News

Bala-Usman: Fixing The Apapa Gridlock With “Eto”

By Reuben Ababti

The roads leading to the two Nigerian ports in Lagos have been for many years an abiding source of heartache and nightmare. Businesses have had to relocate from that part of the city for that very reason. Residents tell horrible stories of traffic gridlock, mental health stress and the destruction of a neighbourhood that used to be a highly regarded commercial hub, while also serving as home or investment space for some notable and principal members of the Lagos elite: the Awolowos, the Fanikayodes, the Fagbayis, the Odutolas, the Clarks, the Ibrus, the Abraham Adesanyas, the Folawiyos, the Adedoyins…

In the 1950-80s, Apapa was a highbrow estate in Lagos. It would later become more popular for the ports of Lagos: the Tin Can and the Apapa Port, in addition to shipping and construction companies and other businesses. There also used to be a functional rail line linking Apapa to the rest of the city. But Apapa which is a local government area unto itself, soon collapsed in literal terms. Its story is the story of Nigeria – a country where every good thing eventually goes to waste. How did Apapa become a problem to all and sundry? The roads leading to the area collapsed. Potholes everywhere. Many houses could not be accessed or if at all with so much distress. For years, it was impossible to get to the ports through the Mile 2 end: a whole stretch of the in-bound lane was unmotorable. Access to the ports through the Carter Bridge or Western Avenue was also frustrating. Apart from the bad state of the roads, the main problem was the long queue of trailers and trucks going to the ports to pick up containers or those trucks returning with heavy containers, clogging the roads, making life difficult for everyone. The traffic congestion caused by these trucks conveyed an image, in every elemental detail, of the failure of governance in Nigeria.

However, since the return to civilian rule in 1999, one administration after another has made efforts to solve the problem.  There has been so much talk about ports reform to ensure efficiency and better performance, and to save Nigeria’s face and revenue. Like this: ports in Cotonou, Togo and Tema, Ghana have been far more efficient. Goods meant for the Lagos ports are routinely diverted to better maintained ports in the sub-region. The Jonathan administration even set up a Task Force to streamline the multiplicity of agencies at the ports, stream line bureaucracy, and ensure a 24-hour turn-around time. Trailer parks were created to get the trucks off the roads.  There were talks about fixing the roads, and getting the rail line to Apapa working again. One Governor of Lagos after the other talked about the same ports. The Buhari administration has sustained the efforts to find a solution. Vice President Osinbajo must have visited Apapa more than once to demonstrate the present Government’s determination. At some point, the Buhari administration shut down the ports with Nigeria’s neighbours. Inefficiency at the ports affects the country’s revenue very badly. Whereas the roads can be fixed: the main challenge has been, as we see it, what to do with the many trucks to-ing and fro-ing the ports, blocking the roads permanently. On a daily basis, hundreds of trucks go in and out of Apapa in a disorderly manner. Whereas there are alternative ports in the country: Warri, Onne, Calabar, and Port Harcourt, importers and exporters rely heavily on the Lagos ports. The roads to and from the Lagos ports are also congested because there are no functional, alternative, multi-modal means of transportation.

The most strategic intervention so far would seem to be the decision by the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) now under the leadership of Ms Hadiza Bala-Usman to modernize the call-up system for the trucks going to the ports. In an interview with her on Arise News, The Morning Show, about a month ago, she was emphatic about what she called an electronic call up system called “Eto”. That is a Yoruba word. It means “to örganise something in an orderly fashion in order to get results.” The late Chief MKO Abiola, in one of his famous witty repartees made that word even more popular when he was reported to have said on one occasion, that if you see any photographer who is very agile and diligent, taking pictures from every angle and not missing a shot at a public event, it is all about “eto”. The sharpness of the wit and the infectious humour is lost in translation. “Eto ni gbogbo e”. I don’t know whether this is the inspiration for the NPA’s “eto” but the whole idea is to get people to do their work efficiently and deliver good results for the benefit of all parties concerned. What the NPA has done is to introduce an electronic app, and create a portal. Instead of queuing up on the roads leading to the ports, importers and exporters are supposed to log in online to indicate the movement of their trucks towards the ports. The Ports Authority would then give the necessary approval to ensure that the inflow and outflow of trucks is orderly. Under that framework, the Nigeria Ports Authority has provided 17 designated and approved truck parks where trucks are required to wait before they are given what is called truck pass. It is a pre-gate system. You are called up. You wait at the provided pre-gate location. When it is your turn you approach the ports, or exit. Cargo owners are also required to stop returning empty containers to the ports.  

