A drive to Apapa and through Apapa to see the rot that is Nigeria

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The year was 1967 and I had just returned from the United Kingdom where I had gone to for a study leave. On my return, my employer – the then Federal Ministry of Works posted me to take charge of the geotechnical works for the foundation of the Apapa-Ijora Bridge. It was one of the biggest projects the ministry was embarking on at that time. Most of the funding for the project had come from the World Bank and they were actively involved in the construction of the bridge. In my role overseeing the geotechnical works, I was to report to a World Bank representative named Engineer Coleman. Engineer Coleman was a stickler for the rules and had very little tolerance for any level of unprofessionalism. I even recall almost getting fired by him for being absent from the project site for a few hours. In my defense, as a young man fending for himself without any family support, my salary meant a lot to me so when it was held back due to some administrative delay I was desperate. This fateful day, I had gone to the headquarters of the ministry in order to follow up on my three month salary that was yet to be paid.

I was probably gone for two to three hours but when I returned, I was met with a very upset project manager. Mr Coleman’s anger was that the foundation works of any construction was very critical talk less of at a project that meant so much to the country. He was of the opinion that I needed to keep an eye on things at all times, taking records of every excavation and filling that was taking place. I tried to explain my plight to him but he didn’t want to know about my unpaid salary because according to him, it was somebody’s responsibility to follow up on that just as it was my responsibility to be on the project site at a certain time. So, he recommend for me to be disciplined. This might have happened as being from the World Bank, Mr Coleman was very well regarded but for the intervention of Alhaji Sule Katagun, the then Chairman of the Public Service Commission.

You see, as Mr Coleman went on to explain, the Apapa-Ijora courseway construction was a very important project that had potentials to contribute hugely to the economy of Nigeria. Years later, his words still ring true at the Ijora bridge is one of the only two major routes to Apapa ports which are busiest sea ports in Nigeria.

Although I eventually resigned quite dramatically from the ministry, a story I share fully in my book – Hunger for Power-, I was proud at the completion of the bridge which turned out to be a road work and a bridge work to behold (mostly due to Mr Coleman’s ‘wahala’ I must say).  This was well over fifty years ago. But for the meticulous engineering works that was carried out by men of the then federal ministry of works and the World Bank representative to create the bridge and other roads to Apapa, we would have nothing left now. Little or no thanks to the abysmal maintenance culture of public infrastructure in the country.

Last Sunday, I decided to take a drive to Apapa where most of my early memories as a working adult were made. A journey that would usually take me no less than an hour on a bad day which Sunday afternoon shouldn’t have been, took me no less than four hours. The once glorious Apapa has degenerated into a state of public shame characterized by its collapsed and collapsing roads, intractable gridlock, and the nearly stationary presence of trucks and tankers that have become the bane of the city. There is also the issue of bribery between tank drivers and security personnel who are supposed to attempt restoring some level of orderliness in the region but would rather use the disorder to benefit their pockets. How? A tipping tank driver gets to pass faster than non-complaint tank drivers. These qualities make Apapa’s current state the perfect recipe for a disaster waiting to happen.

As someone who has spent most of his life building roads and bridges, I know for a fact that no road or bridge in the world is designed to take this type of load in this manner. When building or constructing roads of this grade, you take into consideration the load bearing capacity of the road that is you consider the potential load the bridge or road might need to bear at its highest peak. However, most of this consideration that goes into the designing of the foundation and laying the surface work is mostly based on the fact that ‘the loads’ are to be moving all the time not permanently stationed sometimes for weeks and months on the roads/bridges. That is what a parking lot or terminal is for, not a bridge. If something is not done to remove the trucks from the bridges and roads quickly those bridges will collapse in less than a few years.

Before moving to the Island, I lived in Apapa first as a bachelor then a few years later as a young husband and an expectant father. Many notable people I know also lived there like Murtala Mohammed before Dodan Barracks, Gen. Ike Nwachuwu, Admiral Ndubisi Kanu, and more. In fact I remember correctly that a lot of Nigeria Port Authorities and Navy personnel lived there. My sons left my home and made homes for themselves in Apapa and I have friends who also lived in Apapa because it was one of the most beautiful places to reside in Lagos. Today, many of us cannot see any residue of the Apapa we once knew. I doubt any Lieutenant Colonel in the army will be quick to take up accommodation in Apapa.

As an environmentalist, I am quick to spot the fact that the current state of that city is prime for a number of hazardous practices like public unsanitary disposal of solid/human waste – with tanker drivers sleeping in their vehicle for days without access to any toilets, canals and roadsides become the dumping ground. We also will have massive littering of waste as small traders migrate to where likely business is and in most cases, they don’t travel with trash cans – not when the ground is available to welcome their waste and that of their customers. There is also the security implication of tired and sometimes angry people waiting for days with little rest sometimes resorting to drugs and alcohol for the energy to survive the long journey many will still need to continue after leaving Apapa with goods for delivery.

Nigeria’s seaports are not ready for export diversification or foreign exchange earnings because they are seriously deficient. Also, the situation in Apapa cannot improve if the deficient seaports are not addressed as inefficient port activity has an impact on the surrounding area – just ask the people who have to deal with traffic in Apapa.

According to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the country has six seaports: Apapa and Tin Can in Lagos, the Onne and Port-Harcourt ports in Rivers State, the Warri Port, and the Calabar Port. But, by many accounts, only the Lagos ports are operating anywhere near full capacity.

I recall sometime in the eighties, I was returning to Nigeria from an overseas training program so I decided to buy a car in Germany. I drove my new car all the way to my company’s headquarters in London so that they could ship the car to Nigeria for me. At the London office, I was asked which port I wanted them to ship it to; Lagos, Port Harcourt or Warri. I chose Lagos because that was the state I was based but could have had the car sent to any of the ports we had spread across those states because they were functioning.

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