BY EMEKA EJERE
It may take a long time for reprieve to come the way of residents and road users who have to grapple with the effects of the gridlock which has persisted on access roads to Apapa Seaport in Lagos.
Findings show that the much celebrated e-call up system introduced to address traffic congestion along the busy roads is not achieving the purpose, no thanks to stiff resistance put up by those benefitting from the status quo.
After years of untold hardship and deaths, semblance of sanity had in February returned to Apapa, a once thriving port city brought to its knees by protracted traffic gridlock. This followed the takeoff of the electronic call-up system (ETO) introduced by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).
Apapa had in the past several years, defied effort to solve its traffic problem. The efforts, including a presidential task team, were thwarted by corruption.
However, normalcy returned to Apapa following the removal of trucks that littered the port access roads – Apapa-Oshodi Express Way and Western Avenue leading to Ijora. Officials of the Lagos State government and NPA taskforce teams were on ground with towing vehicles well positioned to remove erring trucks.
ETO is an electronic truck call-up system designed for the management of truck movement and access to and from the Lagos Ports Complex and the Tin Can Island ports. This was the first time that electronic call-up would be deployed to direct truck movement into ports in Lagos.
The automated process was expected to permanently restore sanity within the Apapa Port corridor by removing the daily traffic congestion, if properly managed. The development elated port users, operators and Apapa residents who called on NPA to ensure that the effort was sustained.
Following the return of sanity to the roads in Apapa at result of the ETO at the time, the Lagos State governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had vowed to expose the cabal behind the Apapa gridlock if they did not desist from sabotaging the government’s efforts at ensuring a free flow of traffic.
He had said: “What we are doing now is taking away unscrupulous persons benefiting from the gridlock. Whatever they are earning, whatever they are taking, whatever they are gaining, we are taking it away from them. We know they will fight back, but I am saying it clearly that we are ready for them.
“We will fight anyone who tries to return us to the past experience in Apapa. We will name and shame them, and bring them to the public court to show our seriousness. We will no longer condone the recklessness and impunity that our people have experienced before now.”
However, findings revealed that it took barely four weeks after the automated system cleared the gridlock for the chaos to return, with truckers who park indiscriminately along the port access roads, impeding the free flow of traffic.
Experts and stakeholders say the failure of government policies, entrenched interest and security agencies, who have made an industry out of the crisis will never allow any effort to solve the crisis work.
It was gathered that some NPA security personnel, LASTMA operatives, and policemen have spent over five years in Apapa, as the gridlock has made the Apapa area the most lucrative beat.
Operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) have also aggravated the traffic crisis by blocking the roads to inspect consignments that have been cleared at the port by their colleagues. The NCS operatives are permanently stationed at Area B and Mile 2 where they carry out an inspection on the highways.
The Chief Operating Officer of Trucks Transit Park (TTP) Limited, vendors of the ETO, Mr. Dayo Adeboye, said the security agents and those profiting from the crisis were the major challenge to the electronic call-up system.
According to him, they decided to sabotage the process because the automated system did not allow them to extort money from the transporters.
He said: “So, what they have resolved to do is that they will make life difficult during the day and extort money at night when there is nobody to stop them from extorting drivers. We also blame the truck drivers because they offer bribes because they want to beat the system.
On the decision to exclude factory-bound trucks and petroleum tankers from inception, Adeboye said the decision was a strategy to avoid gang-up against the initiative.
Can of worms
Members of Council of Maritime Truck Unions and Associations (COMTUA) have maintained that implementation of the e-call up system is fraudulent and opened to sabotage.
Those who spoke to journalists revealed that, contrary to the agreement that the electronic call up system will cost N10,000, truck owners now pay as much as N31,500 for the service. They also alleged that the system has been so compromised that, trucks that had genuine electronic call up into the ports are not allowed in, as the terminal is only occupied by trucks that found their ways in fraudulently.
According to them, the extortion is being perpetrated by NPA, Police, LASTMA and personnel of TTP. But at Tin Can, they are joined by labourers of the road construction company, who will only open the road after they have been settled.
President of COMTUA, Mr. Leye Thompson explained: “When they came in, they said they will be charging us N10,000, that is you pay your N10,000, you meet all the requirements, under 24 hours you will be in the port.
“We looked at it as a fantastic one, they did it the first week, it worked and we praised them, not knowing that it was the effect of the work of the (disbanded) Presidential Task Team that we saw in the first and second week.
He said even after paying the N31,000, there is no possibility of leaving the truck park in two weeks.
Another truck owner, Mr. Adeyinka Aroyewun said: “The moment you pay them, whether your vehicle moves or not, you are on your own. All the vehicles that obeyed ETO regulations are all kept at the ‘pre-gate’ at Otto Wharf, they have been there in the last two months, but the ones without ETO documents move freely on daily basis. As I speak with you, all vehicles with genuine ETO tickets and have paid N31,250 are still in NAPL garage now.”
He added: “Whenever you have a genuine ETO call up, NPA will tell you it is fake and turn you back. But the one they know is generated by them and does not have any semblance of reality, they allow it to go and they charge between N100,000 and N150,000”.
Senate to the rescue
Worried by the protracted gridlock, the Senate last month vowed to probe the implementation of the electronic Call-Up system of admitting trucks into the terminal and allegations of extortion by port officials.
The red chamber consequently mandated the Senator Danjuma Goje-led Senate Committee on Marine Transport to investigate the matter and report back on the way forward.
The Senate also urged the federal government to, as a matter of urgency, collaborate with the Lagos State Government to ensure that tank farms are relocated to other areas.
It also asked private terminal operators to explore water transport as an option in the movement of containers, just as it urged the Federal Ministry of Works to commence the reconstruction and repair of all access roads to seaports, namely Apapa Creek road, Apapa Oshodi Expressway and Tincan Island.
Besides, the Senate directed its committees on Marine Transport, Works and Petroleum (Downstream) to meet the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, concessionaires, Nigeria Union of Petroleum Engineers and all other stakeholders to ensure resolution of pending conflicts and ensure synergy, among other stakeholders.
Resolutions of the Senate were sequel to a motion titled: ‘Urgent Need to Tackle the Protracted Apapa Gridlock in Lagos and Embrace the Newly Introduced Electronic Call-Up system of Admitting Trucks into the Terminal’, sponsored by Senator Oluremi Tinubu and co-sponsored by senators Solomon Adeola and Adetokunbo Abiru.
Presenting the motion, Senator Tinubu had said: “The Senate notes with great displeasure the gridlock which has persisted on access roads to Apapa Seaport in Lagos and has, for many years, been a source of heartache for individuals and businesses plying the road.
“Senate is also aware that the gridlock has persisted due to the terrible condition of Apapa port, the concentration of Tank Farms in the area, indiscriminate parking of petroleum tankers and trailers wanting to load petroleum products from the tank farms and the racket created by persons benefiting from the chaotic situation.
“Senate is also aware that the tank farms attract thousands of trucks and tanker drivers who lift the petroleum products for onward supply to Nigerians who owing to the paucity of parking lots take up all the spaces on the road instead thereby causing traffic.”