His ‘prophecy’ concerning the troubled Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria is fast coming to fulfilment. Shortly after the elections were contested, he told me that he foresaw problems ahead of the Council. He headed for the courts and since then, the much-expected Council has been operating in the shadows; afraid to be itself, act its name and perform its statutory functions. Mr Lucky Eyis Amiwero however gave conditions on how to strike a truce in this interaction with me in his office.
It has been some months since freight forwarders went on strike in protest against what they called arbitrary charges, has there been any change since the strike was called off?
Well, there are no changes apart from few reduction in few charges that actually have no serious effect on the burden of the importer, the only change is that few of those charges that were dropped, some as little as N1000, N500, N800, N1,500, N1,200. They are part of the ones that the minister said we should look at as a committee should look at and maybe remove the ones that are irrelevant. The other principal charges that are affecting the economy and creating confusion are: progressive storage charges, terminal handling charges, terminal delivery charges, royalty, transfer charges, shipping agency fees and some others that are impediments to an efficient port system. They are all in the recommendations of the committee, but we believed and according to what the minister said that he wanted to liaise with his counterpart; the minister of finance, commerce and industry and the Nigeria Customs Service in order to see how this thing can be resolved so that he can now interface with them to remove these obstacles. But, we are surprised that when we are waiting for the minister, an increase came up without negotiation which contravened section 65 and 71 of the Nigerian Ports Authority Act 38 of 1999 which allows for negotiations. We are surprised at the re-introduction of the progressive storage charge which is not part of the law, why is it so important to the minister? The other ones that are creating confusion in the ports have not been removed, so there is a problem and the problem now is that we seem to be looking at this issue from a basis of political patronage.
You were a member of the ministerial committee; it does appear to me that your committee didn’t do well enough
We concluded our job; we brought out charges that are illegal, functions that are illegal and operational charges that are illegal. You must know that the chairman of the ministerial committee is the executive secretary of the Shippers Council and you know that the first committee was inaugurated by NPA; that is, the technical committee which first look at the charges and it was from this technical committee that the minister had to appoint his own committee, it was the minister’s committee and we expect him to have worked on that document because the people who are there are representatives of the minister, shippers’ council, freight forwarders and some other groups. We came up with all the illegalities that are being practiced in the ports based on charges and some operational defects. The minister has the right to take decisions on these things because, we looked at the shipping agency charges and terminal handling charges with other operational issues that falls under the purview of the minister of transport, what we are talking about is how we can get an efficient and effective port system that will be able to compete favourably with our neighbours like Ghana, Cote de ‘Ivoire, Togo and Benin Republic ports, but we noticed what has been done now and we know that it is going to have a negative effect because many of the things that are supposed to be done have not been done by the minister. Rather what happened is that he went ahead to introduce the progressive storage charge without consultations; inviting us and telling us that the minister has approved; that is not consultation and it’s not enough. It means that you are telling the Nigerian importer and the general publics that we are fools and we do not know what we are doing. Most of the charges that have been introduced in the ports are illegal because they have not gone through the normal procedure and the truth of the matter is that because we don’t have a commercial regulator and a technical regulator, NPA and Shipper’s Council are anxious and we found out that these two agencies are having problems because they are not part of the law that is midwifing the concession agreement.
Are you by any means insinuating that the minister may have compromised?
I have not said that the minister has compromised, but we believe that the minister has not done the right thing, we expect the minister to keep to his promise because he told us practically that those charges must go and that other things that are impediments to efficient the ports system must go, but what we noticed is that we saw new charges coming up which is called progressive storage charge which was introduced by the minister through Shippers’ Council. The executive secretary sat down and presided over that thing and he said he is protecting the interest of shippers, how can you protect the interest of shippers when you are working against shippers, the Shippers’ Council is working against shippers in that direction and that means there is no need for the council. If the minister is using Shippers’ Council to introduce charges that are inimical to the growth of the ports and is making importers to patronize ports outside the country, then it is a thing that is an impediment to the success and growth of the economy. The Shipper’s Council itself is involved because we were just called and told that the minister approved, and we asked :why did you approve, how, and where did you consult and if you say that you are for shippers, according to what other shippers’ councils are doing, then we don’t expect the shippers’ council to be playing the role that it is playing today, that means that the best thing is to scrap it, since it is working against the shippers, because now people are abandoning their cargos in the ports and why?. You have a consignment of N500, 000 in a container and you are asked to pay the sum of N1.5million to clear it, everybody is crying, no body wants to go and pick their consignments and the problem is that the government itself has not made the ports free from the cumbersome process, the process is cumbersome, you can not clear your goods in two or three weeks, why are you introducing the storage charges, the most important thing that the Shippers Council and minister should have done is to make sure that clearing process in the ports is facilitated, that the Risk Assessment Report is coming and that other thing are supplied electronically, then you can clear within two or three days. When all these things are there, then you can say you are introducing charges, but all these are not there, you still have to spend two or three days for examination, it will still take you two or three weeks to transfer containers and sometimes a month and you are talking about progressive storage charge. No!
