I read with nostalgia, an article reproduced in Daily Sun newspaper of Friday 21st February, 2014. The article reminds one of the terrible state of our seaports before port concession and I think we have not done enough to acknowledge and savour the great transformation that has taken place at the ports over the past eight years.
The article, titled Four feared dead as police, dockworkers clash at Lagos port, was originally published in Guardian newspaper on Saturday February 22, 2003 – precisely eleven years before Sun reproduced it under its archive section.
It read: It was yet another calamity in Lagos yesterday when a clash between protesting dock-workers and policemen at the Apapa Port allegedly left no fewer than four persons dead and many others injured.
What started as a rift between a dock-worker and a policeman on Thursday suddenly got the port and its environment enmeshed in a bloody clash.
The dock-workers were protesting an alleged drowning of their colleague Mr. Ismaila Asumo, by a policeman attached to the port, for refusing to offer bribe for a bag of sugar.
According to an eyewitness, trouble started on Thursday when the policeman demanded an undisclosed amount from Asumo who was carrying a bag of sugar out of the port premises. The dock-worker allegedly refused to pay the amount, which was said to be higher than the usual charge. In the end, he paid with his life.
The policeman got angered and decided to seize the sugar, leading to a fight between the two. Unfortunately, the policeman pushed the dock-worker into the lagoon where he got drowned and died.
Sources said scores of dock-workers who saw their colleague drown immediately converged for the purpose of retaliation. They attacked the policeman, tied him and also threw the officer into the lagoon. But he was fortunate as his fellow policeman jumped into the lagoon to rescue him.
This drew a battle line between the policemen and the dock-workers. Another protest was triggered by the dock-workers who were said to be armed with bottles and matchets and in the encounter another policeman shot a dock-worker to death in self defence on Thursday.
According to sources, the workers again mobilised themselves as early as 6 a.m. yesterday to embark on another protest. But on getting to the port, they met heavily armed and stern-looking anti-riot policemen already waiting to stem any further disturbances.
The presence of the policemen could not deter the irate dock-workers who allegedly began a fresh confrontation with the police in which two others were shot dead, bringing the total victim to four.
The dead workers were carried to the Western Ports Police Area Command Headquarters, Lagos Ports Complex, Apapa Wharf by protesters who were chanting solidarity songs.
A dock-worker said the policeman who drowned Asumo was fond of creating problems at the port even though he was not assigned to the area where the incident occurred.
His words: “The policeman is fond of coming here to make trouble, he is not even assigned to patrol this area. This is not the first time he would be coming around to cause trouble. It is rather unfortunate that he allowed his bad temper to overtake him.”
Reacting to the crisis, the President-General of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) Mr. Onikolese Irabor said the protest by the dock-workers was peaceful, alleging that it was the policeman who made it violent by opening fire at the protesters.
He disclosed, however, that the leadership of the union was making frantic efforts to calm the protesters and ensure that peace returned to the port.
Irabor said an audience had been sought with the police and the port’s management in a bid to resolve the issue.
When asked whether the dock-workers would return to their duty posts immediately, Irabor said they would resume “as soon as an amicable agreement is reached among the union, port’s management and the police”.
The Assistant Commissioner of Police in-charge of the port’s CID, Mr. Femi Adenaike described the situation as bad but assured that the police would do everything possible to contain it.
According to him, hoodlums almost took over the protest from the dockworkers by attempting to break into the First Bank Complex close to the port but for the prompt action by the policemen who dispersed them with canisters of tear gas.
Sporadic gun shooting rented the air as police tried to put the area under control.
The Western Ports Police Area Command Headquarters’ spokesman Mr. Friday Ogedengbe who spoke to reporters confirmed the incident, saying that the situation and that he could not be categorical about the number of casualties.
“I cannot confirm the actual number of death and those who were wounded as the situation right now is still hazy,” he said.
Also, the Lagos State Police Spokesman Mr. Emmanue Ighodalo told The Guardian that the area was being brought under control.
“Armed policemen have been deployed to maintain peace at the port, the Area Commander had assured us of that,” said Ighodalo.
Business activities in the entire port area and environs were brought to a halt as people were seen running helter skelter to avoid being injured or killed.
The article captured the state of our ports before the reform of 2006. Incidents like the one reported above occurred very regularly with its attendant consequence on the Nigerian economy.
Pilfering was the order of the day. The front of Lagos Port Complex, Apapa was a market square. Dockworkers, policemen and customs officers were the wholesalers who sold stolen goods very cheaply to middle-aged women who in turn sell the wares at below market price to ‘customers.’
Rice, fish, sugar, fertilizer, electronic items etc were freely stolen from the ship and taken to the front of the port to sell off. The security operatives at the port connived actively with dockworkers to steal from importers.
The story was the same at Tin Can Island Port and the then RORO Port. God help you if you leave your imported car at the terminal for a week. You will end up clearing only the carcass as the headlamps, gear box, steering and all other vital components would have been removed.
A car was once auctioned to me well over ten years ago. I took delivery of the car at the former RORO Port after paying about N85,000. It was an Omega Opel. What I took delivery of after paying the N85,000 was mere carcass. If I had bothered inspecting when I got the auction paper, I would not have borthered paying the reserved price at all.
Such was the state of our port. But of all these have become things of the past; confined to history.
One must therefore commend government for taking the bold step to reform the port and congratulate the concessionaires for bringing sanity into the system.