This is probably his first major media chat since the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria was inaugurated and his subsequent emergence as the Council’s pioneer chairman. This interview would not have held were it not if not for his determination. It was held on the move (right in his car)! Hon. Tony Iju Nwabunike is a soft spoken frontline freight forwarder who told me that rather than speak on the pages of newspapers about itself and its achievements, the Council spent the past few months to understand its mandate and build bridges. He told me that the recent two-day retreat which held in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state was what the Council needed to collate inputs from its stakeholders and also to be ‘tutored’ about its mandate and how to further actualise it. In this rare interview with me, he says that: It’s now time to hit the ground running.
Congratulations on the recent retreat which your Council organised for its members and select stakeholders
Thank you very much. It is great, this is the very first retreat we will have and all the members of the Council were present except one or two and the representatives of all the freight forwarding associations were also there. All our resource persons and invitees also came. To cap it all, the governor and his entourage and Akwa Ibom people were there too. So, it was a big success. I will want to use this medium to thank the minister and members of the National Assembly for their support and encouragement since the Council was created. Government at both executive and the legislative levels has been very supportive and I strongly believe that Nigerian freight forwarders also appreciate these efforts.
What informed the idea of a retreat?
The retreat was all conceived for us to understand exactly how to move forward in accordance with our enabling law, that is, Act 16 of 2007. We saw the need to draw a road map and understand our specific roles and how to go about it. And at the end of the day, we came up with a communiqué and also agreed that this is the way forward and that is equally where we are now.
What is the next step for the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria?
At the retreat, we took a decision that first of all, we are going to have a registrar immediately and that we are going to establish three offices in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano; having Abuja as the liaison office. We are going to embark on a nation – wide registration exercise of all our members and immediately after the registration, we are now going to conduct elections into the remaining 15 seats from the three areas,, that is, eastern port, western port, the air port and the border post. These are some of the things that we have mapped out for ourselves.
Let me take you back a bit. Licensed customs agents went on strike some time ago to protest what they called high charges, we still hear of such complaints of high charges. Aren’t you aware?
In the retreat, we actually discussed some of these things and we came to the agreement that the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria will now be the voice of the freight forwarders, so that we can now speak and government will hear us. We have had various associations speaking in different tongues and the government never takes such things serious, but this time, it’s very encouraging that everybody has agreed that the council is going to be the sole voice for all the freight forwarders. I think that by the time our communiqué gets to government quarters, they will all know that it’s no longer business as usual in the ports and that everything we complain of must be addressed according to the guide line of importation and the principles that are guiding port operations.
Can we safely say that it took the retreat for the three major freight forwarding associations to accept the Council?
No. I can tell you that majority of them have actually accepted the Council before now, but they are actually waiting to know what the Council will come up with and we do not blame them. Many freight forwarders and the associations actually wrote letters and actually congratulated us after the inauguration, but they want us to come up first so that they will know the type of platform upon which they are going to be operating. The Uyo retreat opened up many things and re-affirmed that they are truly in agreement with what Council wants to do, so its not as if they are waiting till after the retreat.
What does the attendance of leaders of the three associations in Uyo tell you?
Personally I have to congratulate the presidents of the three associations who actually took the decision to come together and make sure that council is their own and I tell you that from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the council we are very happy because for the very fist time, every association is coming together to say that this is what we are going to do on the platform of the council being the sole representative of all the freight forwarding groups, it is something very wonderful.
Is the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria a parastatal of the transport ministry?
Before I speak on that, I need a legal interpretation of what our Act is all about. If you look at our Act and that of APCON, you will discover that they are the same; nothing is different from page to page and if you look at APCON and you think it’s a parastatal, you might be correct, if you think it’s not a parastatal, but it is totally in conformity with government’s principles and guidelines through the Act 68 of 1988, you will now know exactly what the position of APCON is. I am very optimistic that by the time I have legal interpretation of our Act, then, we will know what we are and where we belong. So many people have said that CRFFN is not a parastatal, because according to them, if it is, it will be 100 per cent under the ministry of transport. But, we are under the supervision of the minister, there is a supervising ministry but we need to guide our self properly through legal interpretations which I want to seek very shortly.
I always have cause to ask this question any time I interview senior licensed customs agents. Who are the members of CRFFN?
