By Kenneth Jukpor
Dr. Boniface Aniebonam is the Founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). In this interview with MMS Plus newspaper he gives an appraisal of Nigeria’s transport sector from the prism of a freight forwarder. Aniebonam also speaks on the nation’s land border closure as well as other challenges in the nation’s port sector. Excerpts:
The government has said the land borders would remain closed until first quarter in 2020. What’s NAGAFF’s position on this?
The position of NAGAFF is very clear on the issues that have to do with border closure. We are not very comfortable because we expected government to give a notice to avoid a level of damage to items that are perishable. However, Government has taken decision and it’s for the good of the nation. The interest of the country is paramount to anything. Therefore, we need the make sacrifices and I have urged Nigerians to make that sacrifice with this border closure. The government is responsible enough to know what is good for us and that’s why we elected them. We cannot live with a bad neighbours neighbouring, but at the same time, we don’t need our neighbours to man our borders for us. In order to implement our fiscal policy and trade, there is nothing wrong with this policy. At the same time, I am expecting government to extract some understanding with the neighbours so that the borders can be opened.
Some of the challenges which led to the border closure started with issues that made Nigerian ports less attractive before people started patronizing neighbouring ports. Have these issues at Nigerian ports been addressed?
You are aware of the stress we go through. The essence of port concessioning is to reduce cost, increase capacity in terms of development of projects where there are structures that can enhance port operations and make our ports to be competitive. We are not getting that. The cost of doing business is very high and there hasn’t been any change. I hope the government will be able to extract an understanding with our neighbors. It is also about smuggling which has brought down our economy. There is the issue of rice importation and the people who are importing this rice are not eating the same rice and they are breaching all the protocols.
For instance, transit goods must be on its original state entering Nigerian border but they break it down over there which is a violation of trade protocol. So, it is obvious that we have bad neighbours. However, it doesn’t mean we should shut down the border because we want to implement our fiscal policies.
Since the port concessioning, there were a lot of expectations and some of the issues you raised now such as the absence of truck terminals were addressed. Presently, the port concession agreement is being reviewed. Has NAGAFF been past of such meetings to raise some of these concerns?
It is when your attention is drawn to it that you can make input. NAGGAFF is a registered organisation and is very critical. It is also a member of the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) cutting across all the trade points of Nigeria but with emphasis at the sea port. Sometimes the government does things the way it wants to do it. When they call you, they do so just for you to talk. That does not mean that they want to make use of your suggestion. If we are talking of concessionnig the port, you will be looking at local content so that we can be part of the management of the port.
The year ‘2019’ winds down in few weeks, how would your appraise the maritime industry this year?
What we can say we have achieved is that we are alive. The things that were prevalent before this time are still there, if not worse. The cost of doing business in the port is quite high. The stress, the port access roads and the traffic has been there for not less than three years. So what has changed?
Time is money, yet it takes so much time to clear goods. The sector hasn’t added any value. The cost of doing business is high and that is why a lot of people go through the border entry points and possibly go into naked smuggling. Smugglers will always try to exist. What is important is the proactive nature of the government and partnership with critical stakeholders to curb the menace.
N1 trillion was generated by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in the first 10 months. How would you rate their activities for the year?
Customs is doing the best i can in a very hostile environment, an environment where adequate logistics are not provided for optimal performance. For instance, the Customs has been modernized. Customs have even gone outside this country to help other African countries in the area of modernization.
As regards the issue of modernization, what level of input is the government making in that regard because modernization has to do with literacy in computer. That brings me to the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) as it affects freight forwarders. CRFFN has their mandate to ensure professionalism and for you to be professional, you must be an individual and not a corporate body or what you call an artificial person.
The area of education comes in and this is where CRFFN is supposed to invest heavily to pick these young freight forwarders and take them up so that they can understand the system. The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) for instance is moving to e- standard organization, e-receipt and e-debit note. So, if you are not computer literate, you wouldn’t know what the facility is all about. There is need for us to do more on education.
The original idea of CRFFN was not to make it a government agency, so some top freight forwarders have stressed the need for another professional body in the mould of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Do you share similar thoughts on this?
CRFFN has the powers for all what you are talking about and the presence of government is found in CRFFN because the representatives of government agencies are in the Council’s board. CRFFN gives approval to institutions for training with a standard curriculum that you have to follow. We also have a tribunal to try people who go against the rules.
For me, the earlier Customs understands what CRFFN is all about, the better for them. The biggest problem that the Customs are having is that the freight forwarders do not understand the language of Customs, hence, non-compliance.
These practitioners don’t have integrity and one of the things a professional has is the code of ethics and practice. In the licensing regulation of Customs, you don’t have that but CRFFN has that. In CRFFN, you must go through a qualifying examination and then you become certified. You also have honours. My number is 0017 and if I endorse any document, I will put that number there. If I do anything contrary, I would be held responsible. It just like we have service number in Customs and the Police. You can sign a document and say you are hiding under the corporate veil of the licensing regulation of the Customs.
How do you navigate through the hurdles of Apapa road, the stress and challenges daily?
It is very boring, everyone knows that. You pass through a lot of traffic while coming to the office and it’s very stressful. When you come down to the operations at the ports, nothing is working, but you have to keep on struggling.
NAGAFF is twenty years and throughout the period it has been so stressful. Some of the things we have talked about before are major problems such as the access roads to the port. We talked about the ports entering the degree of second development and the need to open up truck terminals so that vehicles can be called in and scheduled.
Today, all these are major problems. Sometimes you find it difficult talking to tell the press because it is as good as repeating yourself. I was speaking with someone recently and the person told me that we have to continue to speak up.