By Evelyn Usman & Esther Onyegbula
For a long time in more than four years, motorists and commuters plying the Apapa/Oshodi Express Way, Lagos enjoyed unhindered flow of traffic , for the first time , from Saturday till Wednesday, August 7, 2019.
It is no longer news that businesses have been grounded, with at least 50% companies within and around Apapa axis, either shutting down or relocating, owing to the perennial gridlock that has not been helped by the indiscipline and corrupt practices of those assigned to clear it.
Residents have also relocated elsewhere, including owners of buildings within the area, no thanks to violent robbery attacks enhanced by the gridlock.
While some of those affected by this disturbing trend are alive to share their horrendous experiences, unfortunately, others are not as they were sent to unprepared graves by trucks which rammed into them while crossing or while on motorbikes that have become the only means of transportation.
Others, also have their fair share of harrowing experiences, especially in the hands of traffic robbers who dispossessed them of cash, telephones and other valuables.
The situation began with congestion on the road, during the administration of former President Ebele Jonathan. The blame was heaped on the door step of the Federal government, with accusation on its inability to construct good road along the axis.
It was also politicised, as the All Progressive Congress which was at the state level, blamed the Peoples Democratic Party , PDP at the Federal level then, of deliberately delaying action to address the congestion along the route.
When APC took over the mantle of leadership from the PDP, one expected that the situation would be immediately addressed as it would be devoid of blame and accusation between governments at both state and federal level. Unfortunately, that was not to be as the situation deteriorated, instead.
In 2017, the Federal Government directed truck drivers blocking roads in Apapa to vacate within seven days to enable the reconstruction work on Wharf Road to start. It also ordered telecommunication service providers and other operators to relocate their service cables on the Right of Way (RoW) of the project for work to begin. But this did not solve the gridlock.
In March 2018, the Nigerian Navy began enforcement of an earlier 48-hour ultimatum issued to truck drivers to vacate Lagos bridges, with a view to averting possible collapse and also to allow free flow of traffic along affected routes.
There was near total compliance then, as bridges around Apapa and Oshodi/Apapa were free from the usual sight of trucks. It was also observed that 75 percent of trucks usually parked on the entire lanes along the Oshodi Apapa expressway, Boundary, Otto Wharf and Ijora areas, thereby making the routes inaccessible to other road users, complied, by occupying just one lane.
This was apparently due to the fear of the Military. Unfortunately, barely had the smooth ride along the Apapa/Oshodi begun, than it went back to its locked down state again. The partial compliance lasted for only a few days.
Determined to see an end to the traffic situation that extended to other link roads to the nation’s number one Ports, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, ordered a 72-hour joint operation to clear the gridlock around Apapa, during an unscheduled visit to Apapa , to assess the situation in June, last year. Like that of the Military case, respite was short-lived.
The cause of the collapse of two different committees , one of which was headed by the Navy and the other, the Police, was attributed to alleged extortion. Members of both committees were alleged to be collecting between N10,000 and N150,000 from truck owners in order to allow them faster passage into the port. Congestion was the result.
Those who could not afford to grease the palms of members of the task force, were left on the queues for as long as three weeks or more.
Information at Saturday Vanguard’s disposal also revealed that there was scheming from security agencies to head the task force on traffic. This was because of the monthly largesse provided by the Federal Government to motivate members.
In order to achieve their aim , there were accusations and counter accusations among the parties involved .On one occasion, a former Commissioner in Lagos State, drew the attention of the powers that be, alleging that the Task Force led by a senior Police officer was collecting money from truck drivers. This led to the disbandment of that committee, even though it witnessed the longest slight reprieve on Apapa/Oshodi expressway , before now..
Controversy, also trailed the joint committee headed by a senior naval officer . This included claims by truck drivers that the officers were not only extorting money from them but also beating them up at the slightest opportunity. There were also calls to remove the Military from the axis.
NURTW to the rescue?
Again, like in other cases, the Federal Government bowed to pressure on it to disband the committee headed by the Military. This time around, it instituted another committee in May 2019, headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, to clear the gridlock within two weeks, by ensuring the removal of trucks from bridges and roads within Apapa and all adjoining streets leading into the Apapa axis.
Since the Presidential Task Team on the Clearance of Apapa Ports road , which has Mr Kayode Opeifa, as its Executive Vice-Chairman and CP Hakeem Odumosu as Head of its enforcement team, started work, matters have gotten worse even after another Presidential order to clear the traffic within two weeks. This failed. An extension for another two weeks also failed to clear the roads. The situation even got worse. There even more allegations of corruption.
But a new dimension which brought temporal respite to motorists plying the route only during the day time, was introduced last week, with members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers embedded into the taskforce. The emergence of the NURTW, could be described as afternoon magic wand , as it brought the needed solution to the gridlock experienced along Apapa/ Oshodi expressway. But their efforts lasted for only few hours during the day times. Horror returned in the evenings.
