Truck operators are working under a very harsh environment
- Remi Ogungbemi, AMATO Chairman
In this interview with BAYO AMODU,editor, Haulage & Logistics magazine, the Chairman, Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) Chief Remi Ogungbemi, revealed how poor road infrastructure, extortion, unfriendly government policies among others have been making the environment in which they operate very harsh. Excerpts:
There have been clamours by the government on improved road haulage standards in the country and government seems to be ready to partner with stakeholders like your association to bring about positive developments, what is your view on this?
Thank you very much for that question. We are ready to partner with anybody on areas that can make the environment conducive for us. Every right thinking person should like good things. I want to agree that most of the trucks we are using now are rickety and not in good condition which is not too healthy for the economy, safety of lives and properties. But I must say that the environment in which we are operating is also very harsh and volatile. Presently, we don’t have a place to serve as truck terminals and these trucks have to be coming from somewhere. It is not in the interest of drivers or truck owners for their vehicles to be in such dilapidated condition.
What do I mean by saying we operate under a harsh environment? Most of the money we are making gets into the hands of devourers. There are so many devourers that eat up the proceeds of the truck owners. Even most government policies are so harsh and not human-friendly and above all, if you go and acquire a new trucks today where do you park the trucks? That is our major concern. Do we continue to park the trucks on the road? Many banks have signified interests in partnering with us so that we can get loans to acquire new trucks. The issue is if we acquire new trucks, where do we park them?
That is why we are saying we must have necessary infrastructure in place first and foremost. For instance, we need to have truck terminals. By the time we have such in place, we have somewhere to park the trucks and not on the road. Parking trucks on the road apart from impeding flow of traffic also endangers the lives of other road users.
The law enforcement agencies are not helping matters. For instance, the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority, LASTMA, when they see that your truck breaks down on the road, what they are interested in is to slam bills and tow your vehicle. When they do that to truck owners, how do they want us to pay back the banks the loan they gave to us? So, the idea that we acquire new trucks is good but we need to first of all get a truck terminal. As an association, we don’t have the political and financial power to tackle the problems and we can’t do it alone. These problems were not created by us alone, every stakeholder in the port, the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, freight forwarders even terminal operators-we all created the problem and all of us should be part of the solution.
The place we were using before as truck terminals have been taken over by other business activities, even places reserved as maintenance yard no longer exist. These are the challenges confronting us especially in maritime industry.
Well, it is a situation that is beyond our control, it is not something we can achieve on our own because I believe every stakeholder in the maritime industry created the problem. So we only cannot solve the problem. Every stakeholder in the maritime industry should come together collectively to address and find lasting solution to the traffic situation. We are trying our possible best and we have identified many places and we have mentioned it to the authorities but we don’t have the financial power or the political will to achieve it. I believe if we drum it into their ears, they will know that it is very important that they address the issue once and for all because every persons working in the port or living within the Apapa environment is like sitting on a keg of gun powder that can explode anytime going with the fact that we have so many tank farms in Apapa. If there is any emergency, where do we run to? So there is urgent need for authorities to get us a place where these trucks can be coming from so that there will be sanity, orderliness on our roads and the industry as a whole.
You have been championing this agitation for truck terminals for a long time, what has been the response of the government to your agitations?
You know that in Nigeria today if you want to achieve anything politics is the ladder by which you can do that. We as truck owners are not politicians. I’m very happy that you said we have been championing the agitation for a truck terminal for long. We were working on one at the Trade Fair Complex before, but now that project is moribund and it is looking for a revivalist that will revive it. We have also discovered another area in Mile 2, it is 51 hectares of land. We’ve got the documents of the land from the owner and we have written a covering letter to the relevant authorities because going by Land Use Decree, we don’t have power over the land, it’s only the state government that has that kind of power. So, we are waiting for the authority because the power to acquire is beyond us.
Apart from the challenge of not having a transit park, what other challenges do you have to contend with as an association?
The biggest challenge is unavailability of a truck park. By the time we achieve that, most of the challenges, in fact 90 percent of our problems would have been addressed. There are so many challenges, but a journey of one thousand miles has to start with a step.
It has been said that the use of old and rickety trucks is a major reason why containers fall off the roads. What is AMATO doing in ensuring it regulates the quality of trucks plying the roads?
