By Kenneth Jukpor
Prof. Samuel Odewumi is the Dean, School of Transport at Lagos State University (LASU); in this exclusive interview with MMS Plus, he appraises the Nigerian transport sector in 2017 and sets the agenda for 2018. Odewumi also laments over the multiplicity of deep seaports in the nation; explaining the vital role of a national logistics policy and the problems of concession in Nigeria, and other pertinent issues.
Let’s look at the Nigerian Transportation sector in general, 2017 was a year with lots of activities in the road, aviation, shipping and rail modes. From your perspective, how did the sector fare last year in terms of development?
In Nigeria we are used to making movements or activities without actually getting the job done. A lot was done but when you analyze what should have been done versus what was done, you find that the result was poor. It is so easy to say we did 20km road here or there because that has become the general report. People should stop giving us such statistics. If we were able to fix a 100km stretch of the roads within a particular period and in the same period another 400km of roads were damaged, can we say that we have made progress? This cannot be called massive infrastructural development; rather it is disjointed fragmentalism of all transport components. These are simply political moves and there is no coordination. Transportation is something that requires proper planning and coordination. What is required is a total infrastructural development and plan.
For example, look at the road projects in Lagos, from Okokomaiko to CMS, the road is three years behind schedule and it is not useful to the commuters because it hasn’t been completed. That road is a massive project and a beautiful one with the provision of rail but people at yet to enjoy the benefits of the road. The road is half-done and the traffic volume that should be there is missing, the hardship of transiting via that route worsened because of the ongoing construction. However, you find the government delving into other road construction without completing the major ones at hand and sometimes there are no funds to complete these projects. I would advise them to finish one before starting another because anytime there is such obstruction it creates traffic snares, obstructing the flow of traffic on that axis and creating bottlenecks.
Politicians always love to give themselves a false sense of activities. They love to take inventory of the number of roads been done by the Federal or State governments without considering the number of roads that get spoilt in the same period and these damaged roads are usually more than the ones constructed.
For railways, we are still moving at snail pace of the previous administration if not worse. Former President Goodluck Jonathan started the Abuja-Kaduna railway which President Buhari extended a little but the Ibadan-Lagos is still there. This project began earlier but it is still not completed and people can’t take full advantage of it; yet we have started several other railway projects. If we had the revenue to massively develop these infrastructures simultaneously then there is no problem but we shouldn’t continue starting-up projects that we wouldn’t complete. This deprives people of the full benefits of the one they already had and the new one that is only built half-way.
What is the short term solution to solving the nation’s transport infrastructure deficits?
Nigeria needs at least two major arteries like Colonial masters created. They provided the road and rail linking the Western part to the Eastern parts and other parts of the country. Although the roads were narrow, it was sufficient to carry the load at that time. If you get to Ilorin, Jebba or Lokoja in the rainy season, you would weep for the nation. Remember the strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link. The same applies to transportation. Transport is affected by its most terrible spot. If traffic flows freely all the way to just one bad spot; all the time gained from the free flow of traffic would be lost at that bad spot. This leads to traffic-jam that could last for hours, days or weeks as we observe in places like Jebba and Lokoja during rainy seasons. Nigeria needs to quickly fix at least two major arteries to be able to address the road and rail transport infrastructure deficits.
How about the port access roads especially the Lagos port roads; what’s your assessment of the situation?
I can’t quantify the billions of naira Nigeria is losing as a result of the shambolic state of the Apapa- Wharf and Tin Can port access roads. We have these bottlenecks and the government’s priority should be to eliminate them because 90% of the nation’s imports come in through these ports.
The Federal Government has to realize that fixing the Apapa road isn’t an issue of doing it for the South-West or the Yorubas. These roads directly affect the nation’s economy causing delays in cargo clearance from the ports and it causes numerous accidents leading to loss of lives and properties.
