How CRFFN Maiden Election Was ‘Comprehensively Rigged’ – Dr. Aniebonam

 How CRFFN Maiden Election Was ‘Comprehensively Rigged’ - Dr. Aniebonam
Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, Founder, NAGAFF
By Kenneth Jukpor

As the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) gears up for the election of practitioners into the Governing Council; MMS Plus visited Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, the Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). In this interview the NAGAFF Founder recounts his experience at the first CRFFN elections, appraises the developments in the nation’s port system highlighting the major reason why ‘Ease of Doing Business’ has failed, and bares his mind on other pertinent maritime issues. Read on:

The CRFFN Election timetable and guidelines have just been released. The guidelines of the elections make it appear like the election has been streamlined for just the two major associations. How prepared are the associations?

I don’t believe the election guidelines were tailored for any category of people. However, it is embarrassing that as a very critical stakeholder, it wasn’t considered necessary for NAGAFF to have made input in the development of these guidelines. The truth is that the Council belongs to us even if it has become a parastatal in the Ministry of Transport. NAGAFF is still in court to interpret that section of the CRFFN Act. However, we are still studying the guidelines.

You just mentioned that you’re in court with CRFFN and part of the guidelines disqualifies anyone in court with the agency. What’s your opinion on this?

We didn’t go to court to fight CRFFN but to interpret that section of the Council’s Act. You cannot compare NAGAFF’s demand for the court to interpret that section of CRFFN Act to those who are opposing the collection of Practitioners Operating Fees (POF) by CRFFN. That clause should hold ANLCA and not NAGAFF, however, you have to clearly define the issues because ANLCA isn’t contesting the elections rather members of ANLCA are contesting the elections. You must separate ANLCA as an entity that can sue and be sued from the individuals who are members of the association.

If the Association can be separated from the members, what is the essence of inserting the clause in the guidelines for the elections?

We can’t appraise that decision here. The Council should have a screening platform where they would explain these issues when the appropriate time comes.

How prepared is NAGAFF for this CRFFN elections?

CRFFN is a baby of NAGAFF. I don’t understand why members of ANLCA continue to show interest in the affairs of CRFFN. ANLCA members vehemently opposed the creation of CRFFN under the leadership of Elochukwu as President. During a public hearing at that time the former president who later served in the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria opposed the Council to the extent that he came up openly to say he was there to kill the legislative process of establishing the Council. Thank God we still have people like the current President of ANLCA who made him know that the job of the Senate was to make good laws for good governance in a country. The truth is that anyone who isn’t comfortable with CRFFN has the right to come up with his own bill. I’m surprised that up till this moment those who kicked against it haven’t come up with their own bill.

However, in recent times we have heard people talking about a Chartered Institute of Customs Brokerage. I don’t really understand what the institute would be about, because CRFFN is a regulatory agency in terms of control and regulation of the freight forwarding practice and a licensed Customs agent is a secondary freight forwarder. ANLCA is duly registered with CRFFN with registration number 001 which ought to be for NAGAFF. The good news is that the new president of ANLCA was the first President of the Council and I believe he is in a position to understand the Council better than other members of ANLCA.

Isn’t Tony Iju the same person who is talking about having a Chartered Institute of Customs Brokers?

Sometimes one could say things in that regard and you have to consider the fact that he took over from Prince Olayiwola Shittu who pioneered the idea of that institute. As far as I’m concerned that idea to establish that institute is something done out of ignorance. I believe that CRFFN undertakes all responsibilities in terms of control, regulations and professionalism of freight forwarders and a licensed Customs agent is a secondary freight forwarder. While a freight forwarder is a total logistics manager, a licensed Customs agent only specializes in Customs formalities.

The guidelines of CRFFN election is going to address the issue of individual practice which is the main thrust of CRFFN. It’s not going to be based on corporate bodies because the intendment of the Council’s Act is to prepare an individual who will manage and administer a corporate body involved in freight forwarding practice either as a licensed Customs agency or a corporate body as a freight forwarder. This takes us to the issue of Cabotage, NAGAFF is a knowledge-driven association and we hope that the other associations begin to follow our lead.

What would happen to the other three associations, they are neither here nor there?

