The Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) last week threatened to commence a strike today, February 6, over the deplorable state of the roads leading to the ports and the cluttering of the Apapa-Oshodi Road leading to the Apapa and Tin-Can Ports with abandoned and other stationary articulated vehicles.
Although the union has suspended the threat to ground activities at the ports following the intervention of the Federal Government which promised to hold an industry-wide meeting involving the workers and other stakeholders, including the Federal Ministries of Transportation, Labour, Works and Housing, the issues raised by the workers union remain germane. Repairing the ports access roads and freeing them of stationary articulated vehicles are critical to the smooth operation of the ports. The roads should be cleared forthwith so that maritime workers and other road users can better navigate them and access their workplaces.
The MWUN painted a very dire picture of the state of the Apapa-Oshodi Road, which cannot be disputed by anyone who is familiar with it. Its neglect is one of the worst instances of the neglect of a critical public facility. Yet, this is the gateway to the vital ports in Apapa and the multi-billion naira transactions taking place there on a daily basis.
Commenting on the deplorable state of the road sometime ago, one of the nation’s foremost businessmen who has substantial investments in the ports area, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, put the daily losses due to the bad port access roads at N20 billion daily. This adds up to a yearly tally of about N7 trillion, which is the equivalent of our national budget.
This is why when the MWUN issued a 21-day strike ultimatum in May last year for the same reason, Dangote led a consortium of other businesses, including the Flour Mills of Nigeria, and the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), to commit to a complete rehabilitation and rebuilding of the road. The NPA also made a pledge to contribute N270m to the project.
It is surprising that eight months after, not much has changed, as the maritime workers’ strike notice indicates. The union claims that major portions of the road have failed completely and critical sections have become parking and mechanic lots for broken down vehicles, thereby constituting a nuisance to its members and others who have legitimate businesses to perform in the ports.
The story of Apapa and its ports is a familiar one. Having concentrated most of our port resources in the Lagos ports, the country failed to optimally utilise the other ports of Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, and develop others that they could. The result, over the years, is that the Apapa Port became over-burdened and the support infrastructure, especially the roads leading to it, completely neglected.
Today, the Apapa Ports and the roads leading to them present an almost impossible work environment, with perpetual impenetrable traffic gridlocks and a completely run-down environment. The roads leading to the Apapa Ports are an eyesore. Accessing the ports and other workplaces in the area has become a nightmare.
This is why the threat of a strike by the MWUN is justified. The government needs to take immediate action to assuage its grievances and avert a strike either now or in the future. We are worried, too, that having stepped into the fray to proffer a solution to the problem, the Dangote-led consortium has not moved fast enough on the rehabilitation and reconstruction work on the road to win the confidence of the unions and other stakeholders. The MWUN, in its strike notice, warned that if things continue at the present pace, the road would not be delivered in the next two years. This is depressing, to say the least. The management of the NPA had also expressed similar fears not too long ago.
What, therefore, is the problem? Can it be a failure to mobilise the required resources, even if the MWUN avows that the NPA has almost completely met its own commitment to the road project? Or, can it be because some of the private organisations involved are prioritising their own sections of the road? Whatever the situation, the Federal Ministry of Works must ultimately take responsibility for this road project. It should also be held responsible if the suspended strike goes ahead.
While we have always warned against the quick resort to strikes by our unions whenever disputes arise, we cannot close our eyes to the criminal neglect of vital public infrastructure by successive past administrations. Apapa and the port areas have been a disaster for many decades now, with our governments looking the other way. This has cost the country billions of naira worth of maritime businesses and attendant revenues which went to neighbouring countries, especially Cotonou in Benin Republic.
What must be done immediately to avert the strike and the humongous losses it portends for the economy is for the failed portions of the port roads to be repaired quickly to make them motorable, while the abandoned and stationary articulated vehicles are removed. The total reconstruction of the road should continue at a more reasonable pace to underscore its importance to the maritime workers and the economy.