Dr. Boniface Aniebonam is the founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), he has been in the fore front of maritime issues and discourse. As a freight forwarder of repute, he examines the inner workings of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the intrigues in the unfolding activities in the society of freight agents. He also throws light on the license recently acquired by the association and how it will impact on trade.
What does the privilege of having a NAGAFF license entail?
First of all, you have to understand clearly that NAGAFF is a freight forwarding association, we are involved in logistics and cargo management or what one can refer to as door to door service providers as regards the various processes that cargo has to go through before it gets to the final destination which is the owner’s warehouse.
A freight forwarder is an international practitioner because goods and services have to go through the boundaries of countries, when it comes to Nigeria, we look at the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) as a very strategic agent of government, looking at the ports system itself, cargo must come to the ports and be reported to the Customs, before Customs will release the cargo to the agent and subsequently delivered to its owner.
In that regards, you will be contending with other agencies of government depending on the cargo to be cleared, there are regulatory agencies like National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON), Plant Quarantine, terminal operators, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), and the Police.
These are agencies you have to pass through before finally exiting from the ports. The licensing regulation of Customs is basically for corporate bodies approved by law, while freight forwarding is more of an individual profession as opposed to licensing regulations of Customs, so, with the license that NAGAFF has just secured it makes it easier and simple to consolidate our actions as far as Customs procedures are concerned. This means that all registered freight forwarders who are duly registered members of NAGAFF and accredited by the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarders in Nigeria (CRFFN), will take advantage of the license to handle the section of clearing of cargo that has to do with the Customs.
How is this license going to operate, is it independently, because a good number of freight forwarders have companies, ultimately are we looking at a situation where all associations are going to have a single license?
That will have been the best option because, it will enhance government revenue, i am sure that one of the major problem as far as fraud is concerned in the ports in matters that has to do with the Customs has to do with registration of licenses. It is only the courts that can unveil the interests of a corporate entity, to know who is behind it, and if that is the case, you discover that most of these license issued by Customs are owned by a lot of foreigners and a lot of serving customs officers, this is a threat to the revenue of the government.
You can liken this to other professions like banking, accounting or law; the emergence of CRFFN is for building capacity and to build professionalism in the freight forwarding business, there is the need to identify individuals that are responsible.
How will this facilitate the collection of the Practitioners Operating Fees (POF)?
As far as I am concerned, it is going to definitely help, for instance, our sister association, Nigerian Association of Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), is saying that they have the greater number of members involved in clearing probably because their membership is based on the licensing regulations of Customs, which many of us have contradicted, how many license do the Customs have? about 1,200 with 5 registered associations. NAGAFF, Nigerian Association of Air Freight Forwarders And Consolidators, NAFFAC; National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents NCMDLCA and Association of Registered Freight Forwarders in Nigeria AREFFN, when you add the aggregate of these four associations they will not be less than 75 percent of the total licenses issued by Customs.
So, if we go by POF there is no problem, we do the consolidation and if we have a single license, members of NAGAFF will pay the POF, at the point you are getting endorsed by NAGAFF for Customs acceptance before declaration. Also CRFFN has to be modified because at the moment NAGAFF has 75 percent of the number of registered freight forwarders as it has to do more with individuals than corporate bodies.
The corporate bodies in the CRFFN register are not more than 1,000 while the registered individual members are about 4,000. I have advocated that the other associations can go and take up such responsibilities and get such license from Customs, it will help to consolidate these processes. More importantly, it will help to stop the level of corruption and fraud as far as licensing regulation of Customs is concerned.
Consolidation, from the point of view of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), from what I understood, is that they want to professionalize the freight forwarding profession, what is your take on this?
Maybe the Shippers’ Council needs to explain what they mean by consolidation, if it is from the point of view of increasing capital base as was done in the merger of financial institutions, recently, that does not apply here because it is like telling a lawyer to consolidate, consolidate what? These are individuals that are professionals, consolidation is possible if CRFFN has not been put in place, if it were only a Customs licensing regulation that has to do with corporate bodies, then you can consolidate them to increase their share capital base but that does not apply now.
