Beyond the heavy toll on tanker drivers, who spend over 10 days on the queue for a few days' journey, there are concerns over the safety of Lagos bridges due to the dead weight of the heavy-duty trucks that have now become permanent features on them, writes Bertram Nwannekanma
For over two years, Lagos has groaned under a siege created by truck drivers. The nuisance of articulated vehicles heading in and out of the Apapa ports, the largest and busiest in West Africa, line up several kilometres of access roads, exploiting government's laxity towards enforcing relevant laws.
At the best of time, traffic in the city could be chaotic but the absence of proper infrastructure in and out of the Apapa port has worsened the situation. The consequence is perpetual gridlocks on many of the roads in and around Apapa, which continues to put a dent on the finances and lifestyle of people and businesses in the area.
Many businesses have been grounded, while property investments in and around Apapa and environs have been at a record low. Apart from street traders, who are making brisk businesses out of the situation and some unscrupulous security agents, officials at the port and area boys, tanker drivers, commuters and residents have become victims. The challenge on the bridges is exacerbated by construction on the Apapa Road. Consequently, many vehicles are forced to stay on the bridges for weeks, due to lack of loading bays in tank farms and oil companies.
In 2017, the Chief Executive Officer of Dangote Groups, Aliko Dangote, and other business operators estimated that the economy lost about N20 billion daily to the lockdown. At that rate, Nigeria's loses about N7.28 trillion per annum. It also makes importers incur unnecessary demurrage, aiding the diversion of cargo to the more business-friendly ports in the Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana.
The Apapa Ports were designed to handle 30 million metric tonnes of goods but currently handles about 80 million metric tonnes currently. Though vessel traffic peaked at 5,369 in 2013, a National Bureau of Statistics report said it declined to 4,025 in 2016. Unfortunately, the maritime trade is a vital engine of many economies. Seaport cargo activity currently supports 23 million jobs in the United States, according to Virginia-based American Association of Port Authorities. APPA said US ports generated $4.6 trillion in total economic activity and $321 billion in federal, state and local taxes in 2014.
Apart from the financial holes the gridlock bores in the government's coffers and individual pockets, there are security dimensions that are potentially dire such that the Nigerian Navy issued a 48-hour vacate order to the tanker drivers on March 7.
"Some of the vehicles have been parked on the bridges for two or three weeks with some of them carrying loads," the Navy said in a statement.
"Terrorists and other enemies of Nigeria could easily use this opportunity. If any of the tankers parked along the road is set ablaze, you know what will happen to the rest", the Navy said.
The same fears were expressed by a structural engineer and immediate past President of NIStructE, Oreoluwa Fadayomi. He noted that the country was sitting on a keg of gunpowder as the bridges were weakening daily. More importantly, he explained that in a case of a fire mishap, the consequences would be utterly catastrophic.
He warned: "There is also the risk of a fire. If any of the articulated vehicles catch fire, there would be a chain reaction, which can cause severe damage to the bridge. We are sitting on a keg of gunpowder because the bridges are weakening daily."
Although some of the drivers adhered to the directive, their relocation implies that the chaos they caused around Apapa has compounded and is being replicated in the areas to which they have moved.
While recent efforts to manage the situation seem to have reduced the menace, it has also created further monsters in official extortion of truck and tanker drivers as well as environmental concerns at Ojuelegba, Iponri and Ijora areas, where parking areas were created.
Unhappy Tanker Drivers
The drivers are not oblivious of the chaos their prolonged stay on bridges and temporary parks create. In fact, the situation puts strains on their health, finances and family life.
Abdullahi Mohammed, a truck driver from Kano, who has spent 14 days on the queue without knowing when it will get to his turn, wants a quick solution to the headache. A large park on the outskirt of Lagos would be ideal, he said.
"If the government could create a place outside Lagos, where we can drop our empty containers, the situation will improve," he said.
Another driver, Mohammed, who sleeps and bathes around his truck at Iponri park area said, he left N3,000 for his wife to take care of a family of three before embarking on the trip without knowing what awaits him in Lagos.
"I bring ginger from Kano for export and now I did not have money to continue (sic). I met others who had spent six days in the parking area before I came and they are still here. We bath and go to toilet under the trucks and fetch water from nearby filling stations (sic)," he said.
Saliu Taofeek is from Ibadan and has spent eight days on the queue. He was working in a bakery before he left to learn driving when he could not make ends meet. He urged the government to come to their aid. "Government should find an alternative place for us to park, they can introduce a call system, where they can call maybe 10 or 20 trucks since the port can take between 50-60- trucks a day," Taofeek said.
For Mohammed Garba, a truck driver from Kano, the joint stakeholders' task force inaugurated by the government on the situation should be commended for bringing a sort of sanity to the system but a lot still needs to be done. The soldiers do not allow us to park on the bridges any more but that is only at Apapa area.
