By Louis Odion, FNGE
Only those assailed by the traumatizing memory of being trapped before or those left to endure the yoke of failed infrastructure are perhaps better placed to tell the pain of a broken Apapa today. This writer counts himself among this tribe, having survived a life-and-death situation in that blighted neighbourhood over a decade ago.
That fateful Friday night in December 2007, I had signed off the last page of Sunday Sun as the editor to the pre-press manager. With my driver on a casual leave, I found myself driving out of the The Sun’s Kirikiri headquarters in Kirikiri alone and heading towards Mile 2 to connect Lagos Island.
Time was a little past 9p.m.
The Orile-bound lane had turned bedlam at the Mile 2 bridge with vehicular traffic almost at standstill. My decision to make a detour to the Kirikiri Prison route would eventually land me in the bosom of gun-rotting hoodlums.
Nothing had prepared me for the ambush; no foreboding whatsoever.
Sheer ingenuity, improvised camouflage – the variety associated with the military – was very much on display in the mode of operation adopted by these sons of the night. The three-lane expressway was half-barricaded with a vehicle by the main entrance of the Tin Can Port with some of them crowding the open bonnet, pretending they were busy trouble-shooting, strangely in the dark.
As I later discovered at the end of a nearly 45-minute ordeal, that blockade, reinforced by the many craters on the expressway, provided the platform for the robbery. It effectively slowed down vehicular movement to almost snail-speed on the Apapa-bound lane up to the Coconut Bridge.
I realized the trap too late. I had already been sucked inescapably into the snarl, hemmed inbetween two heavy-duty trucks. Of course, one had made SOS calls to a few contacts in the security agencies. But no help came till the end.
We were then truly at the mercy of a battalion of robbers who divided themselves into cells and moved from one vehicle to the another “harvesting” loot with a casualness that belied their deadly enterprise. More like featuring in a slow-motion horror movie.
Bolting from my Toyota Landcruiser at that material time would have been suicidal.
I watched the windscreen and window of the vehicle before me being smashed viciously with a sledge hammer as the occupant – a lady – appeared too horrified to raise her face from her steering wheel.
So, the only sensible option one had in the circumstance was to await one’s turn with the equanimity imaginable.
Apparently disarmed by my “cooperation” (having voluntarily wound down my glasses before their arrival), the hoodlums were content with stealing my phone, cash and the medicated glasses I had on.
One of them even had the presence of mind to feel my neck for a necklace with his filthy hand since I had declared I had none. They appeared too excited at the custody of my brand new Black Berry phone and cash hurl to notice what I would consider my most prized possession in the vehicle at the time – my laptop with the treasure of data therein.
Funnily, no sooner had the group moved over to the next vehicle than another cell swooped on me, to whom I, drawing from what I never knew was still possible in the circumstance – humour in great adversity, casually told off: “Oh, your colleagues just left me and took all I had.”
Sadly, ten years later and with the road in much worse condition and vehicular traffic quadrupling in number, the unholy activities of “the boys” would seem to have become normalized in that axis at night, thus offering a graphic illustration of how the human condition could gravitate in a given community from distress to being desperate from the shared failure of all stakeholders to come up with fresh ideas.
According to foremost industrialist, Aliko Dangote, the Apapa paralysis results in daily loss of whopping N20 b to the economy. However, that statistics neither include the horrific toll on the humanity daily caught inbetween for long hours, nor the damage to the environment on account of noxious fumes emitted by thousands of truck stuck in the bedlam. Or the fatalities resulting from regular incidence of unlatched containers falling off and crushing vehicles nearby. To say nothing about the rapid depreciation in property value in the axis once the preferred choice of the rich.
It is estimated that not less than 4,500 trucks enter Apapa daily, choking the traffic, with Mile 2 flyover almost becoming a den of robbers once it gets dark.
But it would now appear that, after years of official intrigues induced by party differences between Lagos and Abuja, there is finally the summoning of political will on both sides to end the nightmare of long-suffering Lagosians.
As for the Federal Government, it would seem more like the moment of penitence after long years of irresponsibility – to give back to what is arguably the next fattest cash cow after oil.
