By Dickson Okafor
The poor condition of Nigerian roads, especially in Lagos, is giving citizens great concern. Suffice to say that, before the civil war, Nigeria relied heavily on rail mode of transportation for the movement of persons, goods and services.
It was a pleasant ride for people, including students from both the southern and northern parts of the country residing or studying in any part of Nigeria, because that was the most popular and cheapest mode of transport during the colonial era, up to 1967.
Unfortunately, the war changed the tide as people from the four regions that made up the country then were forced to return to either their ancestral homes or regions for safety.
After the war, this mode of transport was completely neglected as roads across the country came under pressure with trucks and tankers conveying containers, heavy-duty equipment and petroleum products ply the the roads from the two major seaports in Lagos, Apapa Quays and Tin Can Island.
Meanwhile, 80 per cent of the cargoes that come into the country are mostly imported and they come through the ports because the Nigerian economy is yet to generate enough production, hence, until recently, road construction and maintenance across the country continued to suffer neglect.
Pressure on the roads got worse with the concession of truck and container parks inside Apapa and Tin Can Island ports and issuance of license to major oil dealers to establish tank farms in residential areas in Lagos State by past administrations. And because most of the truck and tanker owners did not have parks, they had to park along highways, streets and bridges linking Apapa, thereby causing gridlock.
Meanwhile, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief, with the ongoing aggressive infrastructural development by the incumbent government, especially rail construction. While commending the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration for its efforts towards reviving rail transportation in the country, Mr. Festus Mbisiogu, chairman/CEO, Blue Diamond Logistics Worldwide, one of the 10 top logistics companies in China, described the recent commencement of construction of Kano/Katsina/Maradi rail line linking Niger Republic as a milestone achievement that will increase trade between Nigeria and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
He explained how elated Nigerians were recently when the Ministry of Transportation, on January 25, 2021, linked the Apapa Port to the Lagos-Ibadan rail network, saying the feat would not have been possible if not for the new transport policy of government, which ushered in a regime of a robust maritime transport system in the country in line with international best practices.
Mbisiogu, former coordinator of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO), Guangzhou chapter, noted that linking rail infrastructure to the seaports would facilitate ease of doing business. He said recent statistics showed that the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), in 2019, recorded over 2,000 haulage and tanker truck road accidents in which over 1,000 persons were killed and close to 600 injured. That figure, according him, would definitely reduce and more lives would be saved with the linking of the ports to the rail network, as many would prefer their cargoes to be transported by rail, given the obvious advantages.
He noted that, as an industrialist, he shared in the burden of those in the private sector, adding that he decided to build Shanghai Engineering Works and Industries Nig. Ltd to create jobs, but expressed dismay over high cost of transporting goods and raw materials to Owerri, where the multi-faceted consultancy/construction company is situated.
He further highlighted the benefits of rail transport, which he said would also be cost-effective as it would enable shippers and others in maritime logistics to convert long-haul freight from road to rail. Trains, according to him, are capable of hauling large loads and can handle high volumes of freight, as one double-stacked train could hold approximately the same amount as 280 trucks. This, he believes, can be very beneficial for shippers with large loads.
He faulted the concentration on Lagos ports as a major challenge. Even though he accepted that Lagos and the southern states consume over 60 per cent of the cargoes that come in through Lagos ports, he insisted that it would have been more effective if the $11 billion contract to build the Lagos-Calabar coastal railway, which stretches over 1,400km (871mi), signed in July 2016, is completed. He expressed regrets that the project, which he said was supposed to be opened in 2018, did not happen.
Mbisiogu said, “Linking Apapa Wharf to the Lagos-Ibadan rail line is a major success for the government and people of Nigeria”.
He gave assurances that very soon the major advantage of the Lagos-Ibadan rail line would manifest as it will addresses the gridlock on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway and its environs.
Among the advantages he listed was taking pressure off roads; it would also make the roads last longer.
In the same vein, with the Apapa ports accounting for over 70 per cent of shipping business into the country, a rail line will evacuate goods from the wharf without wasting time, which also entails that the nation’s ports won’t have congestion and the inhuman demurage regime faced by importers will be a thing of the past.
He was of the view that more bonded terminals can operate profitably outside of Lagos, which will boost the economies of these other states and government can also go the extra mile of opening up other ports outside Lagos. That way, according to him, economic development would reach other port towns.
He said it was wrong to put all eggs in one basket and government has to establish dry terminals within some local governments.
Mbisiogu proffered solutions to the gridlock in Apapa-Oshodi, urging the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to mandate all shipping companies in Nigeria to own a holding bay outside Apapa Ports, where their empty containers would be dropped, citing places like Ikorodu and Badagry.
He said this was necessary because these two places have inland waterways by which containers can be moved and all the clearing agents can pick up and return the empty containers without going to Apapa and Tin Can and so trucks will be decongested from major streets of Lagos.
Mbisiogu commended Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for the proposed call-up system for trucks, describing it as laudable, as it would put and end to the uncontrollable traffic trend in Lagos that prides itself as a mega city. He blamed the excesses of truck and tanker drivers on the racketeers who extort money from drivers ana allow them to park their trucks on the roads and streets leading to Apapa while trying to access the major sea ports.
He expressed sympathy for people living in the area, whom he said were agonizingly struggling for emancipation from the firm grips of a few individuals that are benefitting from the horrible traffic situation.