INTERVIEW WITH CHIEF ERNEST ELOCHUKWU
Chief Ernest Elochukwu is arguably one of the most erudite freight forwarders. He knows his association (Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents) like the back of his hands. Rumour mongers have been at work even before his term expired as the association’s president that he is eying a second term. I asked me for a peep into his earth on this and other issues. This interview was conducted in my car enroute Apapa form Victoria Island in Lagos; with me as the driver and Chief Elochukwu happily holding the tape and fielding questions!
I have consistently said that it is immodest for people to say that they have achieved something; especially when it is posterity that will be the judge. I want to also put it this way- that, if it is a situation whereby if the president of ANLCA has the mandate or the challenge of building a house or a physical structure, perhaps that could really point out that this is an achievement
What is your assessment of the maritime industry in 2008?
The maritime industry is a big sector, it is so wide that one can not just give an assessment because we might be talking about movement of vessels or the activities within the Nigerian territorial waters; we also will be talking about cargo throughput and all that. Maybe, it might not be wrong to say that the performance of the maritime industry in 2008; though not too bad, but it’s not yet what the expectation of this country is.
It follows from there that you must also have expectations
In 2009 we have already produced some certain imperatives from what we are talking about in 2008. For instance, the challenges that have been posed by certain things like the port congestion, the subsequent delay in berthing of ships and other problems that we are seeing within the maritime sector have inadvertently thrown up the challenges that have to be met in 2009. The federal government has not really activated our expectation from our national ports beyond being avenue for processing imports and exports. Many governments all over the world have been sustaining their national economic planning and growth based on revenue that they garner from their ports. It’s my sincere hope that with the monumental decline in the volume of revenue that government expects from oil and the prospects of this remaining for a long time, the government has no choice than to look at the ports and see what it can get from there
Do you have faith in the current efforts to decongest the ports, can they work?
Definitely it has not solved the problems because it probably has not addressed certain aspect of the causative factors to the problems. For instance, what the government has done is to appraise the problems as captured by the officials of the government agencies. In other words, these are the officials who have come up with the causes from their own perspective of the congestion without actually having listened to the stakeholders as to the real causes, because the government employees try to give the impression that the fault is from the other stakeholders; the importers especially and to some extent, they even went further to say importers and their agents. I think that such assessment can not be more wrong because some of the problems that led to this have to do with the system of port cargo administration that we are running in this country. It is unfortunate that we have put up a whole lot of investments in terms of modernizing the cargo handling method, for instance, from the Customs we know about the ASYCUDA++ project which was meant to computerize most of the cargo release processes. However, the practical application of these things has tended to ignore realities whereby in spite of all these computerizations, we still find that inexplicable and un-justifiable level of manual application is still in place. However even the cargo clearance process have tended to put the importer as one who is engaged in an economy sabotage mission by the issue of being an importer, because there is a mentality that the importer of anything be him an importer of personal effect, importer of raw materials, or importer of finished products; so long he is an importer, there has been a mentality that sees him as someone who is doing the wrong thing or who is gaining so much and therefore should be made to part with so much, that mentality is such that give the operatives of the government agencies at the ports the right to extort at every flimsy excuse and in fact with no excuse at all. So, the issue will be if this is the mentality of cargo clearance, is there anything that can be done with that mentality in place that can ever work? Secondly, the process has also given so much freedom to the operators of the system to virtually do whatever they like, for instance a government agency operative could delay the clearance process for as long as he or she likes and there is nothing in the process that punishes him or her, hence we can only talk about this as theoretical issues not political issue; coupled of course with the fact that the infrastructure inadequacies as far as the cargo handling equipment and space which are supposed to be among the new import the port and terminal concessionaire were supposed to have brought into the system are not just available.
You have exonerated the importer from the whole mess, why?
Not that the importer is exonerated, after all the allegations that some of the containers contain even contraband or cargo that have discrepancies can not be waved off as non valid allegations. But, I am more concerned with finding the cause and not the effect, in many fora; I have tried to ask one question: do we take it that Nigerian importers are crooks? And if they are, one of the things that are done in civilized countries is to probably understudy why crooks are crooks because it will help the authority to know how best to tackle the issue. Now, in a situation whereby it can not be proved that Nigerian importers are all crooks, one thing is very imperative and that is that the system being operated by Nigerian import cargo administration is unnecessarily difficult to be complied with, wherever there is a high level of non compliance, what a responsible government does is to check if there are things within the rules and regulations that do not allow for ease of compliance and then try to change them. One fact is clear; the issue or the fact that the ports of our neighbouring countries are doing very well underscores one question: Why will cargo that will eventually end up in Nigeria have to pass through the port of Cotonou, why? Why would Nigerian importers have to go as far as Ghana to land their cargo and start going through the hassle of bringing them into Nigeria, why is it that in the 1980s that imports into the land-locked countries of West Africa, Mali etc passed through Nigeria and today imports into Nigeria pass through Cotonou, Lome and Ghanaian ports. These are the ‘whys’ that must be answered before we can really solve the problem.