That takes me to a recent disclosure by the outgoing managing director of APM Terminal to the effect that cargo dwell time has risen to 3o days. He blamed freight forwarders for the development.
Is he not ashamed to say that it is about 30days? Because the truth of the of the matter is that he sat down there to exploit the economy of Nigeria by introducing illegal charges and this has very serious implications on the economy. What they can not do in their countries, they are doing it in Nigeria, go and check round the whole world and see what they are paying as terminal handling charges and see what we are paying here, we pay terminal delivery charges, terminal handling charges, we pay storage charges and we pay progressive storage charges; these are what they can not do in other countries; other countries even have 21 days free in terms of rates for storage. We hold all these committee meetings and at the end of the day nothing happens. You are talking about dwell time, they are just manipulating the economy because today they are in power, but one day God will take over. The truth about it is that the economy is suffering, these are people who have not invested much in the economy, go there and see, they spent US$10Million, came in and say that one is entry fees and they are using our money to pay, today they are telling us that they have spent $40billion, $70billion, who is accessing these things that they are saying? Who evaluates what they are doing? Who is in charge? This is not the way other ports are being run.
Doesn’t this further confirm the need for a transport commission?
Yes, the transport commission is not there, there is no economic or technical regulator and no country operates her port the way ours are being done here, look at South Africa, they have an economic regulator for the ports and it’s clearly defined. Ours is that we have no foundation, no law for the concession, we have only a contract for the concession, you can not look at the concession and link it to the law we have on ground today. The law that we have on ground is telling you five years and we have a concession for 10, 25 and 30 years, you can not relate this to the law, it is very clear it says five years and that is the bench mark. There is nothing like concession in the law, what we have is lease agreement and this is something that is supposed to be between NPA but now you brought in people like the BPE, you brought a new contract procedure that is not even being followed, the Terminal Handling Charge is not part of the law, what we have in the law is terminal delivery charges and this takes care of terminal handling charges, so you will find out that they are duplicating these things and this minister was informed based on our recommendations but nothing was done. What he has done so far is to introduce another one and you don’t expect Nigerians to go and steal to take delivery of their containers.
Are freight forwarders contemplating another strike?
Well, we have looked at it; we were told that the minister is sick, but we believe that he must be back this week, after that we will go back to the negotiating table and see what we are going to do because we notice that nobody will want to clear their cargo at that rate in this country. The minister has not been able to remove the illegalities, he still sustains the illegalities and we say that they must be removed because these things are very clear and the report is with him, he should be able to act on that report. What he did previously by introducing new things that are now creating problems in the ports, there is a very serious problem coming up because a lot of people have abandoned their containers at the ports and they can not clear them and at the end of the day, you auction these containers. This is one of the reasons why some people resort to kidnapping, because you find out that some people brought in consignments legitimately and you are trying to use an illegitimate means of removing this containers and selling them as auction. Now, congestion is coming back because people are abandoning their containers, so who is correct? Is it not the freight forwarders that are correct? And now you are complaining because you have forced the minister to accept it and no body is coming forward, so you find out that these containers are there and after 90 days you go and sell them, one day it will not continue like this.
The unity which was exhibited by freight forwarders during the recent strike has filtered out, why is it difficult to have permanent unity among freight forwarders?