The consolidation I am talking about is a process whereby a channel is created for practitioners to follow due process of cargo clearance because it is important that declaration must be made to the Customs and if that is the case then that license becomes necessary but I think that by the time we move forward in some of these issues it will become clearer because the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) is still before the National Assembly for amendement.
Even the CRFFN Act definitely is going back to the National Assembly so as to look at some sections of it that needs to be properly identified and encumbrances removed. We will be looking at a situation where Customs licensing regulation will be just an administrative process and not the strategic importance that it is occupying now.
Looking at consolidation from your perspective, the reason for which the idea of owning a NAGAFF license was brought to fruition, what exactly do you have in mind to call your own consolidation because Shippers’ Council have theirs, what is your idea of consolidation in the industry?
The consolidation I am talking about now is the process whereby freight forwarders are made to act in a single unit, just like the unitization principles in cargo administration. Freight forwarders have a leverage now to reduce the level of fraud in cargo clearing processes because if an organization like NAGAFF gives a stamp on a document for customs declaration, of course, an association cannot give bribe to Customs or anybody for that matter, if you do that then something is seriously wrong somewhere.
Therefore, the level of compliance will be higher, declarations will be more genuine because if not the consequences are quite high and nobody will want to tolerate that.
There is what is called human error, what if in the event of human error in freight forwarders that will necessitate the barring of the license from operating, what happens?
There are other measures that can be taken instead of barring the license, you don’t have any reason to bar license because the cargo is still within the Customs control. It is all about making declaration for Customs purposes and where you do not do that, which is a different ball game completely, you will be penalized and made to pay the difference.
But of course, you should know that when we look at the issue of consignment; false declaration and under valuation and all level of fraud in cargo clearing processes, if an organization like NAGAFF gives a stamp on a document for customs declaration, of course, the level of compliance will be higher, declarations will be more genuine because if not the consequences are quite high and nobody will want to tolerate that. These are an issue that has to do with the transport ministry and CRFFN as an agency of government.
I am aware that ANLCA despite the peace meeting in Abuja are still insisting on not paying the POF?
Well, the inspector of Police looked at the issue of alternative dispute resolution but you cannot do that in a matter that has to do with criminality. Alternative dispute resolution has to do with civil issues but when it is criminal you cannot do that, so that matter is still on, of course, you saw the NAGAFF member that was wounded and I am sure that by the time they conclude their investigation, those that should be charged to court will go to court and that is the truth and the exact situation.
Then if you now talk about those who went to hold meeting with Jukwe in Abuja; ANLCA went with a committee hired by Ernest Elechukwu, to go into negotiation on the issue of the sharing formula of POF.
Our position is very clear, the other four associations have since taken a decision on that and the allocations were most inappropriate. NAGAFF is a bigger body and we are having about 5 slots, ANLCA 4 slots, while other associations have two slots each.
Yes, that is what it is, so, they went to CRFFN office to hold meeting with them in Abuja and of course, the outcome was quite clear that the matter is being handled by someone in the transport ministry and no matter the case you cannot be blowing hot and cold at the same time, you cannot go to court and then go behind to solicited for discussion. We have advised jukwe to be very careful. If you want to go for negotiation then you do not have to do that at your own volition the court must make a pronouncement in that favor; that parties can now go and resolve issues and come back and it will form part of the judgment of the court.
The court did not make any rule to that effect that the parties should be the ones to resolve the matter, the court has to say that the parties involved can go and resolve and come back in, say, another one month and if they agree, it will form part of the judgment of the court. And in any case, some of this noise they are making does not really help anybody, do not forget that we are also in court.
Some of them believe that their court case is the reason why election cannot to go on, they forget that members of NAGAFF are also in court on issues of interpretation, as a matter of fact the court of appeal has been asked whether the CRFFN is an agency of the government and the constitution of the board and what number of persons should be on it CRFFN.
We are still in court, so let nobody raise the thinking that by going to court is a monopoly, we are only looking to see how lasting peace can be restored. What I always tell people is that the country is going through a phenomenal change now and we should be part of this change but I particularly tell our sister association that they should understand that change has occurred and they must accept this change that must be sustained.