The three other associations are known to law. There are five associations registered by CRFFN. It’s another issue if they have members or not. It is just like proliferation of political parties in the country. We have over 64 political parties in the country at the moment and they are all equal before the law. However, their membership strength is another business altogether. I have always argued that competition brings out the best and if one tries to muddle things up then you’re breaking the law. From the last elections we conducted, we realized that NAGAFF has over 10,000 members duly registered with CRFFN. As events unfold, the small groups may fizzle out on their own; and that’s what democracy is all about.

Do you envisage any form of coalition by the associations?

Any coalition would have to be voluntary. It’s a possibility but it is not going to be coercive.

You lost in the last CRFFN elections by one vote; how are you taking it?

In the last election I lost by one vote but I believe that one can’t have a baby and kill the baby for any reason. It’s stupid to talk about losing elections. However, because of the interest one has in freight business; you just have to allow peace knowing that in four years time there would be another election.

Let me say it for the first time that the maiden CRFFN election was comprehensively rigged. I will tell you how that election was rigged. To form the register of freight forwarders the interpretation of the Council Act was an avoidable problem. The good news was that the current Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) was the legal adviser in the Council and he had the mandate to do the interpretation which he actually did but nobody cared to listen. To form the register of CRFFN, membership shall include but not restricted to associations; that’s why NAGAFF is duly registered. The second option is corporate membership either as a licensed Customs agency or a corporate body involved in freight forwarding practice. But the object thrust is the individual freight forwarder. So, in trying to form the register for CRFFN from day one, they simply used corporate bodies licensed by Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) which is in total breach of the Council Act.

Prior to that election, the demand was that all corporate bodies licensed by Customs should submit their applications to CRFFN and many people submitted their application and all necessary documents but they never submitted passports because they were not asked to do so. By the time Shippers’ Council demanded that passports should be attached to each of the applications to enable them know the persons representing the companies, the information wasn’t known to the public. Subsequently, members of ANLCA collaborated with one Mr. Sanusi who handed over those applications to ANLCA without the passports. The election was in Abuja but those he handed the documents to were members of ANLCA to the best of my knowledge.

So, when we got to Abuja for the elections, was we saw were strange faces from various universities. These strange faces were attached to the applications. The night before the elections I recall members of ANLCA coming to my room telling me how they intended us to work together. I was shocked by this move and I said, “Let’s go to the elections”. They were just laughing because they already knew what had been done. I remember that during that election about three people were caught and they couldn’t explain the reason for the elections yet their alleged names were on the register. The matter was brought before Capt. Adamu Biu who was the Executive Secretary of Shippers’ Council at the time and the Police were also there but these culprits were later allowed to go.

I was the first person to go and congratulate the winners despite these acts because I wanted the Council to work. NAGAFF would continue to support CRFFN because we are the owners of CRFFN and we don’t want it to die; we have not changed our position. We just want things to be properly done because we understand what CRFFN stands for in the industry as far as freight forwarding is concerned.

When you look at the CRFFN nomination form and the conditions, you would find some areas which tries to cage NAGAFF but the good news is coming out that CRFFN under the Transport Ministry is now doing what it is supposed to do and membership of the Council is now for individuals, corporate bodies and the registered associations. In this election, individual practitioners and members of CRFFN would contest and they would be eligible to vote. Let’s see how it goes because in NAGAFF we are confident that at the moment no association can stand our might in terms of capacity. However, our interest is to ensure that all the associations can speak with one voice under CRFFN; we couldn’t do it on our own so we have the law coming in to do it for us and that is CRFFN.

We are studying the situation so wouldn’t be surprised that we have the elections and NAGAFF picks up all the relevant positions. Nevertheless, that victory wouldn’t solve the problem because ANLCA got their members into the Council at the initial stage and it didn’t achieve anything for ANLCA or the entire freight forwarding group. What I am advocating for, is that the attention of the Ministry of Transport, Executive Secretary of Shippers’ Council, CRFFN Registrar, and other appointed members of the CRFFN Board, should be drawn to the nomination form and the guidelines because it may not add value to enrich the Council.

