Dr. Boniface Aniebonam is the Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). In this Roundtable discussion with the League of Maritime Editors and Publishers (LOMEP) , he speaks on an array of issues in the nation’s maritime sector.
What is your take on the current state of Council For the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN)?
CRFFN is the only opportunity given to us in the industry either as a journalist or as a freight forwarder, so it depends on the camp one belongs to. We can be looking at the whole Apapa’s interest but CRFFN is a cash cow that can accommodate everything. The money there is too much, right now we’re no longer sure of it but the government itself who gave the approval is in a depressed economy and you know the current state of government’s revenue. It’s most unfortunate. For me, either we like it or not they have achieved their objectives in the sense that if you recall at the public hearing they were there to stop the emergence of CRFFN. So as far as they’re concerned up till now they’re still fighting, distorting, and disorganizing everything about CRFFN. But the consolation is that they’re not God, if it doesn’t succeed today it will tomorrow. .
We have to work together, nothing has gone bad completely. More so, the CRFFN act amendment is before the National Assembly. If CRFFN functions properly, even the journalists will be sponsored for trainings, on course and seminars as it should be but the money does not belong to any particular person. It’s a matter of writing an application and getting approval rather than tasking people for money, asking to choose either to pay N50, 000 or N100, 000. It’s different compared to writing to an establishment to get the board’s approval. Secondly, there are young freight forwarders coming up so we have to know what we’re doing. If you look at the age of Customs, those who are aged are already retiring so you find out that if you go to Customs office now you’ll see new faces there that you’re not familiar with and that is what is affecting most of us including I myself. When I go into the port, the young Customs officers don’t know who I am, they would be asking if that is the Aniebonam they’re talking about? Moreover things are no longer working as it were in the Customs PRO offices. Things are changing with difficulties here and there so what do we do to stand on our own because we’re worn out and what happens to our old age? This example I sighted earlier I can see your reactions but in the next five years maximum, there’s nobody we will all know in Customs authority. And even if you try to know someone, you’ll realise they’re too young for you to approach and converse certain topics with, so what do we do to consolidate our old age? The worst thing now because of the current economic situation, children now a days don’t take proper care of their parents compared to people like us.
What’s your take on suspension of Hadiza?
They’ve finally removed Hadiza from office and people are hitting her and you are all aware of what i said about her when it happened. So even if I said she doesn’t pick my calls while in office, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t speak the truth? As far as I am concerned something is wrong with them, even if she is to be guilty on the contrary, why must Bello-Koko be chosen to replace her? If the allegations of money raised against her is the case so why not hold the person in charge of finance responsible in terms of returns expected. Something is wrong and that’s the kind of country we’re running. The chief accounting officer is left while the CE0 axed out of office. It’s like holding the President responsible for the Transport Minister’s shortcomings.
Irrespective of the circumstances, government has chosen to put Koko as the acting MD. In your view, what areas should he focus on as he’s currently acting in that capacity so things can change positively for all doing business at the port?
You should have asked about the relevance of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) at the port. The port has been concessioned so NPA is a technically supervisor. So it’s as good as asking to what extent they’ve supervised the concessionaires and to what extent they can exercise powers and sanctions across board if something is going wrong at the ports. NPA is just there taking money and royalty, they’re not really functioning as we want and the concessionaires are powerful people but that’s the environment they operate.
What is your reaction on the activities of the concessionaires as of today?
If you would recall we’ve already reported them. What’s the essence of the port concession? Why was that responsibility taken away from NPA? That is what we should look at, the cost of doing business so that efficiency can increase, productivity to be greatly improved upon. As far as I’m concerned it’s like providing food for some set of people. I couldn’t have been wrong to say that the port concession has not brought any benefit but cumulatively it has not added value because the cost of doing business is still high and the essence of port concession is to bring down cost of doing business, making the port competitive, improve on efficiency but has all these been achieved? Do you know how long it takes to take container to the port? Although there are a lot of things we can look out for holistically because port operation is in circle, it’s the combination of the functionality of the Customs, shipping companies and clearing agents. Each one has to function for the other to perform as well then we can now talk about Transport commission. Nobody is moderating the port at the moment.