"The soldiers said they don't want to see any truck on the bridges because the bridges are already expired. The trucks are also causing a serious hold up at the Apapa side. We are now in the parking area. When your paper is ready they will call you and you get a pass ticket from Navy, they will carry you to Apapa side and then you join the queue to the terminal".
"This place is like house arrest because the area boys used to steal our spare tyres, batteries and gas. About ten vehicles have lost their batteries and we are taking turns to keep vigils at night to check the theft since the police are not protecting us," he said.
He also accused officials of collecting between N40, 000 and N 50, 000 from drivers to fast track their movements to the port terminal.
The bridges aren't designed to host heavy static vehicles, and a lack of consistent and thorough maintenance could spell tragedy. Some of the bridges at risk of buckling under the weight of parked heavy-duty trucks are Ijora, Eko, Ojuelegba, Abati Barracks, Stadium and Costain.
"When these vehicles are stationary on the bridges for a long time, they have negative impacts," Fadayomi said.
"These include deterioration, bridge-fatigue, damage or even collapse. Moreover, there is no money anywhere now to build these kinds of solid structures again. Bridges are made so that vehicles keep moving."
During a recent visit to the areas, The Guardian counted about 85 articulated vehicles conveying containers of various sizes parked between the Ijora and Jibowu Bridges. The chaos is also replicated on at the Mile 2 end of Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, where trucks often block the expressway forcing commercial buses heading to Mile 2 to drive against traffic.
According to experts, an empty 20-feet container weighs 2,000 kilogrammes. A 40-feet container doubles the kilogrammes. With an average truck weighing about 14,000 kilogrammes, the total weight of 25 stationary trucks on the Ojuelegba Bridge could be around 450,000 kilogrammes.
This is beside the weight of other vehicles. The implication is that the four bridges on the Western Avenue area of the city - Ijora, Stadium, Ojuelegba and Abati Barracks portend a total massive pack pressure of about; 1.53 million kilogrammes on an average day. Most of the bridges were constructed during the 1970s oil boom. The nation would need $8 billion yearly to close up the huge gap in its public infrastructure and about $14 billion every year to fund infrastructure.
Regrettably, current spending on infrastructure for decades is estimated at about $6 billion but budgets for capital expenditure by federal and state governments have been on the decline while recurrent expenditure has been rising. The average government budget for capital expenditure has been about 25 per cent.
According to another past President, Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NIStructE), Dr Samuel Ilugbekhai, the state of the bridges is one of the gross structural abuses. He urged the government to put more effort into solving the problem noting that there is a difference between buildings designed for car parks and bridges.
The Way Out
To find a lasting solution to the problems, the Federal Controller of Works in Lagos, Mr Adedamola Kuti said the government has engaged stakeholders like the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) and National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO). He assured that the move has reduced the incidences of parking on the bridges in Apapa areas, stressing that the ministry will continue to monitor implementation of its directive in Ojuelegba and stadium areas.
Fadayomi stressed the need for a holistic approach and not half measures to solve the problem.
"First, there are too many tank farms in Apapa. Some of them have to be relocated. A moratorium should be placed on the licensing of new tank farms. The Federal Government should encourage the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to revive its dormant depots and pipelines to transport products directly to them instead of tankers invading Lagos to lift petroleum products.
"Second, the roads require urgent attention". "We urge the Federal Government to declare an emergency in this regard. It should impress the need to pass a supplementary budget to cover the reconstruction on to the lawmakers; the reconstruction should not last more than a year. We should also look into strengthening the rail transport system in the country.
The main arterial road in the axis is currently undergoing reconstruction. Officials of the company handling the project said earlier in the month that they have achieved 75 percent completion and were aiming to finish at the end of July.
"The budget for the transport system needs to include provision for a modern rail system. This is an integral part of modern port operations, as, without it, the roads will still be congested with expansion in maritime trade," Fadayomi said.
He further advised; "The NPA should modernise and drive its operations with technology. Goods take too long to export, and imports suffer long delays before they are cleared and loaded. Scanners and other equipment should function optimally, as they will reduce the need for manual clearing of goods and physical interaction, which fuel delays and corruption. The call-up system should be strictly implemented", he added.
In the midst of the gloom and doom, there is a band of people who are benefiting from the temporary communities the tanker drivers create when they park at a place for too long. For instance, Abubakar Mohammed, a medicine seller at the Ojuelegba parking area, said it has provided him with the opportunity to sell malaria drugs and painkillers to the drivers, who are often stranded at the queue. Mohammed, whose only knowledge in the drug was that his elder sister owns a chemist shop at Maiduguri, said he hopes to go back to school with the proceeds.