Importers, clearing agents, truck owners and other operators at the Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports in Lagos have cried out against alleged extortion by security officials at the facilities.
Some of the operators who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday blamed the worsening traffic gridlock along the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway and the port access road at the Tin Can Island Port Complex on the illegal activities of the security officials.
They said the port security, police and the Presidential Task Team on Apapa Gridlock have created an artificial traffic situation to extort them.
Describing the alleged illegal operation of the officials as “well organised and institutionalised,” the operators urged President Muhammadu Buhari to order the immediate disbandment of the presidential task team on the Apapa gridlock.
The Chairman of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Remi Ogungbemi, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES on telephone from Lagos on Tuesday, said his association had made several complaints and reports have been made to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) management but drew no response.
He said he had personally witnessed on several occasions truck drivers forced to pay huge bribes before being allowed into the port to do business.
Mr Ogungbemi said this has increased the cost of doing business in the country and worsened inflation in the economy.
Mr Ogungbemi said the introduction of the president team on Apapa gridlock, in place of Nigerian Navy officials, has worsened the traffic situation in the area.
“The situation has degenerated so badly that members of the (task team) have formed themselves into a cabal or cartel, such that if a truck operator does not belong to their circle, his truck will not be given access to the port.
“They have a special operation code. If you are not a member of the syndicate or cartel and cannot provide the special code for the day, they will not allow your truck into the port,” Mr Ogungbemi said.
He said the activities of the syndicate is so pervasive that hardly would one find anyone operating at the port who is not involved, including some members of his association, who, he said, were frustrated into joining in the illegalities for the survival of their businesses.
Truck operators lament
Some truck drivers also expressed frustration over the situation. They said the perennial traffic jam along the Apapa-Oshodi expressway was not only due to the poor condition of the roads, but also as a result of several operators who park their trucks along the roads after being denied access for failure to pay bribes to the security officials.
A truck owner and an executive member of the AMATO, Sanni Bala, said the illegal activities of the syndicate was seriously affecting port operations as cargo delivery has considerably slowed down.
He said trucks having to pay bribes of between N70,000 and N200,000 has inflated haulage and shipping costs, and is also fueling inflation in the country.
“The extortion by NPA security officials, police and the Presidential Task Team along Apapa and Tin Can Port road axis has become a daily routine.
“It is an institutionalised phenomenon that is taking a serious toll on the income of truck owners and exacerbating the plight of motorists on that axis.
“The traffic problem along the access road is artificial and caused by human factors, to create a convenient environment for the syndicate to extort operators,” Mr Bala said.
Search for solution
Mr Ogungbemi said AMATO wants the automation of the clearance process and the passage of trucks into the port.
“Any arrangement that is subject to human interference will be subject to corruption and favouritism. Establishing an automated seamless system that would ensure the admission of trucks to the port would avoid trucks parking along the roads.
“How we want the process to work is to ensure that trucks are allowed to remain in their private garages and not allowed into the port area until all clearing protocols have been completed,” he said.
Syndicate’s modus operandi
A clearing agent operating at the Tin Can Island Port, Ojo Akintoye, identified four toll points between the first and second gates of the Tin Can Island Port complex erected by the Presidential Task Team, Police and NPA officials where trucks pay bribes before being granted access to the port.
In each of the toll gates, Mr Akintoye said truck drivers pay between N1.1 million and N1.2 million to be granted access against the previous N100,000 to move containers out of the port.
“The cheapest a truck could be hired today as a result of the extortions by the syndicate is about N1 million to move goods out of the port,” he said.
Disband task team now
The National Vice President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Kayode Farinto, also called on President Buhari to disband the task team, which he said has become “a money-making machine.”
Mr Farinto said clearing agents lose an average of N300 million weekly to illegal collections by NPA security officials, police and members of the Presidential Task Team, adding that to access the port, truck operators pay as high as N280,000 to security operatives along the way.
He lamented the absence of an electronic call-up system, saying that the manual call up system currently being used by the NPA was fueling corruption.
Last February, the House of Representatives resolved to investigate allegations of extortion of truck drivers in Apapa port by security operatives.
The lawmakers had identified the alleged extortion as a major cause of the traffic gridlock in the area as operatives delay the movement of trucks whose drivers refuse to cooperate with them.
Reacting to the allegations, the Assistant General Manager, Strategic Communications of NPA, Ibrahim Nasiru, said NPA was not aware of extortion of drivers and other operators.
“If they have made any formal report of any case, we (the management of NPA) will sanction anybody found doing anything abnormal against the bye-laws of the organization,” he said.
As part of its efforts to end the perennial gridlock in the Apapa and Tin Can Island, Mr Nasiru said the NPA held at least five fora to generate a solution, but with different groups preferring different proposals.
He said the NPA is only one of many entities involved in the operations of the ports and cannot impose its opinions on the other agencies operating in the port, including the Nigeria Customs Service.
“What the NPA management is doing to reduce the problem is to establish an automated Transit Truck Park as well as an electronic call-up system where all trucks will park till they are called to go into the port for their business. Any truck that is not called cannot have access to the port area. We are working with the Lagos State government to acquire the location for the park planned to become functional in January 2021.
“Besides, we are liaising with the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing to handle remedial works on the portions of port access road, while the Lagos State government will deploy enforcement officers for maintenance of sanity along the port logistic ring,” he said.