By Moyosola Okuneye & Samson Monehin
Mrs. Folake Soji-George is the President of Corporate Fleet Owners Association of Nigeria. In this interview with MMS Plus newspaper, she spoke extensively on the myriads of challenges facing trucking in Nigeria especially at the port sector even as she revealed several pertinent maritime sector issues.
At the twilight of 2018 there were several suggestions from numerous meetings between NPA, truckers, Navy and other security agents at the ports to curb the menace of gridlock on the Apapa roads but no success has been recorded so far. Why has this problem defiled solutions?
The gridlock on the Apapa road has been described as a monster according to a very close friend, Admiral Eyo. As a part of efforts to provide solutions to this problem several stakeholders have met on numerous occasions to deliberate on the issue. Most times we spend hours to brainstorm and strategize and at the end of the day we develop some policy statements that we can see as a way of resolving the situation but an ugly head always comes to destroy the effort. It has been very discouraging and very strenuous. As part of efforts to resolve this problem the NPA directed that all shipping companies must have and utilize empty container holding bays but the important question we asked then was – what happens when all the holding bays are filled up? Nobody answered this question at that meeting and it explains the situation we have today.
Recall that the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo came to Lagos over this issue and he set-up a taskforce comprising the Navy, Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA), NPA, Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) and other relevant agencies. We have discovered that the traffic problem isn’t just the state of the roads but it is amplified by empty containers on the road and the taskforce headed by Admiral Eyo was set up to look into it.
At one of our recent meetings presided over by the Chairman of the taskforce, Admiral Eyo where all relevant agencies including truckers, shipping companies and NPA were present, we looked at the possibility of the shipping companies coming with sweeper vessels to move most of these empty containers out of the country so that the ones on the road can be kept at the holding bays. The truth is that most of those containers on trucks along the port access roads have nowhere to go, so we saw this as a viable solution. The representatives of the shipping companies at the meeting also assured us that they would go back and discuss with their managements on the need to make this sacrifice for the benefit of the industry. We also appealed to shipping companies to reduce the demurrage they were charging for containers that couldn’t access the holding bays. Since the holding bays are filled and the container is on a truck, they can’t continue counting demurrage when they don’t have room for the empties. We left the meeting that day with some degree of satisfaction and the shipping companies said they would have a meeting among themselves to analyze the solutions and adopt something to ameliorate the problem.
However, I learnt authoritatively that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) held another meeting shortly afterwards which the taskforce attended and the Council kicked against this idea at the meeting, stating that it was their responsibility to oversee the affairs of the shipping companies. Since then, nothing has been heard about that solution. I don’t know what Shippers’ Council has done in a bid to solve this problem of empty containers that now reside on trucks which have caused agents to pay colossal sums as demurrage on the containers. In most cases, the delay would see the container deposit wiped off and the agents end up owing the shipping companies. It is a very terrible situation.
I learnt that NPA and other members of the taskforce came up with a manual truck call-up system to help resolve this issue and bring about some degree of orderliness in vehicular movements at the ports especially for trucks. Why hasn’t this taken effect?
This is one of the recent options we have adopted. It is going to take effect very soon but we haven’t concluded plans on how best to get it done. The arrangement is that all the trucks should leave the roads and go and get garages that could accommodate at least fifty trucks. There would be a manual NPA call-up and the Navy would use that call-up to coordinate the traffic. The taskforce would call the trucks manually from the different parks but it hasn’t taken off. We are waiting for the flag-off because NPA and the taskforce personnel are still meeting to conclude the arrangement.
The message has been sent to us and we received it as a welcome development. The system could be very efficient and those trucks coming from outside the state could get call-up from those contracting them. They would have to patronize a truck park or garage rather than parking on the roads. There would be specific time to call trucks from various parks depending on the call-up.
Nevertheless, another issue has come up as the Ministry of Works just opened the Leventis Bridge but Hi-tech Construction Company has blocked the Liverpool road without consulting or contacting anybody for traffic management. They said they wanted to start the construction of the Liverpool to Tin Can road whose MoU has been signed when the flag-off was done last year. I don’t know when we are going to have respite in Apapa because as we are getting out of one problem another one is coming.
If Wharf road is totally opened, does it mean there shouldn’t be access on Tin Can? If so, all the trucks on Tin Can axis would be forced to use the Apapa – Wharf road and that would mean more traffic on that axis again.
I’m impressed that the Managing Director of NPA is giving a lot of attention to truckers and admonishing them to form a group. What is she trying to get the truckers achieve with the united force?
It is important that we have one body that will be deliberating with the government. She wants us to overcome the challenges of contradiction. There have been cases where AMATO will say something and the Corporate Fleet group would contradict it.
This unity is needed for ease of governance and interaction with the regulatory agencies. You can be sure of the group to address when there is need to circulate any information and you can be sure that the information disseminated would be delivered to those at the grassroot level when all parties have an umbrella where they are represented. As an agency, you can’t talk to one group today and another group says it wasn’t aware of what you said; this makes the situation cumbersome and very difficult.
So, it is a good development if well managed and politics isn’t allowed to kill it. However, we are not unaware of the bread and butter union and association, those that do not have a stake, people that don’t have a single truck and they will be running helter-skelter to jeopardize business for those that have invested their life and money in sourcing for their livelihood.
