I got closer to him only recently and since then, he has continued to strike me as an unusual specie among the freight forwarding genre. Mr John Ofobike is a very humble man who is overtly passionate about the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). Against formidable odds, he emerged a few years ago as the chairman of Apapa chapter of ANLCA and since then, his story has changed, but, obviously, not his person. He strikes me as man with a very low beginning, whom circumstances never gave a chance, but whose destiny marked out for greatness. My interaction with him took place at the comfortable secretariat of the association in Apapa. Enjoy the first part where he talked about himself and ANLCA and other sundry issues. The second part will look at the port system and his plans for the future, especially now that his first term is about to end.
A lot of people know you today as the chairman of ANLCA in Apapa port, but who really is John Ofobike?
I am John Alfred Ofobike, born some years back to the humble family of Alfred Ofobike my father and my good mother (the best mother in the world), Susan Ofobike. I came from a very humble background; I attended my primary and secondary schools. I am a unionist right from my secondary school days. I remember that at a particular time, I was not allowed to write my exams because of unionism, I wrote as an external student and obtained my WAEC results, and then I was given an admission into the Federal Polytechnic Nasarawa but it was not possible because of time, At a particular time, I moved fully into business. Coming into the freight forwarding business, I discover that I have a brighter star here, I started working with my brother Sam Okeke and from their, I got my own license as a customs agent; Salim International which was registered in the North, because, most of my life and activities started in the northern part of the country, I am one of the directors of the company. Since 1998, I have been using this particular license. I am a member of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents. I love the association so much.
What informed your decision to join ANLCA politics?
Let me tell you, that the Association of Nigerian License Customs Agent is an institution, our fathers in this industry thought about the welfare of the man who is called a clearing agent; they registered and incorporated it sometime in 1954 to be an umbrella that will cater for the freight forwarding industry in Nigeria. I looked at ANLCA and I discovered that they have focus on the ideas of projecting the ideals of freight forwarding and to ensure that we play the game according to the rule, in making sure we have a cordial relationship with whosoever is working in the maritime industry and mostly to be plain in whatever we do. I fell in love with the association and I believe I ought to be a member because it is the only association that is in the CEMA. Back then, there were no other associations, the ones you see now are just springing up due to the Nigerian. In ANLCA, they have a democratic set up, if you have paid your dues and you are member of the association, you can aspire for any position and if you are voted in, you will have your tenure in the office, when your tenure expires and the constitution allows you to go for a second tenure, then you re-contest; its not an Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe kind of leadership, these are part of the things that made me go into ANLCA.
What informed your decision to aspire to become the chairman of Apapa chapter of ANLCA?
I have never in my life dreamt of becoming a chairman in this great association, I am talking of being chairman of Apapa chapter, its like a miracle but all I know is that I have paid my dues in ANLCA, I have 13 different appointments from different governments in ANLCA, for so many years, I served in the national body and in the chapters, the association appreciated my efforts and at a particular time people said ‘come we need somebody that can be there for us, a grass root man whom we can talk to’ and along the line, I discovered that I could fit in and they called me to come and serve us. I thought it was a joke but to God be the glory this is me here Ofobike John; the chairman of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, Apapa chapter. I have never in my wildest dream thought that I could even come to be anything in this association, but look at where I am today, it is God who has done it so I remain grateful to Him and to those who believe in me. If it’s not for the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, where do you think Ofobike John will be by now, I am a friend to so many institutions that have things to do with maritime and for the contributions that I have made to this industry I have received so many awards. If not through ANLCA, how can I be known and get all these awards? I am also a student, I already have my ND and I am pursuing my HND, even as a chairman of this chapter and after that, I will do my PGD in shipping management. If not for ANLCA, I will probably not have this idea of going further with my education. There is also a very big institution in Ibadan, southwest of Nigeria which recently recognised me and gave me an honorary doctorate degree and I am now called a doctor; if not for ANLCA how will they know who I am? From the bottom of my heart, I remain grateful to ANLCA and to the founding fathers of ANLCA, to the elders of ANLCA and to the common agents out there who believe so much in me. To crown it all, I remain grateful to those people that gave me these chances like chief Dike, Prince Taiye Oyeniyi, people like Aare Shittu, Okocha, Kamba, Inua Mohammed Ernest Elochukwu and the present chairman, BOT and somebody like Peter Obi: it is through that man that I became whatever I am today by bringing me out, these are the people who saw the quality in me, brought me out and gave me the opportunity at the chapter level, from there I climbed to where I am today and from the bottom of my heart I remain grateful to all of them. Look at the last NEC meeting that was organized in Lagos, I was appointed the chairman of the organizing committee, they said it’s because of my track records and that they know I can do it, I have never been a part of NEC organizing committee before, but I can say that to God be the glory; people said that was one of the best NEC meetings that they have attended in ANLCA. I am always ready to serve as far as ANLCA is concerned, sometimes people talk about money or quantify whatever they have through money, for me, it is not. If not for ANLCA, how could I have got here, so I remain grateful to the association?
What will you consider as your greatest challenge as chairman, Apapa chapter?
