By Joel Olatunde Agoi
Even okadas, the motorcycle-taxis that buzz fearlessly around Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, struggle to negotiate the road to Apapa — the country’s busiest seaport.
Riders pick their way gingerly around giant potholes that resemble blast craters, and among the lines of stationary trucks perched at precarious angles on the rutted surface.
Getting to and from Apapa — the catch-all name for Lagos’ two seaports of Apapa and Tin Can Island — has increasingly become a nightmare for pretty much everyone.
Now, with the chronic traffic jams hurting business and no sign of any swift resolution to the problem, labour unrest is looming large on the horizon.
The Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) has given the federal government an ultimatum: fix the roads or face an indefinite walk-out.
MWUN leader Adewale Adeyanju said an open-ended strike by its members would paralyse port activities but they had no alternative.
“The road is now a safe haven for criminals, who use every opportunity to attack, assault and rob innocent Nigerians, including our members, who trek to and from work daily on the road, because it is no longer motorable,” he told AFP.
As well as security, he said shipping companies and businesses were increasingly using alternative berths such as those in Cotonou, in neighbouring Benin.
“While our neighbouring ports are booming, our ports have been deserted because of the failed access roads to the ports, the gateway to the nation’s economy,” said Adeyanju.
Union leaders are due to meet the labour minister in Abuja tomorrow.
But it’s possible that even then, oil tanker drivers like John Chinedu will still be waiting on the dilapidated highway. “We have been at this same spot for the last four days and we’ve not been able to enter the port,” he said.
Chinedu, though, is a recent arrival compared to Lekan Yinusa.
“It’s been two weeks since we arrived in Lagos to help an importer carry his container that has been lying in the port for several weeks,” he said.
“But we have not been able to because of the bad condition of the road. I go to the toilet, wash and even eat over there,” he added, pointing to the side of the road.
The dismal state of the roads is all the more astonishing for a port that handles more than 60% of Nigeria’s cargo and generates some 70% of customs revenue.
In 2017, duties totalled more than 1tn naira ($2.8bn) — up from just under 900bn naira the previous year.
Jonathan Nicol, a Lagos-based importer, said the condition of the roads has had a knock-on effect on business, and spiralling costs had forced some to shut down.
“We are forced to pay extra charges and demurrage (when a ship’s owner pays a penalty for not loading or discharging in time), which is not the fault of importers,” he added.
“Manufacturers cannot get their raw materials on time. The delay leads to extra port charges which will be passed on to the final consumers in terms of high prices.”
Shipping executive Lukman Busari said Apapa’s chronic traffic jams were not helped by the location of fuel depots around the ports.
“There are over 200 farm tanks with thousands of trucks waiting to load petroleum products at the ports, thereby creating gridlock on the roads,” he said.
“To decongest the roads, the railway should be developed while pipeline distribution of petroleum product should be considered.”
The managing director of the Nigeria Ports Authority, Hadiza Bala Usman, acknowledged the grievances, which come as Nigeria looks to boost growth after months of recession.
“There is no doubt that the deplorable state of the roads at Apapa is hurting businesses. We are not happy about the situation,” she said.
The NPA last year contributed 1.8bn naira for road repairs and was pushing the government to do further work, despite it not being in the authority’s remit.
“We are ready to do it because of its importance to our operations,” she said, appealing to port users to bear with the authorities while the facilities are improved.
“We have to adopt a multi-transportational approach to move cargo to and from the ports. Right now, over 90% of cargo is moved through the roads, which is not too ideal. There is need to develop the railway and inland waterways as well.”
By Joel Olatunde Agoi