Port System Collapse: Igbos Are Losing Their Investments – Aniebonam

Port System Collapse: Igbos Are Losing Their Investments - Aniebonam
Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, Founder, NAGAFF

Chief Dr. Boniface Okechukwu Aniebonam is an enigma of sort. He is a leader who believes in teaching the led how to fish even while providing the fish also. He founded the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders(NAGAFF), which became a forerunner of freight forwarding professional practice known to law in Nigeria. He  also founded the New Nigeria Peoples Party(NNPP), a national party with a professional bias as a political arm of NAGAFF. As a former Customs officer, he sees customs as his constituency any day and would defend the service but not all the practices. He has his hubris as human and a maritime practitioner, but he is a humanist, who is more often than not called a “fighter” for his principles and perseverance. For believing in the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria(CRFFN), he has made so much money for the government through mobilizing the younger generation of freight forwarders to register with the council, leading to the dominance of NAGAFF in the registry of CRFFN.  Today, he wants to exit NAGAFF for the younger guns to manage and has instituted a freight forwarders’ day for November 29 every year.  This November 29 at the Rock View Hotel Apapa, Lagos, there will be an assemblage of freight forwarders from across the country to celebrate.

Aniebonam  indeed means many things to many people. In this interview, he talks about the robbery in CRFFN and bribery allegation against the marine police as well as customs and import compliance. Don’t miss it:

How did the CRFFN Governing Council inauguration go?

If you look at the action in the last Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria(CRFFN) Governing Council election particularly the procedure for electing the Chairman and Vice Chairman, you would see that the situation was like laying ambush to the members of the National Assembly whose responsibility is to make good laws for governance in the country. The CRFFN Act is before the National Assembly for a review and part of the things that the Transport Ministry canvassed was that the President of the country should appoint the Chairman while the practitioners; that is the elected members should elect the Vice-Chairman. It means that what we went to court to address which is before an Appeal Court was the same matter that the Ministry took to the National Assembly and as I speak to you the National Assembly is yet to conclude that assignment. What we have is an extant law which CRFFN Act. It’s like the Transport Ministry is making laws rather than implementing the laws. So, the hope is that the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi is beginning to look at some of the issues we are raising; although he is a very busy person as he is also the Director-General of Mr. President’s 2019 electoral campaign.

For NAGAFF, people have kept asking questions but we have six members of NAGAFF in the Council and the CRFFN would be administered through committees.

I get a bit worried when we talk about Amaechi being in a better position to address issues that borders on CRFFN because he has spent almost four years.

I agree with you on that. We should be worried because even when he said he would make a recommendation to whoever might be coming in as the next Minister; the question is what stops him from taking actions on these issues.

However, we have a Registrar of CRFFN and he is someone who is expected to know what should be done with regards to managing the affairs of the Council while the Minister plays the supervisory role. The problem is with the Registrar; if we had gotten a credible person who knows what he ought to do; the Minister would only come in when issues are contentious. We have had limitations in trying to pin down the Minister to address issues that should have been attended to by the Registrar.

Are you establishing that Mike Jukwe isn’t credible?

It’s not that he isn’t credible; but he isn’t competent. Incompetent would be the more appropriate word.

However, there is hope for CRFFN because the President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Mr. Tony Iju Nwabunike is a former Chairman of the CRFFN Governing Council. I have followed his moves in recent times and he seems to be more informed about what freight forwarding is all about because at the initial Governing Council many of those Council members didn’t really understand what the Council was all about; hence they went about printing complimentary cards carrying the Nigerian coat of arms with the impression that CRFFN was a government entity.

Let us go back to Buhari, we have the CRFFN Act amendment ongoing at the National Assembly, meanwhile we have an extant rule established since 2007 which is the substantive thing but they set that aside and started working on a bill which they aren’t sure of its amendment processes. Isn’t that a breach of the Act?