The greatest challenge when I came on board was how to bring our people back to the fold of ANLCA, there was a leadership tussle left and right. When Peter Obi finished his tenure, there was this interim government that was supposed to be for one or two months but it ended up staying for almost two years, an interim government is supposed to hold forth until election is conducted. The interim government and the people who were in it were not core association members, so things nose – dived to the lowest level at that particular time and there were so many crises as to why so and so person should be here. That was my greatest challenge when I came on board and to God be the glory, I was able to bring ANLCA back and bring everyone back into the association. You will agree with me now that ANLCA in Apapa is not a chapter that you can wave aside easily, you can see what is on ground, the way our members troop in here to have solution to their problems which means they have so much believe in the association and mostly in the chapter. We prayed to God and God being who He is has never failed me, I might not be a man who sleeps in the church, but He knows my name as a person and I believe He loves me the way He loves David so he answers me. We saw all this crises coming at the beginning, first was our secretariat- there was nothing there but we beautified it and brought it back. Within one month of our coming into power, NPA sent more than 100 police men one Saturday to pull our secretariat down and my executives were asking what was happening, but I told them that God was answering our prayers. From that place, we went to the national secretariat and when we got there, it was an empty structure, there was crisis then as some people went to court that Joki was not the BOT chairman and that the election that brought him was inconsequential and so on, so they went and got judgment from the court, when they got to the court, it was the same association and chapter that prevented anyone to go and disgrace the government of Elochukwu and even Joki himself, so in anything that happens to us, I always tell people that you have to give God the glory. There is an overall peace in ANLCA now; all the aggrieved parties are now together. These decisions were taken at the NEC meeting which was organised by John Ofobike’s committee.
How did you secure another secretariat for your chapter?
I thank God because some people said there is no place for us again to sit and discuss our problems because they have pushed us out of that new national secretariat, some people said let us see how he is going to make it because there was no money. I had to relocate to my own private office which is a two- room office and I went into prayers, at the end of it all, the almighty God gave us this very place on the platter of gold. When he was giving us this place, we had no money with which we could pay, but at the end of the day, he provided the money for us, we got money from one of the organizations. Everyone was surprised and said how come, but I said it’s God. The very week they gave us that money was the same week that the landlord of this place wrote to us that we should come and pay within three days or else another person will be taking over, we ran immediately and gave them the cheque and that was how we got this place. Forever, I will remain grateful to God because any gift of God will never cause you any sorrow. I believe that my being chairman is by divine connection.
How did you eventually emerge as Apapa chapter chairman, especially in the face of very tough opposition?
Like I said, God himself is God and forever he remains so. It was by divine favour that I became the chairman, because all the giants, the goliaths the bourgeoisie and so on were behind my opponents, he is late now, may his sole rest in peace, he was my oga and a brother we came from the same area, he was a loving and amiable man, he came out to contest too, he was a big man and a member of the big men’s club. I am just a nobody and there was so much support for him form the bourgeoisies, but at the end of it, God decided to give me the victory, that is why I said it’s by divine favour that I am here, and you can ask anybody what it takes for an election to be conducted, there was so many politicking, allegations, propaganda.
What is your greatest achievement as chairman, Apapa?
One of my greatest achievement as chairman Apapa is: having a cordial relationship with every stakeholders in the port, my members are well respected, there is a procedure for doing things in Apapa and the agents respect it. My greatest achievement is having this secretariat, equipping it to standard; every month, we keep offering training to our people for them to be computer literate, so many were not computer literate, but now they can operate computers on their own, so many of them did not care about knowing the tariff, but now I can tell you that the agents in Apapa can quote tariff and tell you where it is, they can argue with a customs officer that this is not what we are supposed to pay. My people in Apapa have now realized that the only way to make it is by being straight forward, to God be the glory, we have had many seminars where we invited the professionals who had so much knowledge about shipping and terminal operations to come and further educate us. So it’s one of the greatest achievements for me to have made my members to become computer literate, to sop cutting corners and to make them belief in us.
What is responsible for the troubles in the western zone of ANLCA?
What I want to tell you is that it is not a crisis but a disagreement. I came from one of the biggest family in my home town, and inside my compound, you can get more than 25 houses. Some years back, there was a man I was talking with when I was living in Bariga, he was dealing with one of my brother and we came to say he should stop treating him so, what he said was that ‘now he has become your brother, but if you people get home now you will be quarrelling in the compound and having disagreements’, and I told him that it is only where they have people that there can be disagreements, where you have people there will be freedom of speech, you will disagree and agree, that is why you will see people exchanging views. What I want to tell you is that ANLCA is one big happy family that cannot be divided; it’s a family that disagrees and agree. So what you saw was never a crisis, but a disagreement and since it’s a family issue, I think it has been addressed.
Why do you think it has been difficult to conduct elections in western zone?
Like I said, there was disagreement, maybe things were not done properly. Let me tell you that there are only two Holy books in the whole world which is the holy bible and the holy Quran, these are the books that you can not add or subtract from, but any other book or document by any human being is subject to amendment and are full of errors, so maybe the arrangement was not done very well, maybe there is error in amendment and because we cannot do it wrong we want to do it right for us to get it right; that is why I can say that election into western zone is being put on hold and other issues are being addressed, it is good to address these issues than when things get out of hand and people will start going to court. But anyway, there must be disagreement, even in the Nigerian context, nobody wants to be a loser, but if things are done very well, somebody can say that there is an element of openness, so let me accept, or even when somebody is trying to make trouble, he will be advised not to.
*To be concluded next week