Hadiza Bala Usman, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority has been variously described as an amazon, a reformer, a miracle worker and a visionary leader who has succeeded, within a short time, in turning the fortunes of the NPA around, improved its revenue profile and instituted a robust transparency and anti-corruption mechanism that is giving the organisation a positive image. This may well be true. But one of the glaring failures of the NPA is in not developing other moribund ports across the country to reduce the stress on the ports in Apapa and decongest the gridlock in Lagos.
The two railways line built from colonial times – the western line from Lagos to Nguru and eastern line from Portharcourt to Maiduguri – carried cargoes from the north to the ports in Lagos and Portharcourt for export. These ports also handled imports for the flourishing trade and industrial complex across the east and west of the country. With the discovery of oil, two additional ports were developed in Calabar and Warri to support the export of crude oil.
However, post-independence Nigeria governments and subsequently government agencies discouraged the use of the eastern ports and concentrated virtually all shipments into and outside Nigeria at the Apapa port forcing all Nigerian importers and exporters into the Apapa port. When pressures began to build up at the Apapa ports, the government later developed the Tin Can Island port, still within the Apapa axis to cope with the pressure on Apapa.
Of course, the pressures increased and the Lagos ports could no longer cope. To make matters worse, the eastern ports, due to abandonment, had silted and become shallow and unable to admit big ship increasing the dependency on the Apapa ports.
The result was that Apapa, that hitherto calm, serene port city where both residents and export and import trading find meaning and flourished, was turned into something unrecognisable: a decrepit wasteland where, although money is still being made, virtually all infrastructure have been allowed to decay and collapse due to pressure on the port facilities. Apapa sadly became a metaphor for stress, suffering and suffocation, devoid of any charm and consequently avoided like leprosy by those who do not have pressing need to go there. The environment has been degraded almost irredeemably by desperate merchants whose trucks and tank farms have overrun the city. Going to Apapa became synonymous with ‘journeying to hell.’ The amount of losses to both importers and exporters and the general public and the economy of the country as a whole is colossal.
What should be among the first action plans of a reform-minded NPA leadership? Shouldn’t it be a robust plan to decongest the Apapa ports by investing in the dredging of the eastern ports to allow big ships berth? But no, the Hadiza Usman-led NPA had no such plans. Rather, the concern of the leadership is in erecting a seven billion naira (N7 billion) head office in Abuja while access to the ports are becoming impossible and the entire city including other roads serving the entire population of Lagos have been taken over by trucks and containers waiting to gain access to the ports.
While the leadership of the ports authority is being hailed, reports on port efficiency continue to list Nigeria as one of the most inefficient and most expensive ports operations globally. One of such reports is the moverdb.com 2018 Overseas Cargo and Freight Costs template that shows that freight costs from the United States (Los Angeles & New York) to different port destinations of the world. The rates shows that the Apapa port from New York is the most expensive destination among the countries included in the template. For instance, it costs about $4, 982 to ship a 20 feet container from New York to Apapa, which is about twice the amount to ship a container of the same size to Cape Town, South Africa (at $2, 542). This is despite the fact that New York to Lagos is just 6,516 nautical miles and takes approximately 27 days for a ship to sail the distance while New York to Cape Town is 9,097 nautical miles and takes approximately 38 days to sail.
Also, the average turnaround time for ships at Apapa is estimated in excess of 30 days as against just two days for the most efficient ports globally.
Truth is; the NPA leadership has yet to scratch the problems of the Nigerian ports and are yet to successfully turn around the moribund organisation into an efficient and service-oriented one. We urge the leadership, just like the Lagos state government has done recently, to begin to revive other ports in Nigeria to decongest the gridlock in Lagos. Once that is done, the leadership can now concentrate on efforts to streamline ports operations to drastically cut down turnaround time to position Nigeria as a global business destination.