EndSARS Protests Disrupt Lagos Port Complex Operations and Road Freight Movement

EndSARS Protests Disrupt Lagos Port Complex Operations and Road Freight Movement

Executive Summary

  • In early October, mass protests against police brutality began to break out in Nigeria’s biggest cities after a video emerged online that allegedly showed a group of police officers killing a man. Nigeria’s police unit, also known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), has been accused of misconduct, including kidnapping, harassment and extortion, for years. Recent protests are part of a social movement that initially started as an online campaign in 2017.
  • The unrest severely disrupted road freight movement across Nigeria throughout October, most notably in its capital Abuja and its coastal gateway Lagos. 
  • Protesters also disrupted business operations as well as ocean and road freight movement in and out of the Lagos Port Complex, the country’s biggest and busiest seaport. 
  • The Lagos Port Complex has faced longstanding operational issues for years, including perpetually congested access roads, corruption among officials, and faulty equipment; further congestion and delays should be expected as a result of the protests. 
  • As a reaction to the demonstrations, many police officers are refusing to return to duty allowing armed robbers to take over major roads and highways throughout the country; robbers have also been attacking passing drivers and stealing the contents of the vehicles. 
  • Although the largest waves of protests have subsided across Nigeria’s major cities, the situation in the country remains volatile as smaller scale protests are sporadically erupting in an attempt to revive the protest momentum and press for real police reform. 

Background

Nigeria’s police unit, also known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), has been accused of misconduct, including kidnapping, harassment and extortion, for years. The country has seen intermittent protests organized by the EndSARS campaign, a decentralized social movement, since the beginning of the movement as an online campaign in 2017. The latest wave of protests were ignited at the beginning of October after a video emerged online that allegedly showed a group of SARS officers killing a man.

From October 8, mass protests began to break out in Nigeria’s biggest cities, including its two main economic centers, the coastal gateway Lagos and the country’s capital city Abuja. Federal and local authorities enacted a range of emergency measures in an attempt to stem the protests. Measures included the deployment of the military in Abuja, the nationwide deployment of riot police after the protests spiraled out of control in parts of Nigeria, and a temporary 24-curfew across the State of Lagos that banned everyone but essential workers and first responders from being on the streets during the unrest. However, brutal police crackdowns on protesters in places such as Lagos only further ignited the protesters’ rage and sparked major unrest by mid-October. 

The federal government was quick to announce a ban on all SARS activities and announce its eventual replacement with a new unit called Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), making this the fourth time the government had vowed to disband the unit in the last six years. However, the measure did nothing to calm the protests as many of the protesters continue to believe that the government’s announcement will only amount to lip service but will never enact the wide-ranging reforms protesters expect to see.

Although the largest waves of protests have subsided across Nigeria’s major cities at the time of writing, the situation in the country remains volatile as of November 9 as smaller scale protests continue to break out in an attempt to revive the protest momentum and press for real reform.

Roadway & Customs Disruption

As Africa’s second largest economy and its leading oil producer, Nigeria has become a gateway to the region for many companies expanding into West Africa in recent years. Transnational corridors passing through its territory, such as the Lagos-Mombasa Highway that links Nigeria with Cameroon; the Central African Republic (CAF); the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); Uganda; and Kenya, or the Trans-Sahara Highway which connects it to Algeria via Niger, serve as crucial regional transport routes for road freight movement across the continent.

While the quality of the continent’s road network varies significantly across regions, a vast majority of freight is still moved across Africa via roads. Thus, disruptions to road transport routes in Nigeria can quickly have devastating effects on national and continental supply chains due to its central role in the region, and make its road network a susceptible target during political and social unrest. The latest wave of unrest that swept across Nigeria at the beginning of October when protesters took to the streets in the country’s major cities, including its economic hubs Lagos and Abuja, disrupted road freight movement for a prolonged time. 

