In the multitudinous din that trailed the disorder in Apapa Government Reserved Area (GRA) and its environs in Lagos, everybody seems to have forgotten about the people and property owners in the vicinity. They have been left to groan under poor infrastructure and a siege created by truck drivers.
After a false start, the vice president, Prof. Yemi Osibanjo visited the ports and ordered a 72-hour joint operation by security operatives to clear the gridlock. Little was achieved and disorder still reigns supreme.
The nuisance of articulated vehicles heading in and out of the Apapa ports, the largest and busiest in West Africa has remained, as the drivers that line up several kilometres of access roads, continue to exploit government's laxity and insincerity towards enforcing relevant laws.
But for all the other 'hot' issues that have dogged the business and political space these few months, it is most likely that the Apapa GRA infrastructure decay would have dominated discussions all this while.
For most analyses, the issue appears to be so much about decongestion of the ports, reconstruction of the Apapa- Oshodi Expressway, building of trailer parks, decentralizing ports operations and organising the trailers drivers.
And the questions are many. Why did the Federal Government refuse to open all other ports in Calabar, Rivers and Delta? What has become of the properties in Apapa GRA? How do most of the retired property owners eke out a living as the mass exodus of residents persists? Why are the railways not performing optimally in ferrying the containers to other cities? Why are some truck owners and truck drivers above the law?
These questions have remained unanswered. Now, Apapa residents, property and business owners have to bear the brunt of chaotic traffic and absence of proper infrastructure. They are now faced with perpetual gridlocks on many of the roads in and around Apapa GRA. This situation has continue to put a dent on the finances and lifestyles of people and businesses in the area.
Thus, Apapa once a precious piece of real estate whose glamour is accentuated with its being a port city has become a metaphor for all that is bad in Nigeria. House rents have also dropped significantly, and vacancy rate in Apapa has risen by almost 50 per cent.
The place once provided the housing for needs of executives and families through single and multiple-storied accommodations.
Social and recreational facilities are provided by private and public organizations including a boat club located on Apapa Creek.
As with all other benefits of a growing nation, the community had the best of infrastructure, thriving real estate with its Government Residential Area (GRA) being the next best thing among the noveau riche of the time; a haven for offices of international businesses, exuding a magnetic social pull for people across Lagos and neighbouring cities.
But these are now in the past as the once sought-out place has been deserted with many blue chip companies relocated, while property values continue to nosedive as a result of crumbling public infrastructure and perennial gridlock.
The once revered Apapa Government Reserved Area (GRA), which played host to sailors, the top naval echelon and highly skilled locals, does not command the same respect it did in the past, as most people have now relocated to other top-notch Lagos neighbourhoods of Ikoyi, Lekki and Victoria Island.
Indeed, the sorry state of Apapa has reflected the country as a place where infrastructure is left to decay due to leaders' ineptitude.
All over the world, port cities like Apapa are replete with an animated business ambience and seaside splendour.
For instance, places like Southampton in England, ancient Florence in Italy and Los Angeles in the United States are wealthy for their strategic advantage as gateways to global trade.
They are wealthy and elitist, attracting experts and the top breed of highly experienced locals. The bubbling and hustling give these neighbourhoods a character that permeates the city.
With a land area of about 39 square kilometres, Apapa was in this category until things began to fall apart.
Indeed, a recent study by the Organised Private Sector (OPS) showed that the Nigerian economy is currently losing about N600 billion in customs revenue, estimated $10 billion (N3.06 trillion at N306.35/$1) on non-oil export and about N2.5 trillion corporate earnings across the sectors on a yearly basis, due to inefficiencies at the ports and access roads to the ports.
According to the study undertaken by the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), in collaboration with the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) and OPS made up of MAN, NECA, NACCIMA, NASME, NASSI, and Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the chamber noted that the port reforms undertaken by the Federal Government are being frustrated by businesses and government agencies thriving from the inefficiency of the ports.
Many businesses have been grounded, while property investments in and around Apapa and the environs have been at a record low. Companies have moved out in droves. The whole scenario was worsened by the recession that persists in the real estate sector, and has greatly been reflected on the rental values.
An estate surveyor and President, Nigerian British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), Akin Olawore told The Guardian that the strain on city infrastructure and shift in industrial and economic focus have led to the present status.
He said: "About a decade ago, there was a gradual decline in property value. Vacancy rate went up astronomically about five years ago and landlords used rent reduction or non-review of rents as incentives for those who still have compelling reasons to remain in the city."
Mrs. Erejuwa Gbadebo, the Chief Executive Officer, International Real Estate Partners (IREP) Nigeria corroborated Olawore views, saying "property and rental values have gone down as people have moved to more accessible areas of Lagos."
A resident on Liverpool Road, who identified himself as Balogun Disu, said as at 2015, the cost of renting a mini-flat on the street ranged between N400, 000 and N450, 000 but has now dropped to N350, 000 per annum.
