Chief Remi Ogungbemi, President of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) is a passionate advocate for the rights and well being of truck operators. When he visited the Head Office of SHIPS & PORTS DAILY recently, he discussed with an editorial team of the leading maritime newspaper on the gridlock currently experienced in Apapa, Lagos and possible solution to the problem which has cost the Nigerian economy over N1 billion in four weeks.
What is the traffic situation in Apapa, is it getting better?
Well, I must tell you that things are getting out of hand. We have been operating under abnormal situations. It has been terrible, traffic wise. Going to Apapa is like going to hell but the fact remains that the volume of goods that are coming into the port has increased tremendously, the vehicular traffic has increased and other business activities and even the population has also increased and the road infrastructure remains stagnant . The road we have been using for over 40 years is the road that we are still using now. There is no how we should expect the road infrastructure that has been in place for 40 years to still accommodate the volumes of all the increases. There must be expansion, the kind of expansion that will correspond with all those increase.
For example, about 45 years ago, I was a bachelor living in a bachelor room, now that I am married and if my religion permits to marry about three or four wives with children, there is no how I can expect that bachelor room to accommodate me and my children and wives. No, it is not possible. No amount of rules and regulation can bring about the expected sanity in that home. Rather we need more space, maybe to get three, four, five bedroom apartment so that everybody will have his own area to operate. Now, what we experience in Apapa is laws, rules and regulations; don’t stand up, don’t sit down, don’t do this, don’t do that.
Law is good but there is limit to what the law can do. If you don’t put the needed infrastructure in place thinking that the law will do it, it is not possible.
You see, most of these laws I must say are becoming another area entirely by which we have been losing our proceeds to some authority, directly or indirectly; which is not the best. They have all forgotten that the trucks that are going in are the movers of the economy. If the trucks that are moving within our nation Nigeria stops today, the economy stops. It is a shame that the hen that is laying the golden egg for Nigerians to share including Lagos State has been neglected.
You talked about the fact that containerized imports has increased, in fact it has practically doubled in the last five years and the roads have remained the same. How about the activities of tank farm operators which a lot of people have also talked about?
Well, I see the coming in of tank farms within the port environment as a mistake or as a malady. Ordinarily, they should have done workability on how come that tank farms can be setup within the same area where we have the port. So that is the greatest mistake and it is one of the major contributing factors to the traffic situation. Even the roads that port users were managing before, now that tank farms are in Apapa, even as am talking to you; they are still building more tank farms.
I thought government stopped them…
No, they have not stopped them. I am telling you now if you go to Kirikiri area, Ibafon area, you will see newly constructed tank farms and they did not put into consideration the trucks and the tankers that will be coming to lift fuel. As I am speaking to you now, there is no fuel in other parts of the country, only Lagos. So all the tankers are coming to Lagos to lift fuel and most of these tankers left their various parks to come to Lagos; likewise the trucks serving the ports. So there must be a place that will serve as a marshalling yard by which it will be easier for us to use a call up system to access trucks needed by each terminal within the port environment.
So all of these boil down to negligence of the federal government which festered over the years cumulating in what we have right now?
Exactly. That is just the true picture of the whole thing. Despite that, even on our own, we refuse to fold our hands, we refuse to reject ourselves. We are making efforts trying to get a place, talking with the state government on how we can get a place at Ewoleri that will serve as a truck terminal so that trucks can be parking there instead of parking on the road. We have committed some resources running into millions of naira but it is unfortunate late last year we just discovered that the state government has made a u-turn.
They erected a billboard that the place is now to serve as a low cost housing estate, and most of the place we were managing before we were dislodged from those places. I told them dislodgement is not the solution. Before you can dislodge, alternative places should have been provided.
So could it be that despite the importance of haulage and trucking and the rest of them, government is unwittingly treating the truckers with disdain?
That is the position we found ourselves and most of the truck owners I must say are not breaking even. Our two plus two is never four and in the whole world when you say two plus two, it’s four. But most of the two plus two of truck owners is zero. That is why you see most of the trucks in rickety condition because the money they are supposed to use is being taken away directly or indirectly. Go to the ports, you will see all government agencies. It is only the Nigerian Air Force and Nigerian Prisons that you don’t find at the port. Every other agency are there doing what? Exchanging handshakes with truck drivers, of which if you don’t part; you cannot go in. So the money they suppose to use to maintain all these trucks are being taken away under all these flimsy excuses. Even area boys sometimes pounce on drivers, they beat up drivers, they demand for money and the authorities are seeing all these.
