Comrade Chinedum James is the Tin can Island Chapter Public Relations Officer of the Association of Registered freight Forwarders in Nigeria (AREFFN), he doubles as the coordinatior of the Society watch Support Network, an NGO that is into integrity watch in the society.
Comrade James has out well over 25 years into service in the clearing job in Nigerian ports. He is an astute believer in integrity and uprightness and wishes to enforce that in the larger society hence the birth of SWSN.
In this interview that coincides with his fiftieth birthday, he analyses the areas that need change and how things have changed in the port over the twenty five years that he has been in the port. He also speaks on some of the agencies that operate in the port. Enjoy the piece.
Can you tell us about freight forwarding owing to your length of experience in the business?
The problem we have with freight forwarders otherwise known as clearing agents is that most people have forgotten what an agents is all about. Agents from my own understanding is like a middle man representing the interest of somebody or a group and such a person does not have the final say. But in Nigeria, an agent tends to give the impression that he has the final say. An agent is like a pocket lawyer for the importer so, he represents the importer before the Customs who are representing the government, in those days, when the agent gets a job, on his way to customer, he must go with his tariff. but unfortunately, bout 80 percent of the so-called clearing agents does not know what tariff is all about, they don’t understand it.
When we started, we started by studying our tariff, you must know your tariff. So also some customs officers, they don’t understand what tariff is all about. Those days when you were going to release a job, you would go with your tariff, when you get there, customs will be quoting the tariff and you would be quoting it too. There would be argument and if customs wins you, you will go and pay your DN. But now, there is nothing like that. They just look to at the surface duty and say go and pay DN because they don’t understand the tariff. If you conduct a research on the custom officers, quote me, about 50 or 60 percent don’t know what tariff is all about.
Is it that they are not trained or what?
They don’t have time. Most of them see the job as where you just enter and start making money. It is only few of them that are real customs officers. Likewise agents too, 80 percent of them don’t understand what tariff is all about. Most of them don’t even have tariff.
Why do you think it is so?
It is unfortunate, it is part of the decadence we are talking about in our society and I think some of the associations are trying to arrest the situation, l don’t know how far they can go on this. The tariff is a voluminous book that you study, a lawyer cannot say they have finished from the university that they will not go to a law school, because they inteprete the law everyday likewise the customs officers are supposed to be interpreters of tariff. Because of the lack of knowledge of the tariff, some customs officers take advantage of the agents.
Looking at customs holistically, how is customs of today compared to the customs of when you started twenty five years ago.
The difference is that only few of the customs of today have been on the job and quite understand what the job is all about but majority of them that just joined have not taken their time to study the job. In the process of working, if you come across such people, you will have problems with them. Some of them don’t know the job and you cannot even argue with them. But when we started those days, we could argue with any custom officer, because it was interesting those days but today, because most of them don’t study their tariff, so they don’t want you to bring your tariff close.
How do they value your items?
They base their value on your declaration. An importer is supposed to have a tariff, or an agent should be able to educate his importer on the tariff before they prepare their form M. But in a situation where the agent has no knowledge of what to educate his importer with, what do you get? It will turn to a movement of confusion.
Let’s look at customs under the present management.
The customs of today, I will say from the CG, he has done a lot in upgrading the level of an average customs officer but some of them are not ready. That is the truth of the matter. What I have decided to do in Society Watch Support Network is to make sure that those ones that have refused to change to the new changes we will fish them out. May be they are tired of being customs officers so they can be flushed out of the system and those ones who are doing the right thing, we will praise them. So we are not going to allow any of those officers to frustrate the effort of the CG.
Activities of the shipping companies?
The problem of the shipping companies is that most of them are not truthful because when you are representing a line here, a certain amount is being paid to you then why do you still come here and be charging importers? Whereas the only thing they suppose to charge is the deposit and the documentation on the container because the services for the container has been paid already. Why I don’t even want to talk about the shipping companies is that when it comes to the shipping companies, you hold the agents associations responsible.
Because most of them connive with the shipping companies and I was the first person in the early nineties that started fighting shipping companies. I started with Panalpina when I took them to court because I had a container and the importer said it belonged to him; it is not my business because I don’t know the kind of contractual agreement you entered with the shipper. The importer took the container and dropped the container in his house and after about nine months, Panalpina sent a bill to me. And before you know it they stopped attending to my jobs that I should go and pay and I took them to court because when it comes to container deposit, it is between them and importers and I won the case. It was a celebrated court case for me then.
What about terminal operators?
During the time of Kema Chikwe as Minister of transport,there was a problem in the port that relates to the activities of the shipping companies and their sharp practices. I led a protest and the port was shut down for almost one week but before you know it, the associations connived with them and collected money from them then, that is what I heard. , then I was not interested in the association issue but I came into the association so that I will be able to join in re-writing the wrongs of the past,
The terminal operators are another terrible set of people. I had a problem about four years ago, I had a container in the port and booked for an examination then by 7:30 in the morning, somebody called me and said my container was on fire. Before I could get there, the container had burnt down to ashes and as I am talking to you, the terminal operator could not even write to me officially nor write to the importer to tell the importer what happened. I suffered in the court for 42 months over the issue.
What was the outcome?
I won the case.
And up till now nothing has been done?
Nothing. There are too many problems in the port. I pity anymore who has not had the experience of the port and I pray that what others saw will not befall that person. That port is a wonderful place.