This situation should be seen as a national crisis and emergency. I recall recommending to the government to begin diffusing the cargoes at these ports to other locations, via piping for wet cargo or barges for dry cargo. For petroleum, we can pipe to Ikorodu, Badagry and other locations. The tank farms in Apapa also pose another menace and the nation is grounded. I’m not impressed with the infrastructural developments in the transport sector because for every 1km constructed 5km of the road gets damaged in the same period. So, it is one step forward and five steps backward.
You have analyzed the road infrastructure and the railways. Let’s look at the seaports; there seems to be proliferation of ports in the country as several state governments are keen to develop regular seaports and deep seaports. Are these projects going to be viable or are they white elephant projects?
In Nigeria, once people catch one fad, they all want that fad and they would go about it in an atomistic way. I can assure you that some of the development of ports won’t be taken to reasonable conclusion. These governors aren’t bothered about the cargo traffic or other economics that affect the viability of seaports. They have caught the development of seaports as a ‘fad’, a fancy and they all want deep seaports. Only one or two massive deep seaports are required in Nigeria to divert traffic from Lagos to other parts of the country and equally develop the economies of those states and the entire region.
However, I’m not surprised that every Governor wants a deep seaport. The problem isn’t the willingness to start these projects but these governors lack the tenacity to see it through. Sometime ago the fad was the development of airports and today most of those airports are abandoned or barely patronized. This attitude affects governance in the country but the transport sector is critical. Once any transport component freezes, the problem is visible for all to see.
Look at the aviation sector, not one single airline is viable. Arik was touted to become the national carrier but it is still under receivership. The rate of mortality of airlines is alarming. I recall a project I supervised several years ago; the student wrote on the Nigerian aviation sector and in his conclusion he posited that none of indigenous airlines in the country could last more than three years at its peak. I was puzzled because that was a time when we had several airlines flourishing. Some of them were; Abaka, Space World, Dana, ADC, Chanchangi airlines and all these airlines went down few years later.
Last year, the Minister of State for Aviation began the process to concession the nation’s major airports even as he went to the African Development Bank to seek for loans; industry observers have been perturbed by his actions as well as the absence of an agency saddled with the responsibility to regulate the economic interest after the concession. Does Nigeria need funds to concession the airports?
The truth is that Nigeria is confused. We don’t know what we want and the tragedy is that we take one step forward and two or more steps backward. Look at Wale Babalakin’s ordeal with the concession he secured for his company BiCourtney. He got into an agreement with the government but as soon as that administration ended, the next administration decided to make life so difficult for the concessionaire. Policy somersault has become the norm in Nigeria and any reasonable person should be very cautious before entering a concession agreement with the Nigerian government.
If the Nigerian airports are concessioned today on certain terms, the fear is that when another government comes in, it may not respect the agreement of the previous administration. Remember when Babalakin got the concession agreement for MM2; Arik which was the biggest local and international carrier at the time said it wasn’t going to use MM2. Part of BiCourtney’s projection was that all local and international flights would use the facility, but the biggest carrier which was responsible for over 60% of local traffic at that time said it wouldn’t land there. Babalakin went into debt as a result of these challenges.
Recently, there has been a call for the development of a national logistics policy to give the template for the development of the nation’s logistics and transport sector. What should be the thrust of this policy and how could it be utilized to solve the logistics challenges in the nation?
Nigeria needs a national transport policy. However, that is only the software to run the system but the hardware isn’t there. We also require hardware templates for the growth of logistics and transport in the country. The software doesn’t need to wait for the hardware.
We are talking about the movement of goods either via roads, rail, piping, airways and waterways; so we require a viable hardware such as good roads, good rails, clear and safe waterways, good airport infrastructure, etc., because whatever logistics plan or policy you introduce on this dilapidated transport infrastructure would be an effort in futility. The policies and plans are software that also require the appropriate hardware to be successful.
The National Transport Commission (NTC) bill has passed second reading at the Senate but it doesn’t matter how beautiful these plans are; the transport infrastructure in the country has to be developed to make these plans and policies realistic.