What can the Acting MD do to resolve the challenges facing “Eto?”
Who is the leader of the port? Ordinarily, the Nigerian Customs is the lead agency at the ports and you can understand why Customs have that responsibility. If we look at the Customs law section 12 and 13. It’s says that NPA, terminal operators have a responsibility to provide enable environment for the optimal performance of Customs at the port. But has Customs taken responsibility to do that? If you look at Section 8 of the Customs law, it talks about the powers of a police officer bestowed on Customs and that’s why they’re the enforcement unit armed as a paramilitary organisation but to what extent have they done that? They also have the power to arrest and prosecute. Section 11 talks about the lawful duty of an officer in other words all these people that seems to create bottlenecks for Customs at the ports, Customs have the power to arrest them and hand them over to police rather than just focusing on revenue generation. So somebody must provide leadership. Recall that when Customs invited everyone at the port, telling the shipping companies to provide soft copies of ship manifest, you know how long it took for that to happen. Customs should have invoke section 11 of it’s law and see the actions of the shipping companies as obstruction. You must understand that the issues at the port is about leadership.
NPA as the technical regulator, what are the things that can be pointed out that NPA has failed to do as regards discharging its duties?
You have to look at the inherent powers in NPA constitution, what powers do they posses? Remember I said earlier the concessionaires are very powerful people.
Can we say that there’s no enough law to back the concession agreement as at the time it was signed?
What we need right now is good leadership. Do you think we don’t have enabling laws that can address all these worries but to what extent do we actually carry out that responsibility? Take a look at the leadership of Hassan Bello at Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), the zeal of Hassan can’t be matched. To what extent has he been able to achieve his aims? The acts that established NSC can be compared to that of Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON). The IG of Police is there but people are saying NSC has the advisory capacity and are the commercial regulator of the port but how have they been able to enforce its acts? Recall that NSC at one time formed an enforcement unit but to what extent have they been able to act? It’s clear there’s a problem in the entire system and it has to do with leadership. The advice I’ve been giving people in leadership position either in NPA, NSC, Customs or Police is that the person that appointed you is the President of the country and under section 5 of the constitution it’s powers have been delegated so therefore go and do your job in the capacity you’re appointed even if you’re going to step on some people’s toes for doing the right thing which might later cost you loosing the job at the end. But if you do your best another person that takes up your job would continue from where you stop.
On the newly inaugurated Deep blue project, in your view do you think it can be sustained and maintained, even though the Hon. Minister of Transport said that as long as he’s the Minister the assets acquired would be sustained and maintained but what if he leaves office what happens next, also bearing in mind the level of conspiracy between the Nigerian army and navy?
You remind me of situation when people cheer Government officials when they commission projects like borehole, building of schools etc but the truth is those things are not achievement, it’s part of their statutory responsibility and also the money spent is not their personal money. We ought to be talking about people that are conceiving ideas that can move the Nation forward. These things were supposed to be in place before now but they were not done. It’s nothing new but the consolation is that we should thank the man who made it possible to be done because after all a good number of people have held that position and they didn’t do anything to address the issue. Every cargo coming through the sea move as if they’re going to the war zone so what we’ve done now is economically viable.
When the President came to inaugurate the project, we realised that the port access road was free throughout but after he left, congestion resumed back on the roads, what’s really the problem?
We’re just deceiving ourselves in this country. What we saw was a typical Nigerian situation. I’ve once said that the port system has collapsed in terms of operation and also what is happening now was what I foresaw when I founded NAGAFF 20 years ago. When Dangote, Floor Mills and the rest occupying space within the port environment and I advocated the need for truck terminals to be established to service the port but no one listened. Even the journalists present here have been writing on the tank farms around the port environment but who have listened so far? The tank farms scattered around Apapa is like a time bomb that every person living in Apapa and satellite town will experience one day. Recall several incidence of tanker explosions or even the one that happened in Folawiyo whereby NPA buildings, Customs building, among others, was touched. We’ve advocated that the road from Apapa up to Stadium be expanded into 8 lanes on both sides. As we are speaking now all the tankers are coming from North and East to carry fuel and there is nothing we can all do, even the roads are not good for articulated vehicles. We need multi modal transport system. It’s unfortunate the truck owners don’t want to help themselves. They would have abandoned their trucks on the road and disappear. Even if the President arrive by Jet, people who used the road would testify to the congestion and can force the President to visit the scene.