There is no difficulty, we may have these gladiators, we might have people who are generals or field marshals, but our own focus in the Council of Managing Directors is to see how we can reduce cost in the ports, to see how we can engineer capacity building for the agents so that tomorrow they can be better somebody. That has been my vision, my vision has been how we can get a better port, a better custom and a better customs agents and that is why we try as much as possible to be able to achieve our dream through inputs, dialogues, persuasions and consistent midwifing of policies. We also noticed that we have common interests and the interest is how the issues that are affecting us can be tackled. For this, we have to come together, we might not have the same interest in terms of our goals and objectives, but one common interest that we have is to see that we clear our goods cheaper and better and faster like we see in other countries of the world because, we have areas where we harmonize; this is a free world and we believe that if we have more associations it makes for a better relationship because it brings competition, you look at the associations and look at the one you can join the ones that are focused and have the basis of professionalism, you know them and you know where to go to, but that does not mean that if there is need for us to come together we will not, we still have one common interest which is to facilitate trade and to make things work better.
Do you have faith in the on-going probe of the Nigeria Customs by the House of Reps?
I have faith in every process because, I believe that we are meant to change situation in the economy. I know that when we started this issue of destination inspection sometime in 1995 and 1996, people said it was not possible, but I was consistent, persistent, resolute and focused, at the end of the day, that is what we are practicing. We started this whole fight and I know that you know that when we were fighting that pre-shipment of imports must not stay, we fought it very well and it was cancelled. I was a member of many of these committees, for everything that is being introduced, you must be there to educate people and tell them what you know. I am quite happy that we were there as a Council of Managing Directors to educate the law makers because there was a lot of misgivings about Customs, about agents and about a lot of things and I am happy that at the end of the day a better customs will emerge. What is happening is an attempt to streamline and repackage Customs for a better tomorrow so that they can work in line with what happens in other parts of the world.
After the first appearance, I was invited to make another submission and I believe that the House will use these submissions for the betterment of the industry.
What do you think is most critical at this point?
One other critical issue is to review the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA). Like I told you, Ghana reviewed their own, and now it is called the Customs Excise and Preventive Service Act of 2002, their trade net encompasses their EDI and their electronically supplied process, their SGD document which they call SAD (Single Administrative Documents). All these are incorporated into their amended Act; their Customs Excise Preventive Service Act. Ghana has an Act that has been upgraded in 2003 and in the process, you found out that Ghana Customs has been able to re-package, not like Nigeria Customs Service that is still obsolete; obsolete in the sense that it uses an Act of 1958 and you will find out that many customs officers do not even know what the Act is all about. We have gone through new process of pre-shipment, we have the pre-shipment Act 11 of 1996 that moved out some of these functions from the Nigerian Customs, we have the Act 20 of 2003 that moved out the valuation principle from CEMA, we have some other Acts that have been amended so we are looking at the House of Reps to incorporate all these and to define them so that they can be a single document for us to have, for easy process so that the ports will be a better place and the Customs will now have a good application tool in terms of the law.
Do you support calls for autonomy for the Nigeria Customs Service?
Customs autonomy is necessary, but like I said and will continue to say, that the Customs themselves are trade experts. All over the world, the Customs Service is always under finance ministry and we have the customs service board. We believe that there is need to fund this agency in line with what obtains in other parts of the world. You don’t expect them that after collecting billions of Naira they will not go back to the fund and try to put hand in it, but when you are able to upgrade them, this kind of thing will stop. These are the things which we have recommended to the House committee for implementation but I know the House has limitations. Even though they have oversight functions, they can not be doing the work of the executive arm and I think that principally their work is to amend the laws.
You were reported to have told the probe panel that some serving customs officers are involved in cargo clearing business, why did you report them?
We said that some customs officers have licenses and we will continue to say that, there are many of them that have licenses and I am happy that it was confirmed and even the chairman said that they have heard us complain and even some of the customs says yes too. We raised it because the practice contravenes the law, CEMA says you can not be operating because it may create problems, this is what has been happening and we say this thing should stop, so believe that if the government will intervene in this situation, it will be resolved, we are not talking about retired officers but that serving officers should not own a license because it contravenes the law and the law is very clear about this. Section 156 says no body should hold a license while you are practicing, so it is not a controversial thing, it is something that has been there and that is the truth about it.
It has been a while since the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria was inaugurated, but the Council is yet to function effectively, aren’t you worried?
