Recent happenings at Nigeria’s seaports have shown that the need for an efficient cargo evacuation by rail is long overdue. However, with the port facilities currently overstretched, there is need to apply constraints in the commencement of rail works in the ports, writes TOLA ADENUBI.
Apapa port is unarguably Nigeria’s busiest seaport, accounting for close to 50 per cent of cargoes that come into the country. The port concession of 2006 saw the port terminals handed over to private operators like APM Terminals; Apapa Bulk Terminal Limited (ABTL), a subsidiary of Flour Mills Ltd; ENL Consortium; and Green View Development Nigeria Ltd, a subsidiary of the Dangote Group. However, while the cargo at the Apapa port surged after the ports were handed over to private firms to manage, with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) remaining in a landlord capacity, the means of cargo evacuation have remained the same both pre and post port concession era.
With Nigeria’s borders closed to commercial activities, the seaports have remained the only access through which goods have come in and exited the country in the last six months, aside the airports. The attendant effect of all cargoes leaving the ports by road has had a damaging effect on Nigeria’s road network, prompting efforts by government to extend the standard gauge rail, which was initially meant to stop at the Ebutte-Metta Junction of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), to the Apapa port.
Structures earmarked for demolition
In his 2018 visit to the ports to see how the standard gauge rail will slice through the Apapa port, the Minister of Transportation, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi was shown some port structures that might have to give way if the port is expected to be linked to the standard gauge rail. Notable among the structures earmarked for demolition by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), the contractor handling the standard gauge rail projects are warehouses, sheds, and an entire administrative building sitting on the right of way of the rail projects inside ABTL Terminal, APM Terminal and ENL Terminal.
During his inspection of the port structures sitting on the standard gauge rail right of way, the Minister of Transportation had stated clearly that all structures on the right of way of the standard gauge rail project would have to give way because of the desire of Mr. President that the rail project must extend to the ports. With the minister during the inspection were the Managing Director of the NPA, Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman and the managing directors of some of the affected port terminals. However, at this period in 2018, Nigeria’s ports were not overstretched and the issue of congestion was not as alarming as what obtains today.
The ABTL is the port terminal bordering the Apapa train station of the NRC, and the first in line to feel the pains of demolition, anytime the exercise commences. Second in line is the ENL Consortium terminal.
‘Demolition will cause derailment of port operations’
In the words of a port worker who simply identified himself as James Anochie, “That the first two terminals that will get affected by the proposed demolition are bulk cargo terminals means the demolition exercise needs to be well planned and not hurriedly done.
“You know bulk terminals handle grains, wheat, fish etc, so people should know the importance of those sheds and warehouses that you see in most bulk terminals. If these structures are brought down in the midst of this congestion just to construct the standard gauge rail, it could derail port operations in these terminals.
“ABTL and ENL Consortium terminals are both bulk cargo terminals, and there is need for proper planning before there can be any demolition exercise in these port facilities. Aside the congestion, we are also talking about relocation of massive equipment used in handling bulk cargoes. Obviously, the terminal operators won’t allow bulldozers to bring down the equipment. These are equipment worth millions of naira that were brought in over the years by the terminal operators.”
Fast forward to 2020, and rail works have reached advanced stage with the rail tracks already laid from Lagos to Ibadan, remaining just some over-passes, under-passes and the completion of major train stations; but for the seaports, not much has been done.
Speaking to journalists during a media tour of the project, the Lagos-Ibadan Rail Project Manager, Xia Lijun lamented that only 200 meters of excavation works have been done so far inside the Lagos port.
According to Lijun, “Hopefully, in weeks to come, the NPA and the port concessionaires should have allocated a working area for rail works to commence fully inside the port. The port, for now, is the pressure that we have. We are talking to the people inside the ports together with our employer, which is the Federal Ministry of Transportation.
“The NPA is under the Federal Ministry of Transportation; same with the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), so with this relationship, we believe the Federal Ministry of Transportation can talk to the NPA, who in turn, should help us talk to the port concessionaires.