Members of the union who wore reflective jackets on which was written ‘Community Security’ were sighted with sticks. Their presence alone commanded the needed discipline in truck drivers.
To the surprise of every regular caller along the Apapa-Oshodi expressway, trucks which usually took over the service lane which serves as the only accessible lane to ply, had disappeared last Saturday, thereby giving the axis a new look from what it used to be.
This continued till Wednesday this week. However, on Thursday, there was a mild hitch in traffic flow between Otto Wharf and Berger yard. Saturday Vanguard was informed that it was caused by some depots around that corridor who were discharging petroleum products to tankers waiting for their turn to load.
Saturday Vanguard observed that the Union had three pin down points at Fagbems bus-stop, Mile two Oke and UBA. To ensure smooth flow, they would survey the area on motorbike and order any truck found to be maneuvering its way, to turn back.
When Chairman of the NURTW Mile Two, Price Abeyi Abayomi, was approached to explain what his team did that commanded a 100% compliance by truck drivers to vacate the service lane, he merely stated that they (truck drivers) understood their (NURTW members) language.
“The truck drivers are all our members and so we know how to relate with them. What we did was to come out, talk to truck drivers and arranged them. We didn’t perform any magic we were able to make this progress because they are our members and we understand ourselves, we understand our language which the military and the police do not understand
“One thing people don’t understand is that NURTW comprises all drivers in Nigeria: both trucks, taxi, bus drivers and company drives.
For instance, I have some trucks on the road. My driver will not see me stand on the road and misbehave and my colleague drivers won’t see me and misbehave. So, for me to come out on the road to tell them to form a queue, they will obey because if they don’t , I will call their owners and they will lose their jobs.
“Once the truck drivers see us they behave themselves. As a union, there are ways we punish ourselves when we err which the Police and Military don’t understand. Whoever does not comply will be dealt with.
“As long as the committee remains, we will be here to sustain law and orderliness along this route. We are not Agberos, we are road transporters and because we have not been given the opportunity to do jobs like this, people believe we have nothing to offer”.
He revealed that over 100 NURTW members were drafted for the job, adding that members worked for hours.
Since they assumed duty, he said, they had been able to clear trucks off the road from Mile –Two to UBA, adding that they would extend the clearance to Coconut and Liver pool.
He however, said that the challenges they were confronted with , as at Wednesday, was the hitch in traffic flow that was caused by three terminals that were not working. This, he said made trucks and tankers which would have gone inside to remain outside, thereby preventing other trucks from moving to their destinations.
He said, “If those three terminals were working ,the trucks will move in because the one we could do today was to park some trucks into the park which can only contain 700 trucks and the parks are filled up already so other trucks are outside that is why we stopped working today(Wednesday)”.
Some members who spoke on the condition of anonymity however, called on the need for the Federal Government to provide some palliatives as motivation for them to do more, since the job according to them was a voluntary one.
But they seem to have started receiving their rewards from motorists , some of who stopped to openly acknowledge them and also offer them some cash. As at Tuesday, Saturday Vanguard learned that a motorist gave them N20,000 to buy water , when he observed they were standing under the scourging sun.
Another, also gave them N5,000.
A motorist, Jamiu Badejo, who spoke with Saturday Vanguard, said, “ this is really a huge relief because I have not driven for long because of the traffic situation here. We hope it will be sustained”.
Most truck drivers who spoke with Saturday also said that they preferred members of the union to other security agents.
One of them, Ganiu Musa, said, “ These agbero will beat anyone who disobeys them mercilessly. And when they do, who do you complain to? Besides, some of them own the trucks and they know owners of the trucks. They may report any driver to the owner and that would end the person’s job. That is the reason we comply”.
But commercial motorcyclists who have benefitted from the gridlock, being the only available means of transportation, seem not to be happy with the development as some of them said, it had made their customers to board buses, instead of taking motorbikes.
A return of the gridlock however, reared its head Wednesday night, after motorists, among who were Vanguard staff were held up in a particular spot until 1.30 am, as trucks blocked the entire road, from UBA down to Kirikiri. Saturday Vanguard learned that the situation was caused by some members of the task force and policemen who allegedly collected money from trucks to come into the depot. But by the time the trucks came in their numbers, there was no access road for other motorists.
But on Thursday, the situation eased off a little. With the foregoing, it is hoped that the tempo would not only be sustained but improved on, especially at night. Only then will one be able to boldly declare that what the Military, Police, Federal Road Safety Corps, Lagos State Traffic Management, LASTMA could not do, members of NURTW, commonly referred to as agberos are helping out especially during the day times when they are at work. At night, the officers return to the roads and the mayhem resurfaces, a case of seeming sanity at noon, madness at night. Lasting solution still needed.