You may feel aggrieved but those who are responsible for taking decisions have already made their decisions. The next line of action is to go to court and that’s what NAGAFF did; when we went to court to seek for an interpretation. However, when the court makes an order, it is another thing altogether to understand what the court is talking about. If you look at the issue of CRFFN being an agency of government; from day one it has been an agency of government because it is a government establishment. It is indeed an agency of government so what we are looking at now is partial autonomy because everything belongs to the government. It was like when we went to register NAGAFF, someone wrote a petition on the words “Government Approved”. Why should we answer “Government Approved” and in our response to that query we explained that it was the government that gave the approval to NAGAFF to operate and the Corporate Affairs Corporation (CAC) went ahead to give us approval.

Have you also thought about the issue that there are more government appointees into the CRFFN Governing Council than elected members?

The agency is an agency of government as interpreted by the courts so everything belongs to the government. The Act establishing CRFFN is extant and nobody can change that. The court cannot change the status of CRFFN, only the members of the legislative house can do something.

So, if the Ministry of Transportation, takes actions on the basis that the agency is a government agency they can make an appointment for the Chairman of the Council even when they know that they submitted an amendment draft bill to the National Assembly which hasn’t been effected.

These are issues that we could drag to court but after several meetings with the think-tank of NAGAFF, we are beginning to take a second look at the issues because we are more interested in seeing the Council work. We have looked at the level of damage that has been done and we weighed the options and one of the highpoints is that we have six members of NAGAFF at the Council. It is good to fight from inside than outside and if we have any reason to go to court, it is NAGAFF that would do so and not the elected members. What we are trying to do is to safeguard the life of the Act for posterity and professionalism in the practice. You should know that our sister association is canvassing for another legislation that would usher in Chartered Institute of Customs Brokers. This explains the limited knowledge on their part because if you’re a Customs agent you’re a freight forwarder and a secondary player in the freight forwarding chain. Why should we be talking about such institute when CRFFN already exists?

I think if one doesn’t know the source of a problem; it becomes difficult to tackle it. ANLCA is beginning to see the licensing regulation of Customs as their source of livelihood. They don’t really know that the licensing regulation of Customs is subsumed because a corporate body cannot be referred to as a professional and what CRFFN is building is professionalism and that has to be an individual who can undergo training, not a corporate entity.

The major problems in the ports today have to do with compliance to the regulations of Customs. When you look at the relevant sections of the Customs law that have to do with concealment, you would observe that if the Customs decides to implement that law maybe 99% of cargoes at the port wouldn’t be there. However, the Customs have continued to look at the situation from the human angle that this is trade and utilizes diplomatic measures. The current Customs Comptroller-General is doing his best to correct the situation and CRFFN is getting some level of support. It is important to note that if the nation doesn’t get the training of freight forwarders right, the port reforms would be like building a castle on sinking sand. These are the critical people in the economy. The haulage groups should also be part of the Council.

The most worrisome aspect of this issue here is that we are talking about creating employment in Nigeria and CRFFN has the capacity to develop 10,000 to 20,000 Nigerians professionally trained to engage in services that have to do with moving goods out of the ports.

If I want to speak as a former Customs officer, I can tell you that Customs are not having the best of the job because they reel out what has to be done but people don’t respond and they find themselves in a tight corner coupled with the level of insecurity in the country and other challenges. The Ministry of Transport has also recently indicated interest to get closer to the CG of Customs; if that happens we would begin to give direction to some of these things in the industry today.

However, I think ANLCA is doing everything it can to shutdown the Council. Recall that during the public hearing a former President of ANLCA and sitting Senator of Nigeria said openly that he was there to kill the bill. You should also recall that Earnest Elochukwu who was then President of ANLCA spoke against the Council saying that there was no need for CRFFN and requested that the name be changed to Council for the Regulation of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents.

NAGAFF elected members of the CRFFN Governing Council hailed the appointment of Tsanni as Chairman at the inauguration venue in Abuja

When Rotimi Amaechi came in and started addressing them; the President of NAGAFF raised his hand and told him to look at the law for the Governing Council elections but Amaechi said he came to appoint Chairman and not discuss the law and he shut him down. However, we should see things rightly. With six members on the Council, NAGAFF is well placed to make contributions right there on the board although there was a breach in the process. When there is a system collapse, tactics takes over.

