The President, Mohamadu Buhari, on Wednesday last week issued an ultimatum to truck owners to vacate the Apapa port access roads and bridges within 72 hours. He also directed the Presidential Taskforce constituted to enforce compliance of this order to ensure the restoration of sanity to Apapa roads and its environs within two weeks.
The presidential directive, which was conveyed via a statement by the spokesman of the vice president, Laolu Akande, said emphatically: “The directive mandates the immediate removal of all trucks from the bridges and roads within Apapa and all adjoining streets leading into the Apapa axis. To facilitate this important assignment, operators of trucks and tankers have also been directed to vacate the Port Access Roads within the next 72 hours.”
According to the order, the vacation of the trucks will help in clearing the Apapa gridlock and restoring law and order to Apapa and its environs. The presidential order is sequel to the meeting convened by President Buhari and chaired by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo on April 25, 2019.
“The meeting proffered lasting solutions to the gridlock around the Lagos Ports, as the traffic congestion has continued to restrict all operations and livelihood in the area,” the statement noted.
It is gratifying that the President has finally come out to throw his weight on the battle against the perennial Apapa gridlock. Even though, the directive appears a quite late in coming, it is still welcome. As a matter of fact, maritime stakeholders had long expected this presidential action on the Apapa roads debacle. One recalls that one of the reasons the stakeholders jubilated over the victory of President Buhari in 2015 was because they saw him as the only one that could confront the giants behind the Apapa gridlock. Unfortunately, there has been no presidential action until this moment, just a few days to the end of the President’s first tenure. However, as the saying goes, it is better late than never.
However, stakeholders and those conversant with the Apapa road problem are afraid if the presidential directive, as forceful as it looks, can bring about the desired lasting solution. According to the presidential statement, the meeting chaired by the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, “proffered lasting solution to the gridlock”. But the question is how lasting are the proffered solutions?
Looking at the directive, one can see that the “proffered solutions” are contained in the statement to the effect that the taskforce will look into “the development of an efficient and effective management plan for the entire port area traffic, including the cargo, fuel distribution and business district traffic; enforcing the permanent removal of all stationary trucks on the highway, and the development of an effective manual truck call-up system, pending the introduction of the electronic truck call-up system and the implementation of a workable Empty Container Return and Export Container Truck Handling Policy, amongst others.”
To be candid, these proffered solutions look good on paper. But they remain mere statements of intents, which will take some time to accomplish. Besides, the bouquet of solutions does not include some of the most fundamental and critical factors responsible for the Apapa gridlock such as bad roads, operations of tank farms, absence of truck parks, corruption and unbridled extortion by military personnel and other security agencies deployed to control traffic on the road. These are the critical issues that must be addressed if a lasting solution is to found.
Talking about “an efficient management plan for the entire port area traffic, including the cargo and fuel distribution,” it must be noted that any management plan that does not address the issue of numerous tank farms in Apapa, including the appropriateness of their presence there, or provide alternative mode of evacuating petroleum products from the tank farms will be far from the lasting solution. Since pipelines might be a far cry, government can compel the tank farm operators to evacuate their products out of Apapa by barges or rails. There are barges that can transport petroleum products to another point where it can be loaded in tankers and taken to the final destination.
For cargo evacuation, the president’s terms of reference ignored the linking of the ports with rails. One expects that the taskforce should be given the mandate to ensure the prompt execution of the rail project to Apapa ports, that is, linking the ports and procuring the appropriate coaches. In addition, the issue of absence of truck parks should be given serious attention. There should be enough truck parks to accommodate the thousands of trucks that do business in Apapa. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) recently commissioned one truck park at Lilypond, Ijora with a promise to commission soon the Tincan Island Port Second Gate trailer park that has been under construction for nearly a decade. These two parks even when fully operational cannot make much difference. More truck parks are, therefore, needed outside Apapa. Effective management of truck parks and call-up system for trucks will go a long way in decongesting the roads and bridges.
Another factor that has been fueling the Apapa port access roads gridlock is corruption and extortion by security agencies deployed to control the traffic. The police, the Navy and other military personnel deployed to the road convert their assignment to a lucrative business where they must make money daily. They extort, and lend themselves to bribery by truck drivers who want to be allowed to park indiscriminately on the roads, streets and bridges to the detriment of vehicular movement. Sometimes, they allow truck drivers to drive against traffic after money has exchanged hands. Corruption is, therefore, an issue that any concerted effort at finding a lasting solution to the Apapa traffic problem must address. And it cannot be addressed by mere executive directive. Even though all naval and military personnel controlling traffic have been sacked from the road, the presidential directive and ultimatum still have to be enforced by law-enforcement agents. LATSMA officials that have been detailed to take over traffic control in the area are not immune to corruption.
Moreover, the ports and its access roads have been a cesspit of corruption, and have a way of drawing law-enforcement agents into the mess. Making traffic control officials deployed to Apapa roads to face their assignment will help in no small measure to sanitize Apapa roads. This could be achieved through creating additional incentives to the officials sent there as well as a good reward system for creditable performance and exceptional demonstration of integrity. That done, zero tolerance to corruption and unbecoming practices, should then be strictly enforced by adequate monitoring and supervision.
Another monster responsible for Apapa roads traffic congestion the task force must confront is the owners of the trucks themselves, not just the truck drivers. It is a known fact that some truck drivers resist government directives to vacate the roads and bridges, as well as defy law enforcement officers simply because the owners of the trucks they are driving are powerful or influential Nigerians. This is confirmed by a senior FRSC official who lamented the helplessness of some law enforcement officers to carry out their mandates on the Apapa roads. He said trucks and tankers usually parked on the roads are linked to powerful Nigerians, and that his men were handicapped to enforce traffic regulations that could lead to arrest and prosecution of the drivers of those heavy duty vehicles.
“My officers often try to enforce arrest and subsequent prosecution, but the culprits mostly go free after one influential person calls from Abuja, demanding for the release of the impounded vehicles. This is a daily occurrence that has been impeding the operations of the FRSC in tackling the wharf access road crisis,” he regretted.
Thus it is clear that some security agencies, aware of the owners of the trucks and the petrol tankers, find themselves helpless in their genuine efforts to help the situation. Some consequently compromise. The task force should, therefore, be ready to confront the principalities and powers including retired generals, serving military officers, influential business moguls, emirs and traditional rulers, behind these heavy duty vehicles. They render law enforcement agents deployed to maintain sanity on Apapa ports access roads impotent, making some good ones to resort to collecting money from the drivers since they cannot change anything.
As a matter fact, the sacking of the Navy and other military personnel from the road, and the dismantling of checkpoints are commendable. But the action should be seen as the beginning of the offensive against corruption on the embattled Apapa roads. However, the action shows that government has been well aware of what has been going on; how the so-called taskforces had become the problem instead of part of the solution. On a critical examination, the action appears to be a response to accusations of sabotage of the just introduced NPA’s truck park and call-up by these military personnel.
One should not forget that this is not the first presidential directive on the notorious Apapa gridlock. There have been such directives and ultimatums in the past from both the Federal and the Lagos State governments. Some achieved nothing at all. Some appeared to have effect for a few days, only for the trucks to return with renewed vengeance. Indeed, force or executive fiats have never worked on the Apapa gridlock, and this may not be an exception if the fundamental problems are not tackled.