First of all if you go to section 30 of our Act, it explains who a freight forwarder is and by the time you analyse it, you will begin to understand that the membership of the Council is not limited to being a freight forwarder or a clearing agent, customs brokers. It includes all those who are involved in the logistics chain, what I mean is that whoever is involved in the ‘to and fro’ of goods and services in any international border point; whether air, land or sea, that is what section 30 says. So, if you are involved in such transactions, you must definitely be a member of the freight forwarding group called Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria. It is important for you to know that as long as you are trading across borders whether through logistics, customs brokerage or freight forwarding, then you must be a member of this council.
The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents of which you were once a national executive council member is facing some challenges at the moment, what are you doing to ensure that the association dose not die?
ANLCA will not die, if you remember, it was established since 1954 and it is a big and large association so nobody is anticipating that ANLCA should die. What the association is having is not a serious problem because I know ANLCA; I know that sometimes we have some political skirmishes that may sometime tend towards tribal or financial, but we always get over it. I have gone through all that before and you remember that I was the secretary general for six years and I know that there is no problem in ANLCA. But, if there is any serious problem and they decide to bring it into our disciplinary committee at the Council level, we will take it up from there and call them to order.
The ordinary freight forwarder, especially the licensed customs agents are complaining that they are yet to feel the impact of the Council. Are they justified?
If the ordinary freight forwarder says that, he might be correct, because we need to be knowledgeable about what we are doing and we have taken a decision concerning that. When we came on board as members of the Council, we asked ourselves the question as to whether we really want to go through the pages of newspapers to boost our ego, we said no. We also asked ourselves if we really need to lay a serious foundation so that by the time we come up, we will be seen as being more serious, and we took a decision on that. I want to tell you that some members of the Council have gone on training in London, government has also recognized us through our position papers and I tell you that there is no single government agency in the maritime industry that will now say that it does not know CRFFN. I agree that it has not affected the people on ground because we have not registered them, by the time we start the registration, sensitization and seminars, they will now know.
What kind of relationship does the Council have with the associations?
Good relationship. Remember for example that ANLCA was formed in 1954 and other associations that came on board were the Council of Managing Directors probably in the 1990’s, followed closely by a very powerful group called NAGAFF which is barely 10 years old and we can see that they are very vocal and I tell you that within that the 10 years that they have come up, they have contributed very well. Of course, you know the status of ANLCA. So, we now took a decision that let us gather these three groups first because it is a matter of importance that we liaise with them and have them as partners in progress. By the time we start talking to the average freight forwarder on the street, it’s either he belongs to this group or the other; it makes things easier for us. By the time the executive members of these associations have agreed with the Council and keyed into the Council’s programmes, it becomes easier for members. Yes, the ordinary freight forwarder may be seeing us like we have not done so well but I am reminding them that its just some few months that we have come aboard, we have so many years for this council to remain. Like I was telling you that APCON was established in 1988, but Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding is less than one year old and people are expecting so much. I agree that expectations should be high, but I also agree that we should equally do it right and that is the position we have taken.
Obviously, there are still some individuals who are still not happy with the Council
I read recently in your newspaper that one of my very good friends and my leader whom I respect so much in the industry, by the name; Mr Lucky Amiwero said that we are not performing because of one thing or the order. Let me be very frank with you that the earlier we appreciate what government has done for us by giving us this Council the better. People should appreciate the government which gave us this to Council. In the whole world, there is no government that has given a very strong Council to freight forwarders like we have in Nigeria. I have gone to South Africa and Ghana and the United States of America to see if there is any such council but I couldn’t find any. Our Council has so much powers and government’s backing so I think if we should be given such a wonderful recognition, then we should not throw it into the trash basket. So I am pleading with those who actually went to court against the election, the Council has just taken- off and there are so many things to do, so many contributions and so many benefits. Most importantly, the government established the council to make sure that there is uniformity and best practices in the ports operation and in freight forwarding generally and it will not hesitate to deal with anybody who go against it. The council has a law and it’s a very legitimate one but I am not saying that we are going to use that arm of the law to chase anybody, but I am saying that the government will not have patience with anybody who delay the movement of the Council because they gave it to us so that we can sanitize and regulate ourselves and to also move the economy of the country forward through the maritime sector.