Dr Boniface Okechukwu Aniebonam was his usual self when I met him last week for this interview. As is typical of him, he made no pretence about his ambition, disdain and fears, even as he touched on all issues including the hitherto seemingly untouchable.
“We are here to regulate freight forwarding in Nigeria” and that if he (Elochukwu) wanted to provide another bill for consideration, they are there to make laws and they will give it considerations.
I am surprised to hear this from you, because you did very well last year
What do you mean by that, I don’t understand you?
You are a foremost freight forwarder and you cleared many containers last year, how come you are talking like this?
Ask any freight forwarder, last year was as bad as anything, so I don’t really know what you are talking about. That does not mean that cargo didn’t leave the port, but I keep telling you that when you hear that Nigeria Customs Service has made seizure worth about =N=1.9 billion, Nigerians are dying. Sesan, whether you like it or not, many people from the eastern part of the country did not go home for Christmas because of fear of being kidnapped. Many of these boys (kidnappers) said that they had nothing to do anymore; their goods have been seized by the Customs, so what else would they do to recover their money? There were instances of people who were attacked by armed robbers in luxurious buses and the armed robbers told them that “well our goods have been seized, I need my money back and I have to live my life”. These things were reported in the newspapers.
I noticed that you have not blamed licensed customs agents for anything.
For point of order, we have a council, there is nothing like licensed customs clearing agents again, we don’t have such name anymore. The general term for our practice is freight forwarding and that is why the Act has been put in place and I hope you will help us to re-educate the people, let us stop going back. I think some of you enjoy calling us customs licensed agent but we are not. If I am a customs licensed agent, then what are the conditions of operation? It is just a permit given to us by the Customs in order to facilitate their operation, we are professionals. That is why we are a bit worried about what is happening at the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria; these are some of the things we want them to start up so that we can be like lawyers, we can be like engineers, we can be like accountants and that is what government has done for us. Practitioners must go back to school to study courses relating to international trade, customs facilitation, transport and logistics and so on.
Now that you have mentioned the Council, I will want you to do a sincere appraisal of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding.
Well, it’s most unfortunate but here we are. Unfortunately, those who actually factored the Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria were not put on board, but that is Nigeria for you. At a stage politics came into it, but be that as it may, the current chairman of the Council is doing the best that he can to see what he can do, but then it is quiet a difficult situation because some people in government don’t even want the Council to exist. So it requires a great mind, it requires somebody like me to lead the Council, it requires somebody like Lucky Amiwero to lead the Council, but today we have Tony Nwabunike there and he has our support. But we really want him to step up, because we need to liberate ourselves, it is a process of liberation Like I said, we are doing everything possible to prop up some other people like Lucky Amiwero who has gone to court, we have advised him accordingly that there is no need of going to court, lets see what we can do and take advantage of this, nothing is perfect, the election has come and gone, people have won it, people have lost it and tomorrow is another day, so let us not throw the bathwater away with the baby, lets give them some support so that they can stand.
I have heard people say that then Council has failed, do you support that?
The council has not failed, it has to do with leadership and (the Chairman) Tony Nwabunike himself has limits that he can go, it involves a lot of funds and I hope that his leadership does not tie itself to the apron string of the government. We have so much money that we can tap, but it requires somebody with a great mind who really knows what the whole thing is all about, I was talking with him sometimes ago and I could see some of his problems, but we have told him that funds should not be a problem, because if you look at the number of freight forwarders in this country, we are so many and what we need is to mobilise them. Funds will be generated by practitioners, but as far as I am concerned, it has to do with leadership, if you begin to do things that will really give encouragement to the freight forwarders, they will follow you and even provide the funds. We have the money no doubt, you cannot play with freight forwarders, this is a great profession and a great Council and I don’t really see any council that will be greater than our Council in this country. If you look at the opportunities that abound in transport, there is no council that will be richer than us, but it depends on who is there. If a freight forwarder can spend huge sum of money that are not accounted for in order to move his goods out of the ports, then how can it be a problem for him to pay =N=5,000 or =N=10,000 into the Council’s coffer. Even if we decide tomorrow that every containers that leaves the port must pay to the Council =N=5,000 or =N=10,000, it is law and if we agree on it and follow it up, then there will be enough money.
You speak so passionately about the Council
I don’t have to speak passionately, this is my baby, the council is the baby of NAGAFF and so, if you say that I speak passionately, I think it is an understatement. You know the root of the Council, the matter started between us and the then- Managing Director of Nigerian Shippers Council, Chief (Adebayo) Sarumi. You remember those days when he wanted to keep the register of freight forwarders as Managing Director of Shippers Council; we told him “no you don’t do that, because we know that the decree that sets up Shippers Council does not give you right”. And, that was how we went to the National Assembly before all the problems started. You remember late Professor Ebele Ezieke, Galtima Liman, Chris Asoluka, and Mrs. Ufom Usoro and the rest of them, it was a big battle, but we continued until we got it right even some of the people today that are in the leadership of the Council were opposed to its creation the council. Truly speaking, Ernest Elochukwu the then- president of ANCLA was against the Council, he went to the National Assembly to oppose it. Of course, we can present evidence, we have the tape where he asked for the Council for the Regulation of Licensed Custom Clearing Agents and one of the lawmakers told him “we are here to regulate freight forwarding in Nigeria” and that if he (Elochukwu) wanted to provide another bill for consideration, they are there to make laws and they will give it considerations. That is to show you how uninformed they were, if they know what they are talking about, they ought to have known that the Nigerian constitution is the grand norm and that it gave rise to the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) and if CEMA authorizes licensing of customs agents, automatically they are covered by the Act.
(They don’t know what they do because if they know what they do, the president of ANCLA is an equivalent of the comptroller general of customs because the CEMA gave rise to the licensing regulation and if they have come under section 40 of the Nigerian constitution to form an association, it is not the law. So what we have packaged completely is different from what you see in the customs and exercise management act, freight forwarding as a profession. So if you look at the customs licensed clearing agents you just see him as an agency worker, he is not a professional because it is companies that were licensed. But in freight forwarding practice you must go to school and read a course related to freight forwarding practice, you will be certificated and that makes you a professional, give us an equivalent of somebody who is a pharmacist, if you are not a pharmacists you cannot run a shop of drug issues or related matters so if we as freight forwarders and as professionals by the time we are certified by the council if you want to set up a transport and logistic organization or company then you need a certified freight forwarder to come and put his signboard in your office before you can operate, that is our mindset and that is what we have to do and that is how it is in other professions.)
It does appear to me that you still nurse the ambition to be in the Council
The way things are going, the current members have four years to go, God give us life, we still need to conclude the job that we started, because when you do not know how they buried somebody, if you want to exhume the corpse you go to the leg. Most of the people that are involved in the administration of the Council are not really conversant with what the council is all about and I can tell you authoritatively that the efforts that have so far been put up by Tony Nwabunike is quiet interesting, there are a few others, but majority of the Council members don’t really understand what the whole thing is all about and so we cannot go anywhere, its like wasting our time, labour and efforts. But four is just by the corner and I am sure in the next four years, great minds should emerge and then we will take the Council to greater heights. Like I said, what we need now is to give the maximum support to the president executive led by Tony Nwabunike.
What is your take on the recent stakeholders