Well, I am in court with the Council because the proper thing has not been done; number one, we have looked at the law and we say that the law is defective. I am not the one to make that pronouncement it’s the court, we have looked at the elections and we say it was not properly conducted, I am not the one to make that pronouncement, it’s the court, I have done my legal duties and my franchise has been infringed upon as a man who contributed almost 50 percent of the law, and we believe that many of them who are there as members of the Council do not know what the law is all about; 75 per cent of the work is all about standard and control. I am not the one to tell them what to do, mine is to make sure that the proper thing is done, my going to court is not for myself, it’s because the proper thing was not done. And I want to that God that I won the first case and we are going into the critical leg of the case which might take us two or three years because the law is defective. If you look at it professionally, it is not something you can implement, but as we have said that if we can come to a compromise we can look at the law to package it properly. The Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding can not move because there is a case against it and that is the truth.
Aren’t you bothered that people will say that you are crippling the work of the Council?
I don’t see people saying that Adams Oshiomhole is bad when he was fighting his case, now he has taken over Edo state, the same goes for Segun Mimiko who has taken over Ondo state and if Fashola is not here today we will not see the developments we have been seeing. So the truth of the matter is that the right person should take over and make that place a better place for every body, it not about me, give it to the right people who know what to do.
Who are these right people?
The right people are still alive and they will come.
This suggests to me that you will want to see the court process through?
I want to see the process through, we want to do it, there might be agreement of concept, their might be concessions, we might sit together and look at it and see how we can move forward. But it is not in the way it is now; it was not done properly. This law is the first of its kind in the whole world, we do not have the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding anywhere in the world and it took us four to five years to midwife this law and bring it into practice, today it is there and people who are ‘highjackers’ have taken over the whole place. It is not a question of going there to look at the money, it’s a question of giving the place a face, vision, direction and purpose so that our children yet unborn will benefit from the system. It’s a good law, it only has some defects here and there and we are taking on those areas to adjust it to make sure it works.
Are you under any pressure to withdraw the case?
I am not under any pressure, I am talking and I can not be under any pressure to withdraw the case. Yes, I am talking to some of the parties, but that does not mean that I am under pressure; the case is still in court and no body is withdrawing it.
Are you likely to withdraw it if an agreement is reached?
If an agreement is reached for the betterment of the industry, yes, but if there is no agreement, there is no need of withdrawing it, we will go ahead with it.
What kind of agreement are we looking at?
We are looking at an agreement that will encompassed the people who ‘midwifed’ the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding, people who can midwife it, so that the real people will go in there and the real thing will be done, not money bags or people who can not differentiate right from left. These are the things that we are trying to do, it is our own law, if you go back to the National Assembly, they will tell you our inputs in it, but many of them who are there, how many inputs do they have in that place, none of them have inputs. Nigerian election is always a situation were you go there and highjack the whole thing, you don’t go through the normal process, so that is why we are in court and we are almost one year and we will continue to be until the proper thing is done.
How long is the tenure?
Its two years; that is what the law says. I remember telling the minister not to inaugurate them, if he had listened to me, he would have solved the problem at that time before inauguration and by now the Council would have gone very far, now the Council can not go, because the Council, by law is not properly constituted and if it’s not properly constituted, you must not use the money there until you go there and do away with the case and that is the truth.
Do you still nurse the ambition to be chairman of that Council?
It is not all about Lucky Amiwero, people know me that my being the chairman is not the issue; the issue is to do the right thing. I have served under people who are not even up to me, I served under them and I worked with them, so its all about doing the right thing and to leave a legacy behind for our children yet unborn, its not all about doing something for doing sake, but doing it for the interest of the society in general.
Where will you put the blame?
The blame is from the former minister, I wrote him severally and told him that the team should not be inaugurated until he looked at the grey areas and adjusted them; he went ahead and inaugurated them. Apart from the minister, Shippers’ Council also messed up the election, I was surprised that the executive secretary was saying that there are some people who are disgruntled; I pray that he withdraws that statement; he should not use that language again, because he is a ship captain and should not call people disgruntled. We are fighting for our right, it was the Shippers’ Council that messed up the whole election, if they had done a proper election, we would not have been where we are today. Shippers’ Council is afraid because if the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding is there, there will be no need for Shippers Council, what is the Shippers’ Council doing there? Nothing, what has been the functions of Shippers Council, for the past years, what have they done? Nothing. You can not compare Shipper’s Council when Chief Adebayo Sarumi was there and now, what interest of shippers have they protected over the years.