The Registrar needs to come to Lagos for a kind of stakeholders meeting or meet some strategic people to get the feelings on these guidelines but these are things they should have done before now. It’s one thing to make law; it is another thing to make laws that can be obeyed. It should be noted that NAGAFF and ANLCA could pull out of the elections and the outcome would be pathetic. The election would be of no consequence if ANLCA and NAGAFF pull out. The Council would also be getting it wrong if they think that the essence of the election is to enable them start collecting POF. POF wasn’t the mindset of the National Assembly that created the CRFFN Act. The Act was to provide solutions on matters of international trade via freight forwarders who are referred to as the artery of the nation’s economy.

Let’s deviate from CRFFN issues, the recent NAGAFF Chapter elections have been described as the most fiercely contested in the association’s history in terms of the competition and the profiles of the aspirants. How would you appraise the evolvement of NAGAFF leadership over the years and the level is it presently?

One thing that distinguishes NAGAFF from other associations in freight forwarding is the leadership style and capacity. NAGAFF is more than an association; it’s a doctrine. The concept of NAGAFF is to revolutionize freight forwarding practice in Nigeria and to do that we must catch them young. In my understanding, what you refer to as fierce elections refers to the competitiveness and what happened in the election in NAGAFF either in Apapa, Tin Can or Airport chapters would tell you that there is hope in this country in terms of elections because a lot of people collected monies from those who felt they had a lot of money to buy votes. However, on the day of the voting, most voters voted against those who gave them money because they identified more credible individuals. This means that Nigerians now understand the importance of putting the right people in office while they can play along with those who wish to throw their monies around.

As the Founder of NAGAFF, by next year I shall be exiting the scene of NAGAFF to allow the leadership fully run the affairs of the association. 2019 will make it exactly 20 years that I have been at NAGAFF and I believe that I have been able to create capacity and opportunities for the young graduates to thrive. By next year, I would have successfully put in national executives and state executives that would be able to stand in the face of the difficult operating environment.

At NAGAFF, we trying to effect a change and change is always resisted. We are taking things easy because we know that change comes with some level of resistance. As I would be exiting the scene of leadership at NAGAFF, most of the NAGAFF founding members, particularly those above sixty years, must give way. The young ones must be given the opportunity to take over the responsibilities to add value and bring about innovation in the profession of freight forwarding in Nigeria.

You are exiting the scene on the political side of New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) and exiting NAGAFF; how about your company, Ocean Star?

Ocean Star is a corporate body in freight forwarding business. I’m not only fully active at Ocean Star, I also remain a consultant to Ocean Star because I have to earn a living. I also need to moderate my expenses and prepare for my old age. It is time for me to give opportunities for the young ones to excel.

Recall that I left NAGAFF after my first six years as the President. I had the opportunity to stay till ten years because of the transitional period but I had to go. I exited and saw that there was a lacuna because I hadn’t trained enough people with the capacity to continue with the change so I came back subtly and remained at the background. You can see from the recent NAGAFF elections that the membership in the Western Zone alone is more than 10,000 and we are yet to handle Seme border, Idiroko and the South East which covers Calabar, Onne port, Port Harcourt and the North West where you have the Jibia border.

On NNPP which is the political wing of NAGAFF, I’m also encouraged because the second-in-command of the party is someone that has capacity and you can see it displayed in the last outing in Bauchi and the new secretariat built in Abuja. So I’m very sure that without me the party can move on. If they have anything to ask me, they can always reach me because I have the dream and I’ll give them the attention.

There are some criticisms by some stakeholders that you can’t let go of NAGAFF even if you leave the scene you would always want to remain the face of NAGAFF. What’s your reaction?

I’m the face of NAGAFF and that is not in contention. If anybody feels that is in contention, let him go and find his own association and be the face. We are not going to give any apologies to anybody. Nigerians like to reap from where they didn’t sow; I’m not surprised by this criticism but I still remain the face of NAGAFF. If you ask any NAGAFF member, once you go into any organization and introduce yourself as a member of NAGAFF the first question you would be asked is “How is Dr. Aniebonam?”

My going behind is so that I would no longer be accessible to people except I invite you to discuss an issue. The leadership would be in-charge but there is no doubt that I’m a veteran and the leadership would still want to consult me on certain issues because NAGAFF is my dream. People like me are respected all over the world because we are ‘Founders’. We are the people would have created capacity for human endeavour. It isn’t an easy task and I dare anyone who thinks it is a small feat to try it. I may not have money but I’m happy to have created capacity that enables people thrive.