“At our last meeting with all concerned stakeholders, we agreed that in three weeks, we should have been given a working area inside the port. The three weeks will lapse by the end of this week. So, hopefully after this week, we should have a working area where we can start proper work inside the port.”
On the percentage of work achieved so far inside the Apapa port, Xia Lijun stated that excavation works had started inside the port. In his words, “We have already started minimal work inside the port. We had done excavation works of about 200 meters and have already laid the tracks.”
However, giving reasons why there is delay in beginning massive rail works inside the port, some operators called for caution, because according to them, hurried demolition of port structures to meet rail deadline may collapse port operations.
Speaking to the Nigerian Tribune, Managing Director of one of the affected port terminals, the Apapa Bulk Terminal Limited (ABTL), Captain Marvin Abe stated that it is very important for the rail project contractor to plan its project with an overall objective to minimise its impact on the economy vis-à-vis port operation.
According to him, “As you know, standard gauge rail is a ‘force fit’ project as it had not been considered pre-concession. To those outside the port, it may sound easy for them to suggest demolition of port structures without considering how the port will continue to operate after demolition and during the construction phases.
“However, measures are being quickly put in place to ensure a smooth transition and to avoid creating another problem on top of the lingering impacts of Apapa gridlock. Before demolition will commence, we have to adequately manage the pressures being exerted on Apapa port to ensure the realisation of the Federal Government’s reform objectives.
“Once the measures mentioned above are complete – port staff and equipment relocation, then the port structures will be ready for demolition. There are however lots of areas that the CCECC can work unhindered.
“They have to plan their project with an overall objective to minimise its impact on the economy. Wherever they may have failed to do that, we should show concern and that is what we have been doing.”
Also speaking to the Nigerian Tribune, a staff of another affected terminal operator, who begged not to have his name in print, stated that the hurried demolition of port structures may affect port operations.
In his words, “Hope you know that those port structures earmarked for demolition have roles that they play in the entire cargo clearance chain? So, we have to be careful with this demolition issue so as not to derail port operations. If care is not taken, and we allow it to affect port operations, it will affect the economy because the ports play a major role in Nigeria’s economy.
“Yes, government needs to connect the Apapa port to the standard gauge rail, but now the ports are congested and many of those structures earmarked for demolition are part of the overstretched port system. So, we need to take it slowly, and not in a hurry because there is a deadline for the rail project completion.”
Call for restraint
For a cross section of port users, the demolition of port structures and commencement of massive rail works inside the Apapa port can wait till the port is decongested. Speaking to the Nigerian Tribune, a clearing agent, Mr. Felix Owoade called for restraint based on the fact that the ports are currently congested.
“The NPA has been diverting vessels caught in the congestion crisis to nearby ports and terminals just to ease the situation. The Apapa port is overstretched. If you go inside the APM Terminals, you will know what congestion is all about.
“Efforts are just being put into decongesting the ports following the Yuletide rush and the border closure policy that brought unprecedented cargoes into the Apapa port towards the tail end of 2019. The movement of cargoes by barges and the vessel diversion policy of the NPA are just a few of the efforts being used to decongest the ports.
“If the Federal Government has a deadline to meet as regards rail project, there should be consideration for port operations because I am sure some of the structures earmarked for demolition are involved in the congestion crisis rocking the portss.
“If those structures sitting on the right of way of the rail project are brought down hurriedly in the midst of the congestion, won’t it affect port operations? Is port operations expected to stop because standard gauge rail is being constructed inside the ports? Or have we forgotten that port operations are an integral part of our economy?
“The rail project contractor can focus on other aspects of the project for now and allow the NPA to decongest the port. What we have now is a spillover of cargoes that came in during the Yuletide rush, I am sure before the end of June, this congestion issue would have been long gone and by then, the contractor can be allowed to bring down structures that are sitting on the right of way of the rail project,” Mr. Felix Owoade told the Nigerian Tribune.