It cannot be like before any more, five association only are registered by corporate affairs of CRFFN, four, is in support of CRFFN while only one is saying no, the case is concluded, I am telling you authoritatively that the case is as good as settled, we are in a democracy and it is about the game of numbers so anybody who feels he want to go and register another association has to go to CRFFN and if they accredit you fine.
All this propaganda and threats does not help anybody because nobody is begging food from anybody. I have always advice ANLCA members to follow their leader because their leader is leading them well, he has seen it all, he talks on their behalf. Their president went to America and signed a lot of documents only to come back to Nigeria and they deny him, we cannot do that but they have done that in the name of National Executive Council (NEC) that is superior to their president, what does that mean?
Ok, now their president is keeping quiet and watching them so that they can show how well they can perform without his leadership and he hardly talks anymore, he is just watching them, all the money they have been collecting you will see how it will turn out, they have been collecting money from the port, just watch and see what will happen very soon, because those monies needs to be accounted for. I heard the Registrar saying this on behalf of the transport ministry and by the time EFCC and other graft agencies will step into the matter, then issues will be canvassed and judged.
Let’s look at Customs, how would you capture six years tenure of Dikko?
It was great, when you discuss the issue of Dikko, it is not easy to know where to start as far as success in transportation is concerned, it depends on what you are looking at, if you look at the issue of revenue it is above board like never before, if you look at anti corruption crusade, he did his best, in his fight against anti-smuggling activities, it is at its highest level, capacity building, of course he has even gone up to medical, like the hospital he just opened up in Abuja, which has the same status of a teaching hospital. So we have named him the veteran of Customs reforms, that title we will very soon decorate him with it.
I don’t believe in 100%, what do you think is his key weakness?
Nobody has told you he is 100%. Dikko is first and foremost, a human being so he cannot be 100 percent but do not forget that Dikko is an administrator and his delegates responsibilities just like any leader should, let us take for instance, the alert system of NCS, if all agent are compliant there will be nothing like alert, alert is an information of a suspicion but at the end of the day you discover that, what we upload for Customs processes in terms of the responsibilities of PAAR ruling center are fraudulent, so agents are doing so many things that makes the alerts to be sustained.
The problem with Nigeria is the disrespect for rules of engagement and so you begin to appreciate the fact that to get a better society, we will be looking at government to develop the will to enforce regulations, people must learn to obey the law so what you might call weakness might not be seen as such now.
If you look at relevant sections of the customs Act sections 46,47 and 162, this matters are dealing with concealment, false declaration, undervaluation, wrong description of import, wrong invoicing or under invoicing and prosecution is 5 years with no option of fine. But because we deal on trade, if Dikko tries to implement the enforcement to the latter then this country could collapse as far as trade is concerned and you may also call it a weakness, but the truth is that laws are made for man and not man for law, any law that seeks to create chaos in not a good law.
That is why the import guideline, although it is an inferior document, is brought in to create some kind of soft landing for those who might be in contravention of the Customs law that is reflected in the way of additional duty to be paid. so you are dealing with humans, so when you say weakness, Dikko does not tell a customs officer to take bride and if they take bride and are caught how many officers has he dismissed, those things can be seen as weakness but he has to do his job also. The law does have weakness and he upholds the law he can only act on it.
What is the future of customs and how about the reversal of some of these Customs charges?
Very bright, people have failed to see the impute of the Customs in these area, for example the 1% CISS has translated into medical hospital and other infrastructure and money that used to be paid to service providers before now, customs has taken the responsibility of collecting that. Also, it is in fortunate that most of the charges during the time of service providers are still what is prevalent, you can imagine that a Nigerian will go to a country like china and manufacturers will show him what is quality standard and he will say no, he prefers a lesser quality of the same product, not minding the hazard for materials like cables that can burn somebody’s house.
Some business men are heartless, they are only interested in making money just like those who are into nefarious activities, their interest is to maximize profit and make a lot of money.
Right now we are going through hard times, talking about foreign exchange sourcing, there seems to be a serious drought, what is your take on this?
This is the sacrifice we are talking about, people should understand that a lot of things have gone wrong in this country as far as corruption is concerned, so on the processes of the issue of foreign exchange sourcing people should understand that Nigeria cannot continue to be an importing nation and with time it will evolve, this change we are talking about can only come when people respect the laws of the land.