I’m concerned about what Shippers’ Council did or how it managed the solution put forward by the taskforce. Has the taskforce made efforts to meet with the Council again to know what they are doing on this trucking quagmire at Lagos ports?
I was not at the meeting where the Council kicked against the solution proposed by the taskforce. Truckers attended that meeting and I learnt from a reliable source that Shippers’ Council felt that some people wanted to hijack their job. This is part of the problems in the industry where one agency strives to ensure another doesn’t take over its job. If you don’t want your part of the job to be taken, what effort have you made especially when there is problem?
If there is a problem, the option of getting a sweeper vessel is not going to be an everlasting or a continuous thing; it is just to get out of a particular problem. When the problem is solved, you go back to the status quo. This is just to solve the problem of all the holding bays that are filled.
So, we are saying you make sacrifice here, let me make sacrifice on the other end to get rid of this problem. I said I’m tired because I don’t understand what is happening again because you have different people having different agenda and I can’t understand what they are trying to do.
What about the issue of extortion of truckers at ports and along the port access roads, has this stopped or worsened?
You know that in Nigeria when government sets up an agency to come and ameliorate suffering, they are the ones that will compound the sufferings one way or the other for pecuniary gains. I believe that Nigerians are always in too much hurry. You find that most people are self-centered and this caused the problem of extortion. I tell whoever cares to listen to me that nobody would ask me for the type of money they were collecting from them. Nobody has ever collected N20,000 or N30,000 or N70,000 or N80,000 from me. I would not pay, for what reason! It is probably because somebody is in a hurry because I also took it upon myself to interview some people that have one or two trucks and they told me “madam, it’s because you have fleet, nobody will ask you for money, because you have fleet, you can do this, you can do that but for them, they want to work and they cannot afford to stay for two weeks or one month without jobs so they will go and offer somebody money. Who will offer you money that won’t take?
So, they were the ones that started the money issue. Now it has gotten out of hand, they are the ones shouting and those that are used to collecting the money are looking for how to cut their heads with ridiculous demands. It has really become a wide spread thing.
The good thing is that at Lagos Port Complex (LPC)), the port manager flagged off an anti-extortion committee. The committee also has limitations, the task force is not under LPC purview, LPC’s purview is Eleganza which is from NIMASA, down to the port. So, what about the other routes? From Liverpool to Apapa gate is N30,000 if you are carrying container and it happened to me. We carried a container on Monday (last week), we wanted to go and drop empty. We have our call-up to go and drop the empty at Liverpool, my staff called me that they were asking them for N10,000 and if you don’t pay the N10,000, they will turn them but that is not under the purview of Apapa port that has set up anti-extortion committee. We had to call Rear Admiral Eyo. They are on the road right now trying to dismantle all those people that have built road blocks to be collecting money. He is the chairman of the task force and the people that are asking for money at that end, they were task force.
He called my other colleagues and they followed him to go and dismantle the illegal extortion road blocks. What the agencies are saying in essence is that, if you report, we will follow suit to make sure that we dismantle such system. Those that are concerned, they don’t want to report because they think they want to go quickly but the thing is eating into their profit because if somebody collects N30,000 from a job of N150, 000, minus diesel, minus driver’s commission, minus over head cost; how much do you have left to operate with?
If we all believe and want to sincerely cut off this problem, we can do it. But if we want to think about ourselves or individual companies or how we would survive, we will have people that will be ripping us off every day.
On the part of the government, they should help us talk to whoever they give contracts to understand that they cannot just block the road without getting in touch with the people, the road users, the stakeholders. Everyone should be carried along because we don’t want to come out one morning and discover that the road has been blocked for construction.
The current volume of trucks was not envisaged when the roads were built decades ago. The carrying capacity of the road hasn’t been enhanced yet the volume of activities has grown significantly. What do you think is the way forward?
You know that in the transport industry, government is making a lot of effort to provide the railway and explore the potentials in the waterways. I just came in from the port where we have a consignment that is being blocked out by Dangote consignment and they said they were waiting for the badge to come and evacuate Dangote’s. We have some people that are going into the badges and the railway openings that government is doing. What government needs to do now is to sensitize people and encourage people to go into such businesses that are just opening up. It’s not like badges were not available before, waterways has always been there, railway line has always been there, but you have some of the rail lines that had issues and they are trying to make some corrections and open up. When we have all other means of transportation available, the pressure on the road will be reduced and we will have a better transport environment.
What have been the successes recorded by this association, ‘Corporate Fleet’?
We are business people, we are not a union that will be going from office to office to solicit for money. We have to first of all mind our businesses in terms of making sure that we have sustenance so that many people would find us attractive and join us.
The success we have made so far is that we have been able to talk to the government agencies and they gave us recognition. They know that they have to parley with us to solve the problems that we have in the logistics and transport sector.
We have made a lot of headway and success to have people that we can collaborate with to discuss the issues and they listen to us, get ideas here and there on how to make the industry grow better.
For membership, it’s an ongoing thing and we have people coming from time to time to join but we still have to maintain our standard in that all our members must have their garages and they must have minimum of 10 trucks in their fleet before you can become a member of Corporate Fleet Truck Association and we have about 60 members right now.