Apapa: Sad Tales Of A Lost Paradise

A section of Apapa

A section of Apapa

Grandeur Gives Way To Chaos

PORT cities across the world are revered as centres of magnificence. From ancient Florence in Italy to Southampton in England to Los Angeles in the United States to Lagos, the cities are wealthy for their strategic advantage as gateways to global trade, replete with the ambience of animated business liveliness, and serene seaside splendour. The communities housing the ports are particularly wealthy and elitist, attracting expats and the top breed of highly experienced locals. The bubbling hustle gives these neighbourhoods a character that permeates the city.

These are what had, in the early days of Nigeria’s nationhood, placed Apapa, the country’s premier port community, as the Mecca of all things good and beautiful in Lagos. As with all other benefits of a growing nation, the community had the best of infrastructure, thriving real estate — with its Government Residential Area (GRA) being the next best thing among the noveau riche of the time; a haven for offices of international businesses, exuding a magnetic social pull for people across Lagos and neighbouring cities.

But it appears Apapa may have lost its glory with the exit of multinational businesses, crumbling public infrastructure, perennial traffic gridlock and the lull in real estate fortune. Many also claim that the once revered Apapa GRA, which played host to sailors, top brass in the naval echelon and highly skilled locals, does not command the same respect it did in the past, as most people have now relocated to more grand Lagos neighbourhoods of Ikoyi, Lekki and Victoria Island.

When The Guardian visited the port’s corridor, recently, four hours were lost in the nerve-wracking gridlock, as effort was made to navigate the two entry points into the neighbourhood. Besides, roads in the once-dignified area had become ridden with potholes. There were, here and there, ghost houses and vacant balconies, which bore the inscriptions: ‘For Sale’ and ‘To Let’. There were also the long faces and lamenting stares of shop owners ruing what had once been a bustling naira-spinning quarters.

Quite unlike yesterday’s residents, today’s inhabitants are faced with the travail of meandering past dozens and dozens of monster trucks. On this particular day, the intimidating snake-like vehicles jostled one another in a long and winding trail, howling, honking and hooting in ear-paining cacophony. They held the Iganmu-Apapa link bridge captive; consequently, orchestrating a gridlock that spanned the Ijora end to the premises of Flour Mills of Nigeria, some 10 kilometres away! Motorists literally fought for their right of way, while commercial bus operators complicated the knotty situation by driving against the traffic. It was the perfect picture of chaos.

As the reporter scribbled away on a jotter, the bus he was in suddenly went off the road and onto the kerb, jolting the passengers in the process. They had earlier blamed the driver for not availing himself to ‘quicker’ detours, as his colleagues had been doing. Now, it appeared he had woken to the need to evade the unending queue of trucks and cars ahead, and also redeem his image as a master of Apapa roads. Sadly, this attitude, as that of his peers, has always worsened situations on the road.

A businessman, Ahmed Onikoyi, who has operated from Apapa for about 30 years, said that the area has lost most of its magic as a result of the departure of Lever Brothers from the dockyard as well as other big companies; the closure of the Apapa Amusement Park; concessioning of the ports that hitherto afforded people the opportunity to see ships and trade close to the ports; and, generally, a lull in business activities.

Premises of these companies have been converted to depots and tank farms, which have now made the town a ghost of its old self, as tankers now reign supreme on inner roads and highways.

Even as the Apapa Amusement Park roars back to life after being shut for about three years, the nagging challenges of road maintenance and what appears to be government’s neglect of the infrastructure that supports the ports — one of its largest revenue spinner — might still keep Apapa from living up to its promise as dream destination for fun seekers and a coveted jewel of real estate.

Nostalgic about the turn of fortune for businesses in Apapa, Onikoyi said the golden age of the town was during the Obafemi Awolowo years, notably in the 1980s when the low and mighty trooped to the area for fun and business, but things nosedived from 2006, when roads started going bad and traffic worsened, chasing some of the residents to Ikoyi and its environs on the Island.

According to him, “People used to come to Apapa because the port was open and people were allowed to go into the ships. But the Port was sold, restricting access to the place. The Amusement Park was also functional and families would come around to play and have a good time.

DSC_0047-Copy“But now the traffic has chased the big men and businesses away. If one comes from Oshodi or through Ijora, the traffic situation is the same. We don’t have a lot of roads connecting the ports and that has increased vehicular traffic on the two roads. If government can build a road for cars that would pass Liverpool through Ajegunle, that would be splendid.”