According to the Nigeria Real Estate Report 2018, by Ubosi Eleh and Company, in December 2016, the residential rental values in Apapa GRA for three bedroom flat was N3, 000, 000; four/five bedroom detached house N5,000,000 and three bedroom bungalow N3, 500,000. But in December 2017, the prices dropped to N2, 500,000; N3, 500,000 and N3, 000,000 respectively.
Similarly, commercial rental for office space was 30,000 per square metres in December 2016 and a year later, it nosedived to N25, 000 per square metres. On the retail market, the vacancy rate in Apapa Mall is about 45 per cent.
When The Guardian visited the port's corridor last week, roads in the once-dignified area had become ridden with potholes.
There was a host of vacant houses and balconies, which bore the inscriptions: 'For Sale' and 'To Let.'
There were also the long faces and lamenting stares of shop owners bemoaning what had once been a bustling naira-spinning quarters.
The tale of Apapa somewhat summarises the trend of Nigeria's business trajectory, as a nation in confusion and in search of renaissance.
The chairman of Apapa GRA Residents Association, Ayo Vaughn, lamented how the situation in Apapa was denying property owners rental income, estimating that 40 percent of the entire buildings in the Apapa GRA were empty.
"On the average, 10 houses are empty on any given street. With about N5 million house rent per annum, it means that on one street alone, income loss for the five-year period is about N250 million," he said.
Vaughn lamented further "in spite of this ugly situation, Lagos State government collects tenement rates from Apapa residents and expects them to pay same as payable in Ikoyi and Ikeja GRA".
Mr. Abdul Mummuni, a landlord along the Commercial Avenue said he had wanted to sell his property and buy another one where the road is accessible but had seen no buyer.
He said that government had really abandoned the Apapa axis despite that it is the country's economic gateway.
Also, speaking on this, a property owner and managing director, Trans Atlantic Shipping Limited, Dr. Uche Ohafia, said property value had gone down below 50 per cent.
The building located at No. 36 Kofo Abayomi Avenue, which used to be booming with trucks of cleared cargos is now a ghost of its former self.
According to him, if you come to our estate at Kofo Abayomi, more than half of the buildings are empty because many people have packed out.
The place is supposed to be a hub for clearing agents; they are now operating outside Apapa.
What is actually helping them is the electronic system of doing business and the use of Internet, as well as WhatsApp.
" The issue of going for human interface has gone down drastically and the shipping companies also contributed much through the introduction of electronic system of payment whereby you can get invoice, pay online and do skeletal services within the port and get away," he said.
Describing the state of Apapa inner roads as worst ever in Nigeria, Dr. Ohafia said his company could have packed out but for its expertise in tariff calculation and interpretations.
"The company is now like an agent to other agents, who could not do the tariff calculation and interpretation, our core business now has shifted to consultancy because over 90 per cent of people in the cargo business were not interested in knowing the tariff calculation and when it was made mandatory, it became a big business to us", he added.
Dr. Ohafia stressed that the poor state of infrastructure started in 2011 and got in 2013.
"There was improvement in 2018 but got worse in 2019.
"It is so bad this year and nothing to write home about, property owners are frustrated, they have abandoned it for somewhere else. Unoccupied residents are more than occupied ones.
"Right now, the rent is less than one quarter of the rate what it was before and still no one is ready take it', he added.
Another resident, Johnson Okon, recalled with nostalgia, Excelsior Hotel, built in the 1960s; now called Etal Hotel, which used to be the soul of Apapa and the toast of all.
According to him, the hall of Excelsior Hotel used to be the melting pot for events and social gatherings, as well as the amusement park.
"The park used to be the main attraction to Apapa. We had huge crowds there during festivities, like Christmas, Easter, Eid-el-Fitr and Eid-el-Maulud. The ports were a major pull, too," he said.
But the closure of the community's famous park and sale of the port have driven people away from the area, as only people who have legitimate business at the ports come around and, others, especially petty traders and visitors, who came for sightseeing, are no longer allowed thoroughfare. Apapa now subsists on allied maritime businesses and just a few social spots keep it going.
Some of the companies that used to command the heights in Apapa, according to him - Lever Brothers, IGL, Kingsway, SCOA and other major motor dealers - have moved shop.
"These good companies have all left because of traffic congestion and proliferation of depots. A lot of them at First Gate have left. If you go to the houses around, you will see 'To Let' signs posted everywhere. Before, the houses used to be expensive, but now they are cheap," he noted.
Mrs. Adeola Bamigboye, an estate surveyor and valuer who operates in Apapa but exited the location about six months ago expressed dismay that the area, which used to be a hotbed for property sales, is currently witnessing about 60 to 70 percent vacancy rates in letting and sales.
According to her, regardless of property owners reducing rents to attract prospects, no one is taking up the empty spaces either for warehouses or residence in government reserved area. The shortfalls in the standards of roads and the unending long hour en-route to Apapa, she explained, are life-threatening and have impacted negatively on productive capacity.