Amidst the first wave of demonstrations in October, widespread roadway blockages in Lagos and Abuja significantly disrupted agricultural supply chains and blocked the movement of people and goods. On October 16, protesters partially closed the Third Mainland Bridge, one of the major routes connecting Lagos Island to the mainland. Numerous violent clashes between protesters and police forces were reported on major highways. 

On October 20, members of the Nigerian Armed Forces opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, resulting in 15 deaths. Protesters had been camping at the toll gate for two weeks prior to the shooting, preventing vehicular traffic on the major thoroughfare during the demonstrations. Three days after the shooting, armed men blocked road access to Murtala Muhammed International Airport and the main highway into the city, demanding cash from passing vehicles. Protesters also blocked the Lagos-Ibadan highway, the main road linking the port city to the rest of country.

Over the course of the demonstrations, approximately 22 policer officers have been killed. In response to the causalities, many police officers are currently engaged in a silent protest and refusing to show up for duty. Armed robbers have exploited the lack of police presence and have taken over several major roads and highways throughout the country. One of the roads affected is the Benin-Auchi expressway where robbers have attacked drivers and passengers and stole contents of the vehicles.

In addition to the absence of police officers, interstate customs officers have also abstained from returning to work. During the EndSARS protests, customs officers manning the checkpoints in the states of Lagos and Ogun were attacked by armed rioters who killed one officer and injured several others. Two weeks after the attack, customs officers have reportedly still not returned to their checkpoints, leaving border between the states of Lagos and Ogun porous. As a result, smuggled products are now flooding the markets in the two states causing some products, including poultry, rice, and vegetable oil, to significantly reduce in value. Customs officers in Abuja have also reportedly been attacked by rioters.

Over the course of the protests, government warehouses stocked with COVID-19 relief supplies have been targeted by civilians who claim the supplies have not been distributed. Warehouse lootings have been reported in several states including Kaduna, Kwara, Plateau, Adamawa, Bauch, Kogi, and Lagos. According to the customs officials, a group of rioters stormed the customs training command in search of COVID-19 palliatives on October 27, hours after breaking into a warehouse in Gwagwalada to loot palliatives. On October 24, several thousand people seized and looted a government food warehouse in Jos. On the following day, protesters looted government-run grain warehouses in Gwagwalada and Idu. Senators’ homes were also ransacked in the area. Four people died at a warehouse in Kogi state amid exchanges between police and protesters.

Port Disruption

Operations at the Lagos Port Complex were severely disrupted throughout the protest movement, with all operations grinding to a halt by October 20 when customs agents, dock workers, and truck drivers had either joined the protests or were kept from entering the port area due to the unrest. Those doing business via the Lagos Port Complex should prepare for delays to persist for weeks, possibly even months, to come as the developments are likely to further complicate ocean and road freight movement in and out of an already congested port. 

The Port of Apapa in Lagos, often referred to as the Lagos Port Complex, is Nigeria’s biggest and busiest port facility and one of the major coastal gateways into West Africa and beyond, handling more than 70 million tons of cargo per year. However, the port facilities in Apapa as well as the smaller nearby Tin-Can Island facilities faced longstanding operational issues long before the protests broke out, which already resulted in the costs of doing business via the port complex to rise above those at other major seaports in the region.

One of the main issues is the perpetually congested access roads caused by trucks parked along the roads, lack of holding and parking bays for trucks, the absence of a functioning rail connection, as well as additional traffic due to factories located in the port area. The port has also faced disruptions due to faulty cargo-handling equipment and corruption among law enforcement agencies, customs officials, and transporters who took money from truck drivers in exchange for expedited access to the port area in the past. So far, neither short- nor long-term measures implemented by federal, regional, and local authorities have been able to permanently de-congest the port in the past. 