Noting that a lot of houses in the area are empty, with more being put up for sale by the day, he said there has been a drastic drop in business activities and many companies are finding it hard to maintain their Apapa branches.

“I operate a car hire service. A lot of people used to live in the hotels. We had white men everywhere; we took them to the ports and the airport. We have a hotel around here known as Excelsior, built in the 1960s; it is now Etal Hotel. It used to be the soul of Apapa, the toast of all. But, now, everything is dull. If you go into the hotel, the rooms are empty. It has adversely affected our own business.”

Aside the GRA, the closure of the community’s famous park and sale of the port has driven people away from the area, as only people who have legitimate business at the ports come around and, others, especially petty traders and visitors, who came for sightseeing, are no longer allowed thoroughfare. Apapa, as expected, now subsists on allied maritime businesses and just a few social spots keep it going.

Onikoyi remembers that the hall of Excelsior Hotel used to be the melting pot for events and social gatherings, as well as the amusement park. “The park used to be the main attraction to Apapa. We had huge crowds there during festivities, like Christmas, Easter, Eid-el-Fitr and Eid-el-Maulud. The ports were a major pull, too,” he said.

The state of the roads has been the major source of worry because of the man-hours lost trying, from other parts of Lagos, to get to offices in the Apapa neighbourhood.

“One would spend about four hours trying to get to Apapa and another three hours to leave the port town to other Lagos suburbs. How many hours would then be left to do business in Apapa? If those who live in Apapa or have office here go to Ikoyi for business, they would be getting to their homes at about 11 p.m. That is why people are moving out. Apart from the problem with roads and traffic, Apapa is a very good place to live and work,” Onikoyi explained.

The tale of Apapa somewhat summarizes the trend of Nigeria’s business trajectory, as the change of clientele from Americans and Europeans to Asians, particularly the Chinese, Indians and Lebanese is telling on the business of Onikoyi, who says the new comers are not as generous as the former.

He said, “Americans and Europeans are particularly generous. That also worked for businesses in Apapa; their generousity showed in their choice of buildings and grandeur. They were generous with tips too. After paying for service, they give us more. When, for instance, we take them to Bar Beach, they would spoil us. We don’t get all that again. Working here is not like before. We have Indians and Chinese who are not so generous.”

Some of the companies that used to command the heights in Apapa, according to him – Lever Brothers, IGL, Kingsway, SCOA and other major motor dealers – have moved shop. “These good companies have all left because of traffic congestion and proliferation of depots. A lot of them at First Gate have left. If you go to the houses around, you will see ‘To Let’ signs posted everywhere. Before, the houses used to be expensive, but now they are cheap,” he noted.

While commercial bus drivers reign on the highways, motorcycle operators call the shots on inner roads, where they ferry disgruntled passengers who have abandon gridlocked buses. These riders lock horns with trucks on Creek and Burma Roads and contest space with resident’s cars on Liverpool Road. They also rule smaller streets in the GRA. Such is the traffic chaos: any priority business appointment is almost certain to miss the mark by hours. As a result, many companies not directly connected with freight and related activities have fled the confusion. Traffic was, particularly, frozen, when the reporter visited the Apapa-Oshodi end of the expressway. Commercial bus drivers simply ignored this section, something private car owners also cued into. Instead, motorists took a detour through Ajegunle, branched off to Mile2 road, and headed for Oshodi and other areas, precipitating another traffic storm in the process.

A resident on Liverpool Road in the GRA, who doesn’t want his name in print, said the neighbourhood does not enjoy the respect it once did, as most residents have relocated due to the many reasons, chief among which is the menace of Okada riders and the unbearable traffic situation, and those left are expats who do not spend beyond a year in the area.
He said the menace of the commercial motorcyclists who have refused to heed restriction by residents and the state government has been a cause of untold worries.

According to him, “I have lived in this area for a long time. We used to have so much peace, here, but the Okada people are a source of concern for us. Sometimes, we hear people complain that they were robbed on their way to work around 5am. It has caused many of us to scale up security in the estate.” He noted that the houses in the area used to be without fences but many people now think it wise to have barricades and security guards.

An estate agent and manager of Apapa-based 360 Properties Limited, Austin Onosibo, said people have moved away and getting buyers for property in the area is becoming increasingly difficult. He said: “When people move out, if they still want to stay in Nigeria, they look for places where they will not experience the kind of gridlock they are subjected to in Apapa. People are moving out because they are spending half of their day on the road.”

However, when The Guardian visited Apapa Amusement Park, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope. The park had undergone a total makeover and was hosting children for Nigeria’s 55th independence celebrations.

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