This sounds very simple. Ordinarily it should address the crisis of having trucks parking on the main roads leading to the ports for weeks, even when the containers that they are assigned to collect are still on the high seas. For years, truck drivers and their trucks have thus constituted complete nuisance around Apapa. The studio of Arise News TV used to be in the ThisDay Headquarters on Creek Road in Apapa. I didn’t find it funny going to that part of the city. The Chairman of Arise News on many occasions encouraged the use of his boat from Victoria Island to Apapa and back. Until one day, there was a small incident close to the anchor point and we needed to rely on the waves to take us ashore. Ask Professor Bola Akinterinwa. I saw a new side of him that day. I don’t want to embarrass the senior citizen by reproducing the torrents of stream-of-consciousness elegy that came out of his mouth, as our fate depended on the sea. It was the last time he and I took the boat to the studio. We had to endure the nightmare of the roads.  I consider Hadiza Bala-Usman’s Eto initiative commendable. It would be of great benefit to the Ports, and the ordinary citizen going about his or her normal businesses around Apapa. It would further reduce the menace of those trucks ferrying unlatched containers which tend to fall off now and then, causing avoidable loss of lives and property. Hadiza Bala-Usman’s initiative is about the ease of movement and the ease of doing business.

But what have we seen? Since the introduction of the e-call up system, those who have always benefitted from the old regime have been reportedly doing whatever they can to circumvent it. Many Nigerians hate innovation. People guard what they are used to because they think change will disrupt their lives. In the case of the attempt to de-congest the road to the ports, it is disturbing to see that even traffic congestion is an organised source of livelihood for some Nigerians, in fact an organised crime!  This includes the middle men who claim to be assisting the truck owners and their drivers; the security agents who collect bribe from motorists looking for free passage, the area boys who collect ground rent from everyone, and the owners of the trucks, very powerful forces, who imagine themselves to be above the law.  About a week ago, the Managing Director of the NPA, had to suspend the outflow of all export cargoes. Despite the e-call up system, the Ports Authorities were having to deal with a backlog of 600 export cargo trucks, all approaching the ports. The trucks could not be granted a pass or called into the pre -gate because many of them had no proper export documentation, or as is the case with many, the necessary certificates were incomplete! To worsen matters, despite the “Eto” system, cargo evacuation is difficult because the Nigeria Customs Service in 2021 has no scanners, and so in the absence of scanners, customs officials at the ports are still busy doing manual inspection, opening one container after another physically in search of spare parts and stock-fish!      

In an interview with the Daily Champion, Monday, March 29, 2021, at page 24, the NPA MD says owners of cargo exports have been given two weeks within which they should align with the new framework, and she is optimistic that within 3 months all stakeholders will be able to understand how the “Eto” platform works. I like her optimism about how whatever challenges she may be facing are surmountable. But she needs to give herself more than 3 months to sort things out. It is not that straightforward. The big problem are the rent-seekers she says are pushing back. Those rent-seekers don’t give up easily. They won’t. There must be sanctions. If any truck is sent to the ports without proper documentation, such trucks should be seized. Penalties should be imposed. Transporters and owners of cargo who defy simple processes and frustrate others must be told that they cannot place themselves above the law. What is clear is this: for Eto as it is called to work at the ports, the NPA will need the co-operation of other government agencies: the Customs Service that needs to stop behaving like a 19th Century unit of government, the security agencies that must wield the big stick against rent-seekers and the Export Promotion Council that needs to act right. In other parts of the world, heavy cargo is transported through the rails. The ugly sight of trucks on Nigerian roads bearing unlatched containers is a sign of underdevelopment, if not madness in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  More importantly, other ports around the country in Onne, Calabar, and Warri should be made more active to further reduce the pressure on Lagos. Hadiza Bala-Usman clearly needs all the support she can get. But a lot will also depend on the courage she brings to the table. Rent-seekers, area boys, cargo owners, thieving customs officials will test her resolve. She must be firm and resolute, and it is only by doing so, that she can help end the failure of Apapa.

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