By Kenneth Jukpor
Mr. Tony Iju Nwabunike is the President of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). In this interview with MMS Plus, he shares his thoughts on the government’s move to restrict forex on food. He also spoke on the impending collection of Practitioners Operating Fees (POF) at the ports, picks holes in the ongoing review of port concession agreement and bares his mind of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) potentials and threats for Nigeria. Enjoy it:
With the problems of power supply and other infrastructural and fiscal policy issues in Nigeria; what is your perception of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)?
First of all, the federal government has signed it through the president. So, the issue isn’t whether we are going to be part of it or not. At the moment, we are part of the free trade agreement and we are going to face its challenges as well as the gains. The gains include competiveness, the opening up of the borders for trade services. We can also evolve in friendly trade with other countries in Africa and we can show our supremacy as the giant of Africa.
Another advantage is that it is going to bring about the reduction of prices of goods and it is going to liberalize the whole nation as it were. The disadvantage would be more on those nations who are wholly consumers like Nigeria. Consumer nations like Nigeria would have problems because there are very few items to export and AfCFTA essentially benefits exporting nations.
Nigeria has only established itself as major exporter of crude oil, so we are at a very disadvantaged position. The people that will enjoy this AfCFTA fully are the productive nations like the Algeria, Egypt, South Africa and Morocco. These are the nations that are very competitive in nature and have something to offer. However, Nigeria is going to be very tight because the competition is going to be high and the option we have is to quickly become a nation that produces.
Nigeria has enormous potentials for agricultural produce. Do you think that is an opportunity?
If you look at our agricultural produce, it is not enough for feeding our population not to talk of feeding the African nations. We have other African nations who are very conversant with agricultural products. Although, we are trying in agriculture, we aren’t there yet. on that note I can say that from the immediate past government of the federal government of Nigeria, which is from the time of President Goodluck Jonathan to this present government are trying to give little leverage on what agriculture can do. But it is not enough to even serve the needs of the country, talk less of Africa.
A lot has happened at the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) in recent times, one of the developments is the impending collection of the Practitioners Operating Fees (POF). What’s your take on this?
I was the pioneer chairman of CRFFN. The singular reason why CRFFN should be allowed to collect POF is that we have all agreed that we are going to be given certification by CRFFN. We are all members of CRFFN. If you are a member, you have to pay your subscription. POF should be seen as subscription for all members of CRFFN. If CRFFN is buoyant, they will liberate themselves from government and have a wonderful budget to train and retrain freight forwarders. It will also give us a face-lift and make us more standardized. So, I think it’s high time CRFFN began the collection of POF.
Recently, the Charted Institute of Transport Administration (CIoTA) Nigeria bill was passed into law. Do you think the freight forwarders should also fall into that category?
This can be likened to the state of liberalization in the sector. If there is the Chartered Institute of Transport Administration, that’s fine but all of them should be under the umbrella of CRFFN. This shows that the transport sector has realized the need to train and retrain practitioners just as we want to train our members and make them more professional.
The Assistant Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in-charge of Zone ‘A’, ACG Kaycee Ekekezie recently visited ANLCA national secretariat and stressed compliance to due process, meanwhile, agents lament that numerous Customs units have become extortion points. How would you rate ANLCA’s relationship with Customs?
ANLCA – Customs relationship is very healthy and cordial. We recognize the fact that they are the people licensing us. We also know that our relationship is like that of a husband and his wife. We are not going to divulge any negative information or do any negative thing against them. I don’t think they should also begin to say negative things about us. They are doing the things required of them.
We actually asked them to look into the hacking and blocking of licenses and 85% of them have been released. People are looking at the Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC) Col. Hammed Ali (Rtd) as someone who is not communicating or performing, but I must tell you that he is a very critical person. If you come to him with a superior argument, he will listen to you and get the things done rightly. So, it’s a question of knowing what exactly you are going there for.
We are also coming up with issues as a result of multiplicity of Customs units which actually we are looking into. We want them to be streamlined. Again, we are even asking our members to tell our customers to play according to the rules and be law abiding.
For example, if you have a very genuine business with correct declarations, you will come there and defend your stand. It is only when you cannot defend what you are taking out or you have put in a wrong declaration or wrong tariff and consignments, that you should be afraid. But all the same, we need to streamline Customs units. Other government agencies are saying that because the Customs are having multiplicity of units. They should divide themselves just like the Police is trying to do now. I think the present management of Customs is a listening one and we have a good relationship with them.
New ministers have just been appointed, how does the leadership components of the Transport and Finance ministries affect your business and the economy?
First of all, we need to do an assessment of the people that performed and the people that have stayed in that office before. I can give a very good pass mark to the Ministry of Transport based on the previous administration. So far, they have tried but they need to do more.
In the Ministry of Aviation, they have a whole lot to do. This is the first point of contact and an image perception symbol for Nigeria her people, especially for people coming from foreign nations. The perception of the passengers and the people coming into Nigeria is important, so those in the aviation sector should know what to do about it. Tourism is a top business which has enormous economic value. During the recent vacation, many people travelled all over the world. How many people travelled to Nigeria? Nigeria should tourism destination and this starts from the entry point like the airports. Goods and services on the cargo side should be encouraged and managed efficiently.
The Minister of Finance should ensure that before initiating policies and procedures for import as a guideline, there should be room for deliberation with the stakeholders. They should not just sit down and issue directives all the time.
On the issue of stakeholders’ engagement, the port concession brought about several changes in the port system as well as several challenges. Right now, the port concession agreement is being reviewed but stakeholders aren’t part of the review. What’s your take on this?
We have taken these challenges to the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, who is actually talking about the ease of doing business. The question is where is the ease of doing business when you are not contacting the stakeholders before taking crucial decisions in the sector? How can the port be under concessioned for almost thirteen years and the review of the agreement is ongoing and we don’t know? Who is responsible, where is it taking place and how is it going to be done? Why aren’t freight forwarders privileged to know what the concession agreement is all about? Shippers Council doesn’t know about it too. So, who is part of it? Who are the stakeholders involved? Stakeholders are making effort to know about it but we are not given the opportunity. I think it’s a scam and it should be reviewed.
The issue of airport concession was raised few years ago and it came up again last year. Looking at the seaports development as well as the challenges with the concession, is this the way forward for Nigerian airports?
Privatization is good but you need to know who you are privatizing it to. The entrance to any nation is very important. I am of the opinion that before concession, security has to be in place. This also has to be done with systematic approach. It is not something you can jump into because of the delicate nature of the seaport as well as the airport. What’s at stake is national security and it is an issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Before you came on board as ANLCA president, you talked about the need to have a distinct institute for licensed customs brokers. What’s the latest development on this?
This is something very dear to me and it will be the next phase of our activities. We are putting several proposals to the National Assembly. We want to have a Chartered Institute of Customs Brokers, but it doesn’t stop CRFFN from doing its job. Customs brokers must be chartered and have an institution that will train and retrain them. By the time we get that done, we would be seen as more serious professionals like customs brokers in other parts of the world and we can compete favourably with our contemporaries.