During the course of this interview; one of your members called and I spoke with him. He said right now he was somewhere around Area B in Apapa and Naval officials were there collecting N2000 per truck before the trucks are allowed through. Is this how it is, and how it has been?
Well, it is a daily occurrence. This was what I meant; all the government agencies are there. It is only Nigerian Air Force and Prisons you don’t see on the road.
What if you ask all your members not to give anything, and let all the trucks remain there, what will happen?
Well, it is difficult because some are eager to go and believe that if you don’t give they won’t allow you to go and they intend to go. They make it a condition, they will frustrate you to give, they will intimidate you to give, they will fabricate lies on you, they can tow your truck or call LASTMA to tow your truck if you refuse to give and if you don’t give they break your mirror, your windscreen or cause some other damage of which nobody will listen to you when you say it is because you refuse to give. They will even say you are lying.
I heard that some of the truck drivers sleep on the road and apart from the extortion you talked about, what other negative impact is the situation having right now? How many days on average does it take a truck to eventually navigate through the heavy traffic in Apapa?
It is serious fatigue on the side of the drivers. Sometimes drivers sleep on the road, on the queue; two days, three days, depending on the terminal. If you are coming with a container and the terminal is not ready to receive the container, you cannot take the container back to your house, it is not possible; you have to remain there. So that is the reason sometimes when you see these drivers misbehaving, you will be wondering. Somebody that is on queue for two, three days, he doesn’t eat well, sleep well, and tell me, how do you expect such a person to behave well? And the worst of all, by the time you now get to the entrance of the port and somebody is telling you to turn back. Turn back to where? That is where the problem lays. So arrangement is on, on how to cushion all these hardship and to create an enabling environment but these we cannot achieve without the support of the stakeholders. We all contributed to this entire problem, so we should be part of the solution of the problem.
I know you have been a campaigner of a holding bay, a trailer pack for several years that I have known you. Why haven’t any of these materialized? For instance the most recent has been an agreement you have with Multitrade Group with Nigerian Shippers Council for Trade Fair Complex, what has happen to that? What is happening to all the others?
We don’t have the political will to do that. For example, land is vested on the state; no other person has power on the land. Like the one I mentioned earlier, we committed resources running into millions of naira, ask the state governor why he made a u–turn.
How about the Trade Fair Complex project?
The Trade Fair Complex project is still on course and the only hiccups is that the only road that leads to trade fair was built for only light vehicles especially cars. So by the time trucks start going there; there will be problem especially with the ASPAMDA and Balogun markets, there will be chaos. So if we did not create a separate exit and entrance, it will amount to solving a problem somewhere and creating the same problem elsewhere. So the investor is working on how to get a separate dual carriage road and the place he wants to put the exit and entrance falls under the approval of the State Security Service (SSS). So he is discussing with the SSS and he needs their permission before he goes ahead.
Secondly, the investor has also offered us 2000 brand new trucks on hire purchase but that has not come because he said if he gives us these trucks, the roads are bad and if the roads are bad within three months, these trucks can become rickety again. So he wants to make sure that the roads are in order and he gets exit and entry into the terminal and not only that, he wants to make sure that he commits the relevant authority into the project so that come 2015, whoever that will be there (in government) will not just come and rubbish the project. But the fact remains that the only solution is to have a place that will serve as a marshalling yard; where these trucks will be coming from.
How about the state of the road in Apapa? Governor Fashola has been to Apapa and we all know what is happening to the road from the Mile 2 end. I think that road has failed completely. Everybody is now going through Ijora, isn’t that a contributory factor to this gridlock?
Yes the his Excellency has visited the place and after the visit, the Federal Ministry of Works under the auspices of the director, southwest convened a meeting of all stakeholders, I was there; of which we had the Commissioner of Transport, Lagos State, LASTMA,FRSC, many stakeholders, even the tank farms operators were all in attendance. We inspected the bad axis of the road, Ijora , Tin Can and Mile 2 area and the agreement is that the construction company that will fix the road wants us to maintain a lane at Apapa or Tin Can to enable them to fix the bad potions of the road. But it will be a little bit difficult but there is nothing we can do.