On May 12, 2019, the Presidential Task Team (PTT) on the eradication of gridlocks in Apapa, Lagos, was inaugurated by its chairman, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.
At the time, some of the terms of reference given to the PTT included developing an efficient and effective management plan for the entire port traffic, enforcing the permanent removal of all stationary trucks on the highway, and the developing an effective manual truck call-up, pending the introduction of e-truck call-up systems.
The team was also saddled with the implementation of a workable empty container return and export container truck handling policy as well as the removal of all prospects of extortion, among others.
But right now, it seems there is a snag. Operators in the maritime industry claim that, rather than concentrate on its terms of reference, the agencies of government have been too focused on areas of business instead of the free flow of traffic and enforcement of law and that they were brought to establish.
A chieftain of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Adeyinka Aroyewun, said the problems in the area go beyond decongesting the Apapa gridlock.
Said he: “Whatever happens to the industry affects the entire economy, because, by the time the cost of transportation is on the rise, it comes down to the retail price of every other commodity.
“It is a known fact that, in the country and globally, oil is suffering a decline and the major source of revenue in Nigeria is in import and export. And it is not complete until the goods get to the final consumer. This means that the role of truck owners in the industry is extremely important to the economic growth.”
He stated that AMATO would not fold its arms while things go bad to the detriment of Nigeria: “The traffic congestions in the port and the road affect other road users beyond the port areas. The problem of Apapa gridlock is artificial. They say it is the problem of the ongoing road construction, but the work has been completed, except for minor areas. So, why is the road in Apapa not free?
“We are aware that the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) is all over the state discharging their responsibility. There is nothing extraordinary that another squad would be doing at the port that LASTMA, Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and the conventional police have not been doing. But by the time we are introducing new police formations, it gives room for extortion. We have suffered it and I think it is high time this is stopped. To move your trucks from Point A to Point B, you must have a godfather with a group of powerful individuals under the auspices of PTT. We want the state government to rev up their activities in Apapa axis. The team of LASTMA should be firmly on ground to address the issue of gridlock.
“We hear that the PTT has been disbanded. So, we will not be happy hearing that a disbanded team has come under another identity as we are seeing it becoming a new normal: mobile policemen metamorphosing into the conventional police, claiming they belong to certain command just to remain at a certain post. We have LASTMA and FRSC and the others, and traffic has been smooth. But some people will come with a larger identity claiming they are members of the PTT and certain things must be done in their own way. There is so much duplication of responsibilities.”
He said his association has instituted a court case to enforce their rights, noting that President Muhammadu Buhari and the Attorney-General of the Federation were parties to the suit.
“The Federal Government set up the team to partner with us to make the system work, but today they have turned it to a task force, harassing and intimidating our members. I have not seen this kind of system where an organ of government set up to resolve certain issues now constitutes themselves into parties in the issues they were to resolve. We have equally written petitions to the relevant government agencies. At a point, we became afraid because we sometimes heard gunshots to scare people away. Our freedom of association is in jeopardy.”
The president of AMATO, Mr. Remi Ogungbemi, said he had a few solutions to the feud: “PTT has overstayed their usefulness. We are gagged, terrified and imperiously treated. Anyone who speaks against them is hounded. Nigerians doing business at the port are agitated about the status quo. Tension is high for people to protest but few of us are not in support because we know how volatile the environment is. And because of my long-term investment in the industry, I don’t want to go that way, rather, I want something peaceful. But it is unfortunate we have not been able to give the problem at the port a holistic approach that will lead to the solution.”
He warned that the infrastructure available could no longer sustain the volume of activities: “The road we’ve been for 50 years ago is the same today despite the fact that goods coming into the port, vehicular and business activities are increasing with the population. So, there is no way we can expect the same infrastructure to accommodate all these without steady expansion. Otherwise, there can never be sanity and orderliness in the system. The systems used for passing or admitting trucks into the port, tank farms and factories are obsolete. The increase in the volume of activities, and goods that come into the port had made it outmoded. So, it should be changed in sync with modern technology.”
He said his association has got a device that, if launched, would nip the problem of Apapa gridlock in the bud. But he said that would need the support of the relevant authorities.
“If the state government and port regulators would buy into it, it will help to address most of the problems of trucks parking on the roads and bridges, which is not in the interest of drivers and owners. It has become a situation whereby it is the closer you are to the port that determines when you’re to load. But if there is a system that informs when to come, they would only leave their private park and go straight to where they want to load,” he said.
He claimed that the PTT was the clog in the wheel of progress, “They have succeeded in creating different types of cartels. If you are not a member, your truck cannot move. I was happy when I heard they had been disbanded. However, we cannot leave a vacuum because our environment is still volatile. I believe that LASTMA as well as the commissioner of police and his men are competent to handle the security challenges of the port. We have witnessed several task forces with many of them leaving us half wounded. And by the time we are recovering from one, they inaugurate another one.
“It is our desire to see trucks leave the road. The stress and fatigue drivers pass through day and night contribute to legions of accidents happening on our roads,” he noted.
A critical stakeholder and former vice chairman, Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN Chapter), Mr. Anthony Agbalusi spoke on the empty containers that constitute a nuisance on the port.
“Most of the containers in Nigeria are expired and the shipping companies are not interested in taking them back. We need the government to give us a place outside the port where we can absorb the containers.
“The port is for transit, not holding. But the security operatives, in connivance with some government officials, turned it into a holding port.
“Former President Olusegun Obasanjo ensured seamless operation through licensing of Nigerians to operate off dock terminals. When a container arrives in the port, 48 hours later they move them to the dock terminal. But today, 20, 000 trailers come into the port at the same time from old roads to pick containers and trucks, and we have articulated trailers, and tankers and owned by blue chip companies, there is no way the prevailing system can work.
Agbalusi tasked the authorities that containers should be moved on allocation to the entire bonded terminal so that empty containers could be received on demand.
“They should stop asking us to bring empty containers to the port because they don’t have a holding bay. What they have is a buffer zone. But if they could not, we are ready to provide a holding bay where containers can be absorbed by liaising with the government. Government should allow the barge system to function, create room for trains to haul containers from Abeokuta to Lagos and assist us with open space where we can drop empty containers so that our roads could be rid of containers.”
But reacting to the alleged disbandment of the PTT, vice-chairman of the team, Mr. Kayode Opeifa, portrayed it as a complete rumour. He told journalists that such information was a figment of the imagination of the originators.
“It’s false, unfounded and of no substance. There is no official letter to that effect. I wonder where the purveyor of the news got it from. All I can tell you is that we are in the process of rounding off our operations,” he explained.