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.
The transporters issue is another whole a lot of issues. I have problem with various associations in the port because the operations in the port need everybody to succeed. The agents need the customs officers, the customs officers need the agents then the agents again need the transporters but in this case, transporters are on their own. I don’t know how their operations are, I decided that I will use Society Watch Support Network to write to them so that I will have meetings with their leadership but at the same time because I don’t know the characters I am going to meet there, it is good I bring the government inside now.
Either the Inspector General of Police or the Minister of Transport because every truck is supposed to have a tracker, because should there be any problem, who comes in first? It is the police and when police comes in, the next person is the clearing agent; it now depends on their perspective of understanding and mind you in Nigeria any business transaction that runs into muddy water has some criminal intent even when there is nothing of such. There are some businesses that will fail because of the environment; there are some businesses that will fail because there is no solid agreement. So, may be you cleared a container worth about N10 million or N20 million and you now call a transporter, mind you, there is an agent for the transporters, just call him, no written agreement and you just tell him that you need a truck.
He will ask where you are and will give you a truck. You may not even know the number of the truck; you don’t know the authenticity of the number. So, they will bring the truck inside and you will load, the vehicle moves. What happens if there is any problem on the way; the container gets missing, it is then you start looking for the driver, the conductor, the agent and the agent will start looking for the owner. There was a story of a truck driver with a container on top heading to Abuja, but the driver packed this truck at Berger bus top to leave to Abuja the following morning, but before he could get to where he packed, his truck; it was missing but luck ran out of the thieves, at Ijora Olopa because the vehicle broke down and there was nothing they could do so, police came and towed the vehicle for safety not knowing that the vehicle was stolen and the transporter was detained at Orile.
When police was doing its investigation, when the transporter regained his freedom through bail, somebody called him and said he saw something like his container at Ijora Olapa meanwhile; the police at Ijora Olapa were waiting for the owner of the container to come and look for it. You can now see the reasons for truck tracker, where there is a tracker; the matter will be a little easier, it will help the agent, the police and everbody. So, all these things boil down to the agents; when a container comes out of the port may be due to negligence of the government we are working for on the road side and the container falls, the first culprit is the agent.
Do you agree to the allegation that the traffic gridlock on the roads caused by truck driver?
Yes. I will say capital yes because we were accusing the tanker drivers. I am surprised when I saw that tanker driver is much organised. Who is causing the problem now? Truck drivers. So, if the tanker drivers can be organised; why can’t the truck drivers be organised too? They should call their men to order. The problem we run into presently as far as the road is concerned is the truck drivers.
Shippers’ Council to look at the financial base of the freight forwarding firms. I wonder what they want to make out of it. Let me tell you, the agent have always been the weeping child of the port. The agent does not benefit anything from the government whereas they make money for the government. An agent does not benefit anything because if the profit is so much, after twenty five years I should be thinking of retirement but the whole problem associated with the port just like I mentioned earlier would not allow that. Imagine the transporters, the customs, the shipping companies, the terminal operators and others on one person. So, I wonder what Shippers’ Council is looking for. They cannot achieve any tangible thing without the associations.
They are not saying they will relegate the agents to the background but to be sure that they have strong financial base.
Any agent who can acquire a licence for almost half a million naira should be able to do the job. The problem we run into in the port is that when am importer imports goods, the agent will now use his money to clear it. It doesn’t make any sense because what is inside the container you don’t know, it is only what you see on paper that you know while examinations pyisical.
Security operatives in the port?
I will start with the police; they have been very wonderful in the port, they have been managing more than what is expected of them. They don’t have equipment enough; they don’t have machines (motorcycles) to move about within the port, there is supposed to be a special grant for the police working around the port because they have a lot to do. They manage all other agencies in the port including the customs because if there is anything about security, the police will be held responsible. So, they cannot sleep with their two eyes closed even while they are in their houses. I don’t think there is any police officer that works in the port that will switch his phone off even while at home because they can be called upon at any time. Worse still, they suffer the same fate we suffer on the road. There is no special provision made for them which is not supposed to be. They are working at the gateway of the nation’s economy. They should benefit from the economy apart from their normal salaries.
There have been reports from some quarters that police officers take bribe from truck drivers in the port?
I am not a police officer but with the little I know about them, I don’t agree with that. The truck operators are very funny set of people. Most at times it is not the drivers that drive but the motor boys and they don’t have licences. Most times, when you come there you will see policemen shouting at them to follow a certain road yet they will refuse to heed. They will be bent on doing what they want to do. I am talking from my little experience in the port. The people I really want to talk about are the SON, they are creating a lot of problems and I think NAGAFF has written to the DG and I am waiting for their reaction. If the DG does not do anything, we might have to descend on them.
They arrest containers outside the port. I cleared machinery on Saturday (two weeks ago) and the machinery came out ant at Isolo, they said SON arrested them. What has SON got to do with used machinery? It was an injection moulding machine. That has nothing to do with government policy. I don’t know if their DG is aware of all these developments but I think the best thing is to take SON to court which I am preparing because I am arranging a group of lawyers because there are lot of things we might not have to wait to safeguard. Call an average agent and check his Blood pressure (BP), if there is anyone whose BP is normal, including me, no agent because the forces are too many.
The CG is doing a nice job but some customs officers are like impediment to the progress of PAAR and we want to expose those ones. I will call names and this will be the last interview I will grant and not call names. I put one customs officer, CSC. Aliyu at the RORO gate to test and he passed it. Not only once or twice but about four to five times and he does not even know. The CAC of customs at PTML is doing a very good job, he does not set in his office, and he is open to agents. Call him at any time, he will come up, his office is open. Walk into his office and complain about any office, he will get up by himself and within a second, the matter is corrected. So, I want to see other CACs borrowing a leaf from him. If you come to valuation in Tin Can, DC Alana there knows what he is doing but some of his lieutenants are very funny and I will mention their names. When Alana is not there, it is a movement of confusion.
From your experience in the port, can you tell us how well government policies have helped to build the port?
The policies in the port have always been movements of confusion if not that CG decided to arrest one part that has been giving us a lot of problems. He said they should handle it and see how it works rather than giving it out to another person so that there will be peace in that area. I wonder where we would have been by now. Sometimes ago in 1995, I borrowed money from African Continental Bank, an Akwa Ibom bank, and I imported and by the time the 45 vehicles came in, it was the first week of January and that was when I started experiencing BP because it was a soft loan. Some of my vehicles were moved to Catonou because the port was locked due to the political situation in Nigeria. There was no engine in two of my vehicles in Cotonou, it was stolen in the port there. In that business, I had to gather money to prosecute the business. For every New Year, there has always been a problem in the port due to policy change then but the problem we have now is that most of our policy makers tend to forget where they are coming from when they get to Abuja. That is why we are pleading that the issue of making our law makers to stay in Abuja should stop, they should come back home. I cannot vote for you in Imo state to represent me in government and you will go and live in Abuja and I won’t see you again.
25 Years in the port, your experience?
Thank God for Shippers’ Council coming in, may be by the time we start discussing, a lot of things will come up because when you are entering into a business and the business is more than 200 to 300 thousand or even N1 million, there is supposed to be a documentation and it will protect the importer, the agent so that they can sleep with their two eyes closed the importer run into problems and already you had charged the importer a thousand naira and you need about a thousand and five hundred naira to solve the problem, you have entered into trouble already.
How do you see the Nigerian port in the next five years?
I see a refined port; we are working towards that. The only problem we are having is the rich keeps getting richer.
What should we expect from Society Watch Support Network?
Encourage the good; rebuke the bad and fight the ugly. The networks not about customs alone but the entire society.