By Kenneth Jukpor
Hon. Tony Iju Nwabunike is the President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). In this interview with MMS Plus newspaper, he bares his mind on the myriad of challenges at Nigerian ports, unveils his agenda for the association this and proffers advice on how to improve the business relationship between freight agents and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). He also expounds other pertinent maritime issues in the country.
Let’s start with what Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) proposal to put an end container deposit payments. How significant would that be for freight forwarders?
I am excited that the Shippers’ Council boss actually mentioned that one of his projects this year is to make sure that shipping companies stop receiving this container deposit. I have several reasons to support him on this issue. It is a situation where the shipping lines take container deposits from us and surcharge us, not even for the problem we created ourselves. They are quick to demand container deposits but the refund of the money after we bring the container becomes cumbersome. They begin to introduce unnecessary negative charges such as; charges for cleaning the containers, delay of the containers, gridlock problems and charges that are not necessary so that they avoid the refund of the deposit. I am in total support of what Mr. Hassan Bello is doing in making sure that the container deposit does not continue. It is a good development.
Some transport veterans have suggested that insurance is one critical area that could mitigate the risk with regards to returning empty containers. What do you think about this?
We need to have goods on transit insurance where all the goods should be taken care of. That would enable us ensure that insurance takes up the problem of risk for importers and the freight forwarders. I also support that insurance scheme.
The collection of Practitioners Operating Fees (POF) should take effect soonest and we learnt from the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) that the receipt of POF will become a prerequisite for cargo clearance. What is your take on that?
When you ask about CRFFN, you will remember that I am the pioneer chairman of CRFFN and CRFFN is just like my baby. Therefore, you can be sure that I will support anything that will make CRFFN work.
Also, as an association ANLCA is the pioneer of custom brokers and freight forwarding. We had our presence on the first governing board as well as the second. We see CRFFN as a baby to ANCLA and the collection of POF is important for the agency to survive.
It is also important to note that if they don’t have any money, automatically they will not train us, they will not even do all the welfare programmes and training they have lined up for the freight forwarders and custom brokers. We are supporting CRFFN on collection of the POF.
Does it also mean that you support the prerequisite?
It should be seen as a seamless payment platform. It’s going to be a prerequisite for clearing of your goods. It is going to be one of the charges you have to pay before getting the consignment out of the port. This is one of the strategies to ensure compliance.
Sometime ago, ANCLA was in court with CRFFN over this issue. Has the case been withdrawn?
It’s one of the things I have actually addressed before allowing our members to go into governing board of the CRFFN. We don’t need to be in court and still be going to contest election before the same people you have taken to court. It is one of the things I addressed when I came earlier in as the President of the association. I’m sure that I agreed with the total National Executive Council not to do that. So, we are no longer in court with them.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has introduced a a low sulphur regulation for vessels which means that ships use fuels that burn faster and this would increase the cost of freight. As a freight forwarder, what does this mean to you?
If you say low sulphur fuels, then it means the kind of fuel we are going to use is going to evaporate very fast. I know these are the things that the carriers will begin to factor into their charges. However, we have been complaining that the charges are already too high.
We should look at the level of environment and health hazards of the current sulphur level poses. If the hazards are too high, we would not mind getting things to be done rightly and complying with the new low sulphur rules. However, if there is no hazard, I don’t think we need to give the carriers room to increase their charges anymore.
As President of ANLCA, what are your major goals and aspirations for the association in 2020?
The core agenda this year is to obtain the charter for our institute. We have begun work in line with that at the National Assembly stressing the need for the Institute of Chartered Customs Brokers to be established. With that institute, we can begin to train our members to be at par with the global best standards with our contemporaries across the globe. Besides getting the charter, we also intend to train and re-train our members this year.
This year, we would also bring our petitions to the federal government of Nigeria through constant visiting to the National Assembly and the Presidency. We want them know that it is high time they sought for our advice and contributions in matters that concern maritime. If you bring in all government agencies to the port, only one man is going to meet all of them and that is the customs broker. The customs broker meets the Customs, Police, DSS, ship owners, National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), among others. So, you see why it is important to ask customs brokers how they feel, how they interact, and how they relate with all these agencies. The policy formulation in the industry should not be done without our contribution. We are getting the government closer and letting them know that they have to work with us so that we will have seamless movement of cargo and services at the ports; seaports, airports or border posts.
How would you describe the freight rate and other challenges at the ports today as freight agents strive to get goods out of the ports?
The challenges are enormous. First of all, if you are talking about freight charges, freight charges mean the charges taken from you from point A to the final destination. That equally is high because many of the carriers to Nigerian waterways are actually saying they don’t have a place to offload their consignments and we are not doing much to address this situation.
What they do now is to reject Nigerian consignments because they don’t have a place to offload the consignments as the ports are filled up. The government agencies are too many and every single person that comes to the wharf, terminal, port has it at the back of their mind that he or she want to enrich himself or herself. This is making the place not to be conducive and has led to increase in corruption.
The gridlock is not helping matters too because before now the truck that takes consignment from Apapa wharf to Festac charges about N120, 000 but today it’s about N1million. All shipping companies decide to put in whatever they want as charges and nobody seems to be managing the situation. We are not talking about the terminal operators who even after you loaded the consignments, but can’t move out but because of the gridlock, they will begin to charge you for another two weeks of loaded consignment. The whole place is in chaos. The problem needs an immediate intervention. People believe that they can just do anything at the ports and we have been keeping quiet but we don’t want to continue to keep quiet.
Recently, was had the presidential taskforce team outlined some of the achievement which doesn’t relate to what we find on ground. They say the problem of gridlock ended and what we can see on our port access roads is corruption fighting back. How would you rate the activities of the presidential taskforce?
I sympathize with the Vice Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on gridlock. If you look at it critically, the young man is trying to make things work but the Nigerian factor is actually the major problem there. You appoint someone to do what is supposed to be done and the person is there collecting money. The young man doesn’t even know what is going on there. There is a whole lot of corruption in that area and the call up system is still very poor. What we are saying in effect is that the presidential taskforce on gridlock has not achieved its aim.
The provision of a Single Window system where people can pay their charges and exit the ports speedily, has been tipped to address this congestion. This has not happened over the years. Do you think the nation should revisit that idea?
There are so many things to revisit. Customs actually said they are going to do the full automation of the single window system which has not happened. They also haven’t synergized with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) who also have a single window. Looking at it critically, you will find out that too many things have not been in place. Even the scanners at the ports have not been provided. There are too many things that have to be achieved at the ports in order to make them efficient. You don’t expect the ports to be efficient except the government becomes serious on those things that need to be done rightly.
Last year, your management team was not together. They had several issues with some of your executive as well as the governing board. This year, should we look forward to a unified ANLCA team geared towards achieving more?
What you would say is that some people were suspended because they didn’t do things in line with what was outlined. We are working and the important thing is that we are here to serve our members. We are not here for our individual interest. If our members’ interest is paramount, then we need to know that we should put in extra effort. There are so many operational problems at the ports and we should seek to address them rather than talk about administrative incompetency and other issues in the association. We have to come together to face those common problems we have at the ports.
Thank God that we have a very formidable family now that is ready and combatant to face our problems.
How do you intend to build on your relationship with Customs for 2020 and what are the opportunities available for training?
These are the things that I have been asking the Comptroller General of Customs to do. It’s always looking as if we are always begging. However, if Customs train freight forwarders the way they train their officers, it will make it freight forwarding process seamless. We have a situation where Customs are training their officers but those who are interacting with the officers are not trained. So, how will it work? I think the Comptroller-General of Customs should look into this critically and come up with a training solution so that we will be on the same page.