SON has been clamoring to return back to the port environment, what’s your take on that?
It’s we the freight forwarders that want SON back in the port because our job is to clear goods and get it to the owners warehouse and we’re not comfortable doing that anymore. The inherent hardship we’re facing with the enforcement agencies on the inner roads are too much. It’s better all things are sorted in the port and let we the freight forwarder be able to deliver goods to the owners without any obstruction. We’re loosing our money and investment, our job are not done when the owners of cargo do not receive their goods. What we’re saying is that SON be brought back to the port and if there is need for further action to be taken on a cargo then it can be done before it leaves the port environment. We’re not the importer nor in charge of quality assurance, all we want is to be able to deliver goods to the owners’ warehouse and be paid for our service. We have other agencies in the ports and SON even have more scope of work to be done.
How do we now place Customs stopping cargo on the roads after leaving the port?
Custom is not supposed to cause obstruction on the city roads, it is just the abuse; the human element factor. The directive is clear, 40 km away from the borderline and that is why NAGAFF posited that the young Customs officers that were killed in Port Harcourt were avoidable incidence because they were not supposed to mount check points at that particular place. Even within internal operations, the directive of the CGC is that they should drive to a location if they have a reasonable information or intelligence to work on and not stay more than 24 hours but is that what is going on? There’s need for supervision and feedback. On the part of Customs officers that are bitter because FOU stops already cleared containers, my question to them is that if they’re also posted to FOU, what will they do? So let’s stop deceiving each other. Let me again re-emphasize, what is Customs, what is excise? Customs means duty payable at the entry port, the custom duty I.e revenue collected at entry port. The power of Custom to patrol freely to enter a place where there is reasonable information that there is a material or substance against the law of Customs means that there’s a credible intelligence acted upon. That is why the issue of raiding market came to be, the mix feeling is there, why raid market? Raid is synonymous to application of force and Customs make use of ammunition so if you carry gun and apply that force what do you think will happen? The issue of morality comes to play. Yes, Customs have the power to enter the market but morally do they need to do that with guns, you won’t be surprised if some civilians end up dead and questions would be raised, where are they coming from? I used to advise people because I’m in a position of interacting with Customs, you don’t barge into Customs anyhow because there power is too much when it comes to revenue generation. If you invade Customs anyhow you’ll get yourself hurt. The Custom law is very strict on matters of revenue and economic ideas. So we need to be careful when dealing with Customs. But what we are saying is that any law that seeks to go against humanity is a bad law. Therefore the need to exercise caution when applying that law.
Customs are known as the police of the border, to facilitate trade and checkmate illegality but what we’ve known Nigerian Custom to be now is revenue generation, in your view to what degree have they been able to facilitate trade aside generating revenue?
Trade facilitation is the simplification of goods but the real term for trade facilitation is compliance. If you’re not compliance to import and export trade then don’t bring the word trade facilitation. Government does not joke with revenue generation but the truth is where we have problem we don’t tackle it. CBN is one of the threats to trade in Nigeria because they come up with policies day by day with no prior notice or timeline. An example is the customs exchange rate. The 41 items we’re talking about today that states all the false declaration in the port technically are banned because all import must go through a Forex, Federal government has removed the 41 items not to enjoy the foreign exchange but then its not prohibited. They’ve forgotten that destination inspection is what we practice in this country, look at section 27, 28 and 29 of the Customs law, goods imported without any due process and what the laws says you’ll do. Is it the CBN’s doing that is superior or inferior to Customs? That’s the reason you see matters of false declaration and consignment meanwhile Customs hands are tied. Customs cannot seize provided an importer makes a declaration. If you bring in a consignment without due process and you make a declaration at the point of entry, Customs will value the goods and place penalties on it provided they’re not prohibited goods. But technically under CBN those goods are prohibited because they’re on the 41 items. So there’s a conflict with the CBN’s actions and Customs law. There is a confusion and government is losing money so the way out is government should libralise trade, remove those items on the list.