Well, we are trying our best and you should know we don’t manufacture trucks here in Nigeria and for economic reasons, most of us are relying and depending on fairly used trucks that find their way into Nigerian shore because we don’t manufacture trucks. But we will not allow that or to continue seeing or experiencing carnage on our roads, we are trying our possible best knowing full well how the economic situation in the country is. Even humans are not complete bodily so we cannot say because we have a new born baby and the old people in the town should die but however, there are measures being put in place through the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority to start implementing the minimum standards of vehicles that should be operating in the port.
On falling of containers, most of the incidents have to with the conditions of the road not of the truck. If you see any truck that fell and if it is only the container that fell off the truck, it is then you can now say maybe the container is not properly attached or hooked. But in most of the accident cases, the trucks normally fall together with the containers so that shows that it is as a result of the condition of our roads and not as a result of the condition of the truck. However the largest and the biggest room is the room for improvement. We are working to improve to make sure that we reduce the carnage on our roads nationwide. The condition of the road is very important in our operations. Let me appeal to the authorities concerned to see what they can do to maintain most of our roads that have turned into potholes. We refer to them as potholes but they have actually degenerated into a gully that can even swallow a car. That is why you see most of these trucks falling here and there and container trucks because of the size and height falls easily.
Recently, the National Automotive Council, NAC, said it is partnering with AMATO in a bid to provide loan facilities that would help your members acquire new trucks, can you please shed more light on this?
Yes, discussions have been on in this regards for some time now. We have let them know that our major challenge has been where to park the trucks. If we go and get the new trucks today, where do we park them? By the time we get the loan, the banks that give us the loan will be expecting us to pay back. With the situation in the country, if we put the truck on the road and LASTMA toe it, where do we go from there? So, the first step should come before another. Let’s have a place as truck terminal first before we talk of acquiring new trucks.
There is also the issue of extortion on the road by those who are saddled with the responsibility of ensuring law and order and ensuring free flow of traffic on the road. We have heard several instances where truck drivers are made to part with huge sums of money either when they have a breakdown on the road or just to even have a passage into the port. Why are you not protesting or has the problem been resolved?
Well we have been discussing. We are trying not to be confrontational especially with the agencies that are allowed to carry arms. The problem is as a result of the chaotic traffic situation at the port and what are the causes? By my own interpretation, it is that the available infrastructure at the port can no longer accommodate the level of activities going on at the port. For instance, the road we’ve been using for the past 40 years is still the same road we are still using now and those infrastructure that were available many years ago like the truck terminals have all been taken over by other business activities. Yet, while every other thing like the trucks, port activities and so on are increasing the roads remains the same; no expansion to correspond to the increase in business activities. These are the things causing traffic congestion at the ports and different law enforcement agencies are now capitalizing on the situation to exploit. There are some government agencies that if your vehicle should breakdown at the port, they will come and toe it away and slam bill of N100, 000 to N300, 000 depending on the mood of the officer. Tell me, how can one break even? The money you are supposed to use for maintenance has been taken away directly or indirectly. I tell you Bayo, it is only prison warders and navy that you don’t see coming to the port to extort us in the port environment, all other security agencies are always in the port day and night capitalizing on the situation to exploit us. It is beyond what we can solve.
Apart from them, there are street urchins that even if one have a flat tyre, they will capitalize on it to exploit us.
It has been a problem and it has not been resolved. However, we have been trying to see what we can do on how to address the problem but we do not just address the problems by challenging those that are involved in the obstructions.
The best way to address the problem is to put the necessary infrastructures in place. Right from the era of port reform coupled, most of the infrastructure, when I say infrastructure I mean parking because those days, there designated places for trucks to park before loading or after loading but because the volume of goods coming into the port has increased, all those places earmarked as truck terminals have been taken away by other business activities.
So that is the cause of the obstructions we are talking about. The cause of the obstruction is because the roads can no longer accommodate the volumes of activities given to the roads. The port is a place where a ‘sugar has poured’, where sugar pours is where you will see ants coming to lick sugar, so port is a place where sugar has poured for every Nigerian to come and lick and it is trucks you will use to lick the sugar.
If necessarily attentions are not given to the trucks, it will be such that when they are coming to lick the sugar, automatically there will be chaos. To address that issue, you must designate a place that will serve as truck terminal so that if trucks are coming from the North, East, South and West, there must be a designated place they will stop before calling them into the port but what we are seeing presently is that trucks just come from all nooks and crannies in Nigeria to the port to load without a place that serves as truck terminal.