One of the attributes of NAGAFF is the ability to stay together as a family even when there are issues that should lead to crisis as observed during the recent elections. Do you have this fear that this bonding may leave after you exit the scene?

No. That’s why we are restructuring to get the right people in the right direction and in the right positions so that they can hold forth when I’m no longer there. NAGAFF members and leaders see me as someone they can trust. They know that when I speak, I’m speaking from my heart and whatever I do I put them first in terms of my interest. This is what leadership is about. Your people must believe in you and that’s what differentiates NAGAFF from the other associations. That’s why what I say seems to be a law in NAGAFF. Sometimes I think it is divine because I live a simple life and I understand life in a simple way. I may not have all the money but I’m a very happy man when I see the people whose lives have been upgraded because of the existence of NAGAFF.

Recently, a Customs officer was highlighting the need to beam searchlight on the activities of Customs officers. How do you the developments at the Service especially on the issue of corruption?

Sometimes, there are issues we shouldn’t even discuss because it is of no consequence. We are in a society where someone can sit in the comfort of his room, type out his sentiments and post it on social media and people start making comments. What I can tell you is that the Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC) Col Hammed Ali (Rtd.) is an impeccable character. He is a man of honour and integrity. Last week, I was with him in Abuja for a whole one hour session where we discussed hot matters and I was surprised with the knowledge he has about the Customs. The most important thing is the commanding height and the respect he earned even before he joined the Customs.

If you ask the average Nigerian at the ports about the personality of Dr. Aniebonam, he would say that I’m very troublesome. When you do your investigation, you would find that I must have warned them against doing something that is wrong and for that reason, I’m very troublesome. Laws are made to be obeyed and the discussion I had with Col. Hammed Ali was centred on the need for Customs to enforce compliance in our ports completely so that we can have peace and live as friends. The Comptroller-General is also of the same opinion because he is someone that doesn’t like to hurt anybody but you must be disciplined and respect the law otherwise you wouldn’t be his friend.

There is a lot happening in the Customs in terms of reforms, restructuring and enhancing the revenue collection of the Service. A lot of people don’t understand what the customs laws are about. If the Customs decide to evoke the powers inherent in customs operations, this country would collapse because the trade goods in contravention of customs laws in terms of untrue declaration. Matters of untrue declaration should be five years imprisonment after the person is convicted in court. It is five years without an option of fine but Customs simplifies it because the matter has to do with trade and gives an additional debit note to the importer to pay and a penalty. This is an effort by Customs to simplify trade but nobody sees this or commends them for it.

As someone was has a Customs background, what is the primary responsibility of Customs authorities globally?

The meaning of Customs is ‘duty payable at the entry points’. Customs means duty; so the primary responsibility should be the collection of revenue due to the government on matters of import and export. There are other functions such as trade facilitation, anti-smuggling activities and all that but the core function of Customs is revenue collection. Other areas like provision of scanners are instruments for trade facilitation to ease the operations of the Customs at the ports.

A lot of people speak from outside without having in-depth knowledge. That is why at NAGAFF, I continue to tell the members that the first law of God is choice and they are at liberty to make the choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing. I have made it clear that anybody found in contravention or not been substantially compliant to regulations then you wouldn’t be a good person in NAGAFF. Although, I know that it isn’t an easy task to achieve this in an environment where everybody tends to be corrupt; we are trying to change the practice at NAGAFF.

The World Customs Organization (WCO) seems to have a different concept on the primary duty of Customs.

Every country has the sovereign authority and even when they enter global treaties, you come back to domesticate it within the context of the country. The environment we have here is quite different from what is found in America so we can’t adopt the practice in America without considering the difference in the environment, characteristics educational background of the players, etc.

Doesn’t this contradict the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Common External Tariff (CET) applicable within Nigeria and other West African countries?

Facilitation of trade has to be legitimate trade. Nobody facilitates illicit trade but a lot of people get it wrong. You cannot make an untrue declaration for customs purposes and expect the Customs to facilitate that trade. Is it to allow you go with government revenue under the guise of trade facilitation? Trade facilitation simply means simplification of processes and procedures and the concept of the doing the right thing.

