NPA and the fallacy of port congestion

NPA and the fallacy of port congestion

Nigerian ports, contrary to widely held notion, are not congested. The ports in Lagos are certainly not congested. What we have at hand in Apapa, Lagos is severe road congestion. Since 2006, there hasn’t been port congestion in Nigeria except on some occasions when workers, trade groups and truckers embarked on industrial action for a couple of days to register certain grievances. Typically, the cargo backlog created in such instances was cleared within a few days of attaining truce. The year 2014 remains the busiest in the history of our ports. It was the year record cargo volumes were handled – more than two million TEU of containers and well over 80 million metric tons of break bulk. Even with this record volume, the ports were not congested. As a result of the poor state of the economy, volumes declined progressively from 2015 to 2017, but there was some measure of recovery in 2018. Even at that, the 2018 volumes were below the what the ports handled in 2014. If the ports were not congested in 2014, how could they have been congested with lower cargo volumes in 2018 under the same operators and a higher level of cargo handling efficiency? But how did we get to this sorry state of road congestion?

The Lagos Port Complex Apapa, popularly called Apapa Port or Apapa Quays, was established by the colonialists 105 years ago. At the time the port was built, the administrations fulfilled the elementary requirements for setting up a successful port. In addition to having the financial resources, a sound business case for its creation and adequate water depth to accommodate vessels, the colonialists acquired sufficient land and sea-space for the initial development and future expansion of the Apapa Port. They knew it was not in the port’s best interest to compete for space in the future with the owners of commercial and residential entities. They also ensured, 105 years ago, that Apapa Quays had access to efficient transport modes of sufficient capacity. They connected the port to rail, road and inland waterways. This is what people call multimodalism. The idea, rightly so, was to ensure that cargoes could arrive or leave the port as fast as possible, without unnecessarily being held up on congested roads. They did all these at the time when there were no containers (containerization did not fully develop until the 1950s) and when population was 8.5 million for Northern Nigeria and 7.5 million for Southern Nigeria, according to archival documents. While I could not ascertain the number of passengers handled at the Apapa Quays at the time it was established, ships were the major means of international travel. It was through the Apapa Port that the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe managed to stow away on a boat to get to Europe, but ended up in Ghana after the crew fished him out. Data for this period has been hard to come by, but from various documents, one is able to guess that general cargo throughput at the port within its first ten years of operation was between two and three million metric tons per annum. Yet there was ample space all around the port where trucks coming into the port could park pending the conclusion of their engagements. Also passengers and cargo did not leave the port only by road. The port was functionally connected to rail. The rail played an active role in moving export produce and passengers to the ports and in taking imported cargo to the hinterland. The waterways were also positioned for the same role although they weren’t much used at the time.

The problems facing our port started not long after the British administrators left. First, the Nigerian elites killed the rail. Some people, who have become stinking rich and who now flaunt road construction as CSR are actually among those that killed the railway for selfish reasons. By 1975 when the cement armada set in, the evacuation of cargo from the Apapa port by rail had packed up.As if that was not enough, these same rich people and their partners in crime in top government positions started taking up the spaces around the port for various purposes other than port operation. NPA blindly leased out its land for as long as 25 years for peanuts. The beneficiaries of these unholy land leases built estates, offices, factories and all manners of non-port ventures around the Apapa Quays. By the 1990s, the same government officials and their cronies also conspired to kill the refineries to allow for unbridled importation of petroleum products into the country. NPA then leased out more of its land for the construction of tank farms around the port. Soon oil depots, tank farms and factories became the vogue. In no time, NPA had given out almost all its valuable land assets, including temporary truck holding areas, in Apapa.

At the time the cement armada set in, the administration of General Yakubu Gowon quickly started to build the Tin Can Island Port. The cement armada, like the present Apapa gridlock, was an avoidable man-made problem caused by poor planning and lack of foresight by successive Nigerian governments. Government officials had blindly ordered 20 million tons of cement to be delivered in the country within 12 months. According to an archival report I read in the New York Times of June 28, 1976, at a rate of 1.6 million tons a month, the shipments were more than twice the unloading capacity of all of Nigeria’s ports combined. As there were no berthing slots, ships bearing cement queued on our waters for months, effectively paralyzing the ports for close to two years. The massive orders led to an armada of ships anchored off the Lagos coastline. Millions of tons of cement were ruined in the hulls of waiting vessels caught in the melee. By September 1975, the New York Times report indicated that more than 420 cement freighters, “stretching as far as the eye could see”, became stranded on Nigerian waters. The country racked up USD54,000 per day per ship in demurrage. Many saw it as an avenue to amass illicit wealth. You can do the maths of the money frittered away by the regime as some of the ships waited for eight months to a year before they could discharge their cargo. Nigeria became enmeshed in a devious web of kickbacks and bribes involving government officials, foreign shipowners, corrupt purchasing agents, unscrupulous middlemen, phony corporations, dubious letters of credit and Swiss bank accounts.

Gowon’s answer to the cement mess was to build a new port, hence the Tin Can Island Port. It was the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo that completed and commissioned the port in 1977. The irony of the Tin Can Island Port, however, is that the government did not deem it fit to connect it to rail. Contrast this against the Apapa Port built by the colonial administration 64 years earlier.

Now to the road matter; the major road that connects the Tin Can Island Port is the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, while the major entry/exit to the Apapa Port is the Ijora-Wharf Road. Most of the petroleum product tankers visiting the tank farms and oil depots as well as the trucks belonging to factories located around the port traditionally used the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway because it was wider and more convenient. However, since 2007, that road began to fail gradually. All six lanes collapsed one after the other without government batting an eyelid. As a result, all the trucks heading to both Apapa and Tin Can Ports, the ones owned by manufacturing concerns as well as the ones evacuating petroleum products resorted to using the narrow Ijora-Wharf Road. That became the recipe for the disaster we’re all in right now. Even the Ijora-Wharf Road is not that smooth, there are portions where not more than one truck can pass through at a time.

So no truck park, no railway, no road; what should we expect? Chaos! And that is exactly what we have on our hands.

All the talk about suspending shipping companies, scrapping demurrage payment and increasing rent-free period to 21 days is balderdash. It won’t solve any problem. These are nothing but the usual panicky measures and fire brigade approach. Government should retrace its steps and do the needful. NPA must, as a matter of necessity, reclaim some leased land especially those being used for non-port operation to allow for truck holding areas in Apapa. I believe strongly that the entire stretch of Creek Road, starting from the front of Apapa Port gate all through to Tin Can Island Port Second Gate should be reclaimed by government. That space is urgently needed to free up the roads. Also, the rail link must happen as soon as possible. All the manufacturing concerns and tank farms should be compelled to evacuate their goods through the rail and waterways from this year.