So what we are doing presently to address the problem of extortion is to first and foremost get a place to serve as truck terminal; that is when there can be sanity. It will be difficult for us to regulate without a truck terminal and control the numbers of trucks coming into the port.
For the fact that they are scrambling, there is bound to be chaos and people that are extorting are capitalizing on the situations to exploit and to extort. We cannot stop that. We do not have the political power to stop the extortion because we never can tell who is benefitting.
Many people have seen the extortion as their pot of soup, they can do and undo and you do not know who are involved, maybe people that are armed are benefitting. If you go there to challenge them, you may be playing with your life.
Some people are of the opinion that your drivers are culpable as they put up a poor attitude on the road, what can you say on this?
If you talk of attitude, the point is that even the drivers operate under a very harsh environment. They have terrible experiences working in the Nigerian environment and fatigue sets in for them when the condition on the road is very ugly. Sometimes, for three days they don’t eat well, sleep well or bath because they are always on the queue either waiting to load or to return empty containers. How do you expect such a person to behave normal? We are soliciting for a better environment for us all; the drivers too are human beings. The authorities should find a lasting solution to the problem because they are the one who tampered with the original plan of the port by taking away our truck terminals. Formerly it wasn’t like this. What we know today to be the Lilypond terminal was originally a truck terminal but now it has been taken over by containers. Had it been that our rail systems are functional, things would have better. The trucks were supposed to be complementing the role of the rail. The act of putting punitive measures like slamming bills is not the best we should go for corrective measures instead.
How will you describe the year 2014 for the operation of truck operators at the port?
I must say the year 2014 was a year by which truckers discovered the challenges confronting the sector of the economy but however, the challenges are as a result of the policies of the government which has led to truckers in the maritime industry to be neglected. The negligence has caused most of the chaotic traffic situation we are experiencing and I must say that presently, the truckers have become what I will describe as sacrificial lamb for the dividends of democracy because most of the proceeds of the truckers are being taken away directly or indirectly as a result of the policies either from the State government, Federal government or even Local government.
I am saying this because the environment under which the truckers are operating presently has been very harsh and hostile and no living organism can survive under such a harsh and hostile environment.
In 2015, I am looking forward to a conducive environment where truckers can operate so that we will be able plan well for a better environment by which everybody can operate without much hustles.
One of the key challenges for truckers has been the poor state of the roads leading into and out of Apapa. Do you see hope of getting these roads fixed anytime soon?
As road workers I must say the road is very important without the roads, the trucks cannot move. The trucks are made to move on the road and if the road is not in order, it will have a negative effect as it has been having on the trucks.
If you take note, you will see that the rate at which the trucks have been falling – the complaint – has been rampant as a result of bad roads but I want to commend both the State government especially and the Federal government for what they are doing. I can see a kind of not just repair but construction, rehabilitation that is going on within Oshodi-Apapa expressway and also within Apapa which is done by Lagos State government. I want to commend the Federal government, especially the State government for putting those roads in good shape. You can see that the rate at which the trucks are falling on these roads have reduced drastically and I know that soon, all roads within Apapa will be motorable and the question of falling trucks within Apapa will become a thing of the past and I want you to know that it is not in the interest of the driver of the truck or truck owner that the truck falls, no, but I must appreciate what the authorities are doing.
Having said this, I want to appeal for more. More effort is expected and also look on how to reduce the hardship that the truckers are passing through as a result of harsh policies.
There is a truck park that is being built opposite Tin Can Island Port by the Federal Ministry of Works. Do you think this will address this problem?
Well, no matter how small it is, they say half bread is better than none. Although the space is small, it cannot even accommodate the trucks operating within Tin Can Island only let alone Apapa but what we are looking at is if government can take the necessary actions on the place we have suggested to them, the place is fifty-one hectares of land and the place is big enough to accommodate all the trucks that are operating within Tin Can and Apapa ports. Where they are constructing at second gate will just serve as the entry terminal. So if you have gotten all your documents to come and load in the port, if you are released from the original terminal so you will just come.
I am looking forward to situation whereby there will be no single truck parked on the road. About one and half decades ago, you would not come to Apapa and find a single truck on the road because then there were designated places where they parked. Now that all those places have been taken away, that is why we are having all these problems. God forbid bad thing, if there is any emergency, where do we run to when the road is blocked and more so, most of the tank farms are stranded and most of them were not there before.