The issue of Police interception of containers has been a problem as they write to shipping companies to not release certain containers on the grounds that they are under investigation. Some people in the freight forwarding groups have been informants. What’s your reaction on this?

There are certain things I wouldn’t like to speak on at this my level. You cannot stop a policeman from carrying out his statutory responsibility. Such responsibility to protect lives and properties and in terms of intelligence gathering some of them would be direct or through collaboration as the case may be. My view is that we must learn how to abide by the law. It is when we abide by the law that we can speak. If Police stem down containers from the ports, are they in contravention of the essence of ease of doing business? People are misinterpreting this issue of ease of doing business.

NAGAFF’s position is quite different. NAGAFF believes this means doing the right thing and simplifying the processes and procedures. Government cannot in the guise of ease of doing business, mortgage the security of the nation or even the revenue. Ease of doing business should be about developing capacity and the infrastructure.

This morning I had a discussion with one of the controllers where a consignment was duly released and the documentation isn’t in tandem with the actual content. It was stopped on the road and the question I asked the CAC was; who released this cargo? We should be seen to add value in our nation building rather than illicit deals. Many Nigerian kids are looking for jobs to do because of the problems we have created in the society. When you make efforts to correct things the blackmailers would show up. I wrote a recent article where I said; “the Journey so Short” It is not how long you rule but how well and the legacy you are able to create. If every other person continues to blackmail, that’s their business. What we ought to do to stop all these is to change our values. We can’t continue to support evil. If one has nothing to hide, he doesn’t need to be scared of the police.

Look at the situation with innocent haulage companies who receive containers to be cleared from the ports only to be intercepted by Customs on the road and his means of livelihood is over. We had to discuss with the Customs CG to let him understand the underlying issues and that problem has been solved. After the seizure, they release their vehicles to them even though the law doesn’t allow that; but the laws are made for the benefit of our people.

You don’t intimidate the government but we need to get our people to do the right thing.

Recall that PAAR was meant to be sacrosanct. It was supposed to be final but it didn’t work because if the inherent abuse in the system. People are uploading what they don’t have in the container and PAAR became an advisory document because we are very dishonest. These are the issues. Aside the PAAR, we also have the Direct Traders Input (DTI) where the agent has another opportunity to put the correct declaration.

I could go sentimental as an Igboman and tell you that I have also spoken to the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo to sensitize our people who are mostly international traders on the need to be compliant. The reason is that we are losing our investments because we aren’t compliant to import regulations.

What we can discuss with regards to the police operations would be the abuse of their statutory powers by extortion and collecting bribes. You should know that the Police has statutory powers to carry out these functions buy certain officers abuse the powers. The right thing to do is to report to the leaders either by writing to the leaders or by visiting.

On the issue of concealment or wrong declaration; this is an offense as stipulated in the Section 46 &47 of Customs law. However, if an agent places his container for the Customs to examine and that is done, can you still say that agent concealed anything? That law becomes inappropriate because the agent has put the container before the Customs for examination. It means the container is certified ok and the government officials such as the customs, SON, NAFDAC etc, should be liable when FOU seize these containers and see something different in that container. You’re in a position to say that isn’t what was imported because your records from the examination by Customs and other government agencies show a different thing from what FOU has found. We can argue that it is a case of stealing because between Apapa and the Police or Customs base where another examination was done, the container may have been stolen and another item put inside because the examiner made a report indicating what he saw in line with the declaration made by the agent.

I want the media to help us sensitize our members to stick to correct declaration and respect the laws and regulations in the country. Before we talk about the ease of doing business we should first seek to do things right. When we have issues such as the road infrastructure we know that is a shortcoming of the government. The issues affecting haulage such as financing them, freight rates and others, are more critical issues. Ninety-nine percent of the goods at Nigerian ports come under false declaration knowingly.

We need to move forward. We need to build indigenous capacity and who told us that we need to make wrong declaration before we can earn a living?

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