" The trailer problem is a major concern in Apapa because they have taken over. You come into Apapa; you can't get out of Apapa. At times you trek from Ijora to Apapa and at times you get to work very late because of the traffic. We used to have international companies like Delko on our property but they have left.
" If you get to the streets of Apapa now, you can count the huge number of warehouses that are vacant. Part of the problem is the seaport. If the infrastructural problem in Apapa as well as the economy issue could be addressed, investors would come and the area will be back to its days of glory. Market value for property would rise and people will start hiring properties and investors will come in."
"The poor state of the economy has further affected the property market in Apapa especially the high rate of foreign exchange which made the foreign investors to leave the market as business was no thriving. Most of them who are expatriates have gone back to their country. Most of them are the ones that buy large warehouses, no matter how big, they would go for it but they have all left", she stated.
According to her, property owners are now begging tenants to come into their buildings while in most of the properties being managed, the occupiers have left because they complained that businesses was not thriving.
Corroborating Bamigboye, an estate surveyor and valuer, Mr. Tony of Tony Chegwe & Co, observed that sales and rents have dropped by 40 to 50 per cent while houses in Apapa Government Reserved Area are vacant with letting boards positioned almost everywhere yet no clients.
Chegwe said investors are also scared from making any investment in the area due to the deteriorating infrastructure in that location.
"Even if a landlord calls a particular price, nobody is ready to pay because there is problem of money and the currency has no value anymore. The infrastructure is also down," he said.
For Mr. Ade Ajaiye, a property owner who has lived in Apapa for over three decades, the federal and state governments' failure to address the infrastructural decay in Apapa is driving out many of the property owners and potential investors in the locality. He said government must wake up to its responsibility and revamp all road networks in Apapa while more trailer parks should be developed to house vehicles that park on the road.
According to him, if authorities don't address the infrastructure situation timely enough, Apapa, which is a major source of revenue for government, may soon become a deserted zone.
A professor of political economy and management expert, Prof. Pat Utomi, revealed that properties in Apapa, Lagos State, are now half their original market value.
Prof. Utomi in a lecture he delivered on the decay in the transport sector recently traced the fall in value of properties in Apapa to the collapse of the transport sector
Utomi noted that in the 1970s and 80s, the evacuation of goods and services from the ports in Apapa, which was by rail lines provided a unique relationship between commercial activities around the area and the residents.
He, however, said the commercial activities around those towns and villages have collapsed because of the decay in the rail sector.
Gbadedo stated that real estate cannot reach its true potential at the moment due to all the issues around accessibility. "It is sad as ideally, property there should command premium. Now would be the time to commit to long-term investments."
For Olawore, "the upswing in the return to the city has started. The physical commencement of infrastructure works is an enabler. If this can be done assiduously, there will be gradual redevelopment of the old structures and Apapa will wear a new look and become alluring once again."
He said: "The main economic pull in the city, the ports remain active but the entire infrastructure and environmental fabric should be expanded and modernized to cope with the expected population of people and businesses in the city. This should be projected because as the city is rejuvenated it will pull much more than even double its population at the 'bust' period and requires adequate facilities to cope with that population.
"This is a real estate opportunity and government should be an enabler. It should come up with good and sustainable partnership incentives for joint participation in road and public infrastructure expansion as well as incentives to encourage redevelopments. During the 'bust' some real estate businesses acquired properties and should be encouraged by the markets drawing power of infrastructure upgrade to commence redevelopment."
The Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing said it recently opened a section of the Ijora/Apapa Bridge, also known as Leventis Bridge, which was closed to traffic for repairs in July last year.
The highway, which is a major exit point from Apapa Wharf, was shut following a fire incident that affected its reliability.
The Director, Highway Service, South West, Mr. Funsho Adebiyi, said the action would assist in taking trucks off the road and ease traffic flow around the port.
Also the Federal Controller of Works in Lagos, Mr. Adedamola Kuti, said government are working hard to tackle the traffic menace at the port, promising that the Tincan Trailer Park, the main parking facility with supporting amenities, including a police post, convenience and an office building (to be used by the Nigeria Ports Authority) would soon be ready.
He disclosed that the entire work, including the shoreline protection, would be done within the next three months.
Confirming the development, the contractor, Mr. Gianfranco Albertazzi, said most of the materials needed for the completion of the shoreline were already at the port awaiting clearance.
The contractor assured that, when completed, the facility would take over 400 trucks off the road, which would significantly ease traffic on Apapa road.
Earlier, the government had also opened the four kilometre Apapa Wharf Access Road, which is funded by Dangote Industries and Flour Mills, to the tune of N4.3billion to reduce the traffic gridlock and logistics challenge faced by businesses around the area.
Also the Federal Government recently commenced the reconstruction of the Apapa- Oshodi- Oworonsoki Expressway towards finding permanent solution to Apapa traffic.