Do you also agree with those who blame Customs Circular 026 for the problem and do you agree that the import guidelines should over ride CEMA?
Well, the Circular 026 was ill-advised; it’s actually not that import guidelines allow for discrepancies or wrong declarations by importers, no it does not. But, that is the functionality of any system; a system ought to have an in-built mechanism for correction. In other words, if there are cases of discrepancies in declarations, then the system ought to have provided for means of addressing them. Until recently, everything in sight was banned, every import item is under one level of restriction or prohibition and yet these are very essential things that are needed and so some person now try to fill the vacuum that are being created by absence of those things by bringing them in. Secondly, for instance when the rate of duty that is chargeable on items are so high in Nigeria and some of the importers are actually competing with the importers that are passing through the borders since they import theirs through the ports, in the same market sometimes, they try to find a way to be able to compete. I am not saying that these things are right, but then, it is the duty of the government to actually look into this and say – is there anything we can do to make the rate of the cost of bringing goods into Nigeria come to the same cost as it is in Cotonou so that nobody will have any need to first land his cargo in Cotonou and then try to pass it into Nigeria.
I want to seize this opportunity to congratulate you on your successful completion of your tenure as National President of ANLCA. What will you consider as your most significant achievement?
I have consistently said that it is immodest for people to say that they have achieved something; especially when it is posterity that will be the judge. I want to also put it this way- that, if it is a situation whereby if the president of ANLCA has the mandate or the challenge of building a house or a physical structure, perhaps that could really point out that this is an achievement. However, if it involves putting the situation into the subconscious of the government, if it involves trying to change the orientation of the members, if it involves trying to get the public to understand the importance and the role of the licensed customs agents and also bringing this association to the public, it is left for posterity and for others to say that perhaps there was success.
Do you nurse a second term ambition?
No. because ambition is when one has a need to go and do something, What is happening now is more of a clamour, like you rightly said; perhaps doing things that are normal in a country that is filled with abnormalities makes one look like he is an exemplary. But, the truth is that in 2004, I sought for and got the mandate to run the association. That mandate was given and perhaps without being immodest, I will say that I tried my best. Now, in 2009, I am not seeking another mandate, but if per chance like it is being mooted around that some people feel (using the Nigerian parlance) that there is need to consolidate, I don’t want to look like I am turning my back on my people; especially in this constituency even though I still doubt the fact that in a crowd of many thousands, a man could be said to be capable to the point that he is being asked to come back and on one hand it looks like a pleasant flatter or commendation and on the other hand it is a call to sacrifice, that clamour has been on and for those who could feel that exclusively, they should ask me. I have always said this and without appearing to be tricky, I am trying to call the attention to the fundamental issues, the issue of mass participation in the affairs of the association in the sense that the association is not one person’s own and therefore there should be no reason for anybody to say that it should be meant for one person. I have said that the association like every other associations is an assemblage of persons with common interests who assemble in other to create the synergy for interacting among themselves; that is, going to help in projecting and protecting their common interests much more than if they have done that individually. This summarizes the need for every body to participate, let it not just be the case that Chief Elochukwu wants to go back as president, then everybody goes to his own tent, it is something that should be for the benefit of every body, that is why I said there must be a way of bringing on board everyone to participate. It is not a personal thing.
If you accept to contest again and you win what will be your priority?
The priority will be to concentrate on the gains of our association; of course, there are issues that could not be tackled before, issues of permanent secretariat and all that. But, the major action should be to get the general public and the government to fully understand the real contributions of the licensed customs agents to the economy, because it is when that is understood that we can now start talking about what benefits accrue there from. But, when nobody knows what roles it is playing in the economy, talking about its benefits are will be like placing the cart before the horse? So, this is part of the issues that the in-coming government (even if I am not contesting), is to advocate.
What are you doing about the factions in ANLCA?
There are no fractions in ANLCA, what happened in the past was as a result of some actions which were taken and which tended to make a lot of people unhappy. I know that the issue of fraction or disharmony within the clearing and forwarding arena have always been unduly highlighted. But, I need to tell you this: ANLCA is not fractionalised and ANLCA is about the only association within the freight forwarding profession; in the sense that this is the association that has followership and mass participation. You could have associations that are associations merely by name, in other words a couple of people gathered together registered and followed it up with some noise making and as far as the media is concerned this is an association. For instance, since inception and resuscitation, ANLCA election has been a constant thing; both in the chapters and at the national level. Between when Dr Rafiu Oladipo(our first president) was in charge and up to the 1980s and to the present, we have had up to four or five presidents. Please, tell me the other associations were such has happened.