Between October 20 and November 4, business operations as well as road and ocean freight movement via the Lagos Port Complex have been severely disrupted. All operations were disrupted by October 20 after truck drivers, clearing agents, and dock workers joined the ongoing protests in Lagos. Protesters began to block the two main roads leading to the Apapa and Tin-Can Island Port facilities with vehicles, thereby hindering entry and exit in and out of the port complex for both trucks and customs agents not involved in the protests. Consequently, customs clearance processes as well as road transport movement completely ceased in the following days as the protests across Lagos showed no sign of abating. At the same time, congestion in the port area began to rise noticeably as truck drivers and clearing agents abandoned cargoes in multiple terminals within the port complex amid the protests.

Moreover, protesters set fire to the Headquarter of the Nigerian Port Authority on October 21, which damaged the building of the port’s main operator and will likely further impede the federal port operator’s attempts to de-congest the port area following the end of the last wave of protests. 

By the end of October, pressure on the local government grew to redirect maritime operations from the Lagos Port Complex to other Nigerian ports, such as Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria, to take pressure off of the facilities in Lagos but no measures to do so have been announced at the time of writing. With most of the country’s other ports not equipped to handle a similar amount of cargo and barges, moving operations to other port facilities remain an unlikely scenario and would only provide a limited number of operators with a real alternative to the Lagos Port Complex in the short-term. 

Most recently, traders announced that cocoa shipments were severely delayed, with shipments now taking at least 30 days to travel within the city to the port due to curfews and road disruptions caused by the unrest, when the previous traveling time was no more than 24 hours. However, shipment delays should be expected for all cargo moving in and out of the Lagos Port Complex for the foreseeable future as damages to infrastructure across Lagos are repaired and regular operations begin to resume at the port facilities. 

Outlook & Recommendations

After weeks of tense and violent protests against SARS, demonstrations have diminished in intensity and frequency. Despite the reduction, protests continue to take place as many protesters do not have confidence in the government to follow through with its promise to reform the police force. On November 1, a small group of protesters occupied parts of the departure and arrival halls at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in an attempt to revive the protests. Two days later, demonstrators at a Dangote Group factory located in Ibeju-Lekki clashed with police officers where one protester was killed and several others were injured. On November 8, news broke that young Nigerians are threatening to ignite a second wave of mass protests in some parts of Lagos and Abuja from November 9 in response to a recent court order granting the country’s central bank the right to freeze the bank accounts of almost 20 individuals and a public affairs company involved in the protests against SARS in October.

As protests are likely to erupt periodically with little notice, customers are advised to consider the following recommendations:  

  • Monitor updates on protests: Most of the recent protests in Nigeria have been unplanned and with a portion of the police force off duty, demonstrations have the potential to cause prolonged disruptions. Given the unpredictable nature, companies should plan accordingly and identify alternative routes to mitigate any potential disruptions to pickup and delivery services.  
  • Prepare contingency plans in the event of customs delays and highway closures: As the situation at the Lagos-Ogun border remains uncertain, government officials are likely to send customs and security personnel to reinforce the border which may cause significant delays. Highway closures are also likely to occur in the short-term due to the increase in attacks on major roads. Companies are advised to develop contingency plans for customs delays between Lagos and Ogun and to coordinate with suppliers to understand how their ground shipments may be impacted by short- and medium-term highway closures.
  • Adjust schedules and identify alternate Nigerian seaports for ocean freight: Supply chain managers are encouraged to get in touch with their freight forwarders and shipping lines to coordinate schedules for current shipments passing through the Lagos Port Complex, and make adjustments to accommodate longer waiting times at the Apapa and Tin-Can facilities. Those using smaller barges can also consider rerouting shipments to smaller Nigerian ports such as the Ports of Calabar, Warri, and Rivers; however those are often not deep enough to handle larger ships yet. 
  • Re-route shipments to other regional seaports if significant delays persist: Those using Nigeria as a gateway to the wider region are also advised to consider rerouting cargo to less congested seaports in neighboring countries, such as the Port of Lome in Togo or the Port of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and subsequently move the goods across the continent via road to avoid lengthy waiting times at the Lagos Port Complex.

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