Indeed, Apapa was left to atrophy over the years by those only interested in milking the cash cow at the ports. Fixing it has now become a national emergency. Without it, we are unlikely to tap the full benefit of Ambode’s ongoing massive rehabilitation of the Internarional Airport road and savour the sheer grandeur of Oshodi being transformed as two new mega showpieces of the mainland. So, in that light, Apapa then constitutes a purulent sore on what should be a beauty.
Already, a pledge has been made to infuse fresh oxygen into the decayed Apapa-Oshodi-Ojota-Toll-Gate corridor with N72 b from the Federal purse.
Not wanting to be outdone, ever innovative Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has flagged off the expansion of the 1,000-Capacity truck terminal in Orile in addition to a similar 5,000-capacity facility being proposed for Ijanikin. This has been followed up with a relocation order to operators of bonded warehouses around the ports.
However, the reason why one is hopeful now has very little to do with the practical steps already commenced by Ambode, understandably the driver of the current engagement. Neither has it to do with the new official realization of the folly in continued granting of approval for erection of tank farms when the 86 in existence have almost choked Apapa out. Nor the idiocy in having to license more than 26 concessionaires at the port without holding bays in the first place such that their trucks have conveniently converted the road to their nest. (Too many have been granted concessions under a process that rewarded political connection than competence.)
Is one’s optimism linked to the assurance from the Transport Minister that a new rail-line (originating from Apapa and terminating in Ibadan) would be delivered in record time in order to ease the evacuation of containers from the ports? Or the sheer spectacle of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo ordering a joint operations by the military to rid the expressway of the menace of trucks parking indiscrimately? (Let us conveniently forget that, four weeks on, the demons of gridlock in Apapa still persist.)
One’s hope is kindled by Ambode’s demonstration of what would seem a deeper understanding of the underlining issue as indeed transcending the mere ceremony of fixing the decrepit expressway and erecting holding bays for the vagrant trucks. Most commendandable is Ambode’s patriotic courage to voice what some might consider politically incorrect: the urgent need to also make other ports outside work by deliberately formulating policies to divert traffic from Lagos.
The Apapa ports were originally designed to handle 30 metric tonnes of goods, but are currently overstretched to handle over 80 metric tonnes. (In any case, out of the estimated N1.5 trillion that the Federal Governmnet harvests from the ports yearly, only a pittance trickles back to Lagos as compensation despite that it is left to bear the environmental burden.)
Over the years, for reasons that could not be divorced from partisan politics, successive administrations had pursued policies that leave the ports in Port Harcourt and Onne in Rivers State grossly under-utilized. While those in Calabar and Warri are virtually idle.
For instance, prior to the 2006 concessioning of the Lagos ports, the Federal Government gave incentives of thirty percent discount to shipping lines utilizing the ports in the eastern corridor, thereby helping to boost activities there.
This was reversed once concessionaires took over in Lagos. To compound matters, freight charges on the Eastern routes were hiked, thereby discouraging ship owners from the eastern routes.
Were these facilities made to work at their installed capacities, the pressure on Lagos would have been reduced by 60 percent, according to experts. Those in Port Harcourt and Onne, Calabar and Warri can conveniently service the South-East, North-Central and North-East states.
Moreover, it is believed that over five million jobs could be created in the process. The Lagos ports can then be dedicated to caring for the South-West and the North-West zones.
Of course, such commonsense decisions would have helped cut the cost of doing business significantly, particularly in haulage and time efficiency. It would also have helped not only in minimizing the carnage on our highways across the federation generally but also reduced the pressure on the road infrastructure.
As could be inferred from Ambode’s prognosis, the renewed efforts to reclaim Apapa will remain unsustainable until we graduate from antiquity and join the modern world in the adoption of pipelines as the safest and cheapest means of transporting petroleum products.
Pipeline vandalism should therefore be seen not only as an economic crime but also an existential threat to our collective humanity.
Such atavistic mindset is what could have also led into mistaking the proliferation of tank farms in the last two decades in Lagos and elsewhere as a sign of economic growth in the first place. Rather than concern ourselves with building local capacity to refine crude into petroleum products for domestic consumption, successive administrations were busy granting licences and approvals to their friends to site tank farms to store imported petrol and diesel, forgetting that such adhoc solutions are only beneficial to foreign economies in the long run.
The consequence of such myopic decisions by past political leaderships is what manifests partly in the Apapa paralysis today. The ghost has simply returned to haunt hapless Lagos residents.