Nigeria is a treaty to the CET but domestication also comes into play. The CET might be 0% on an item and the government can agree on it but introduce 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on that product. The Customs has adhered to 0% on that item but 5% VAT has been placed on it. Every country has its peculiar problem, what we need to do is to look at our operating environment and see how we can work together to make Nigeria great.

What’s your opinion on the abolishing of container deposits?

Container deposit is part of the procedure to follow because that container costs something. This deposit is money you keep and retrieve later. A lot of people have abused that process and that’s why shipping companies are becoming tougher. What I think Shippers’ Council should do is to negotiate with the shipping companies to deliberate on how much should be the container deposit and not that there shouldn’t be container deposit at all. The money should be something that is considerate and easily be paid and the refund should be expedited. Within 48 hours, someone should be able to get the refund of that deposit. These are the issues that the Council should deliberate because it is only normal for the shipping companies to collect that deposit.

After our investigations last week, MMS reporter counted 27 Nigeria Police and Customs checkpoints and roadblocks on the Benin- Nigeria corridor. How do we solve this problem?

Such acts of abuse of office by Policemen and Customs officers were part of the reasons the ease of doing business ideology was conceived by the government. If you notice these unauthorized road-blocks; if you see something, say something. It is when you say something that you give government the opportunity to react. The government may not be privileged to know what is going on at the various borders.

However, the heads of government parastatals should utilize the powers delegated to them from the presidency to curb the excesses of erring officers in their organizations.

The good news is Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) has developed an enforcement unit and I’m aware that they have sealed about three shipping companies and the companies are now compliant. Laws are made to be obeyed by people and that’s how you get a good society.

The Federal Government has been holding a lot of meetings on the Ease of Doing Business. What’s your appraisal of these moves?

It is just like any other policy in the maritime sector. It doesn’t add any value to the system because those that are supposed to implement the policies aren’t enforcing the policies. We can see clearly that it isn’t working especially as a result of the problem of inter-agency conflict. I know that Customs should be the leading agency at the ports and the Customs is a paramilitary agency with an enforcement angle. In Section 8 of the Customs law, the powers of the police officers are there. So, the customs don’t need the police officer to execute their functions because they have the powers of a police officer to make arrest and persecute somebody. This was part of my discussion with the Comptroller-General because it is high time the Customs take responsibility as the port is a Custom port. Anybody coming into the ports is under customs control. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) under Section 13 of the Customs law, has the mandate under Customs laws to provide the enabling environment for Customs to perform optimally in the ports, that’s what the law says. Customs should be the leading agency and coordinating agency at the ports.

 Let me give you an example, there was a time in APMT, one officer called Kamba was the terminal manager and he was so recalcitrant and bluffy that at a point something happened and I had to call the attention of the then CGC Hamman Bello because the officer was obstructing Customs officers from performing their lawful duties in the Customs ports. I drew the CGC’s attention to Section 11 of the Customs law and that section explained the implication of obstructing the lawful duty of an officer. The Customs have to be more coercive in enforcing the law. For instance, terminal operators that do not have enough handling gear are obstructing the lawful duties of Customs under Section 11. The Customs has the right to move in to find out why the terminal operator doesn’t have this equipment that should aid proper Customs examination. If Customs can’t perform proper examination because of the absence of equipments, it amounts to obstruction of the lawful duties of an officer.

Another example to show that the ease of doing business isn’t working, look at Section 31 of the Customs law which says that the dwell time of cargo in the port is 28days, thereafter the cargo should be moved to Ikorodu but the reality is that the cargo remains there and Nigerians are been defrauded by way of demurrage. The demurrage must stop when cargoes spend up to 28 days at the ports; that’s the law. It means that the cargo is being constructively warehoused at the ports. Is this being enforced? No. So, where is the ease of doing business? Where do we begin to appraise the ease of doing business? Is it the port access roads in Lagos? The three major entry points are in dilapidated state except for the palliatives going on at the moment. Were we expecting Mr. President to come and fix the road when he had officers that had the schedule of duty to fix roads?

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