could spend hours in the traffic, vulnerable to attacks by hoodlums! On a particular occasion heading back home, after a hard day’s job, gun-totting hoodlums started to attack occupants in their cars. I actually had to abandon my car and run for dear life.

Because there is a correlation between ports and urbanization, it is no surprise that Lagos is one of the fastest growing port cities in the world. With an estimated population of about twenty million and the increase in trucks conveying freight to and from the ports, one can hardly argue against the strain that this has brought to bear on Lagos roads and infrastructures. In an attempt to address the problem of the strain put on Lagos roads, in the face of competing and ever increasing demand for limited funds, the Lagos state government passed into law in the state assembly the Wharf Landing Fee Law No. 5 of 2009. The justification of the fee by the Lagos State Government hinges on the premise that the revenue generated will be used to repair roads and damage done to infrastructure in the state as a result of the unintended negative consequences of ports operations.

As expedient as the imposition of the wharf landing fees may appear to the port host-city, it has had a damning impact on the relationship between the ports authority and the host state government. The Nigerian Ports Authority maintaining that Lagos acted unconstitutionally as such charges or fees termed ‘wharf landing’ falls under the exclusive legislative list which only the NPA is allowed to levy as stipulated in the 1999 constitution. The fact that the port authority and the host state are currently in court litigating the matter is testimony to the challenges of port – city relations in Lagos. The corollary to this is the ongoing legal tussle between Nigeria Waterways Authority (NIWA) and Lagos over who has jurisdiction over jetties and waterways in Lagos. The Light Rail Project that takes off from Mile 2 and terminates at Marina in the city is suffering a delay because the contractors are ‘having issues with NIWA over the waterways, where the project will pass through’. Consequently, rivalry between federal authorities and host port-city administration continue to undermine coordination and cooperation needed for the port – city to harness the benefits of its geo – economic status.

Our peculiar brand of federalism, the manner of its operation and practice in Nigeria tends to elevate rivalry over and above synergy among federal institutions and agencies in the host cities or states as it were. Federal officials are always quick, to defend their turf citing the constitution that matters pertaining to maritime remains under exclusive legislative list and therefore the exclusive forte of federal authorities. While this may be the position of the 1999 constitution, my view on this is that, as we evolve as an economic powerhouse on the continent, our laws must respond to the dynamics of urbanization and geo-economic necessities of ports and the port–cities.

In other Jurisdictions ports are actually controlled by the city or municipal governments. Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port is regulated by Port of Rotterdam Authority. PRA is owned 70 percent by the municipality and 30 percent by the Dutch government. The United States has about 183 commercial deep draft ports, yet no national ports authority. Rather, control of ports is a shared responsibility among the three levels of government. Be that as it may, I am not one to advocate for universal application of foreign models or template in addressing issues of development. We can draw from principles and practices that work elsewhere and apply same to our peculiar scenarios. For instance, the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government over navigable waters and harbors should remain sacrosanct, especially as pertains to security and foreign trade. Commercial operations of these entities should be left for the private sector and city or state governments to regulate.

Coming back to the case of Lagos as city – port, collaboration must exist between federal authorities and state agencies in addressing externalities arising from port activities in the city. While recognizing that a polarized political situation may sometimes make this difficult, especially when the governing political party in the state is different from the one at the federal level. Constant legal tussle between ports authorities and port cities will definitely not accrue the expected benefits from ports to the host communities. The ongoing legal battle between Lagos and NPA on the one hand, and NIWA on the other over wharf landing fees and maritime jurisdictions respectively can be resolved politically in the interest of all. There can be no better time to do this than now that the APC is in power, both at the state and the federal levels of government.


Simeon Akin Omole, is a consultant and former Assistant General Manager, Dangote Ports Operations. He holds a Masters degree in International Maritime Studies from Southampton, UK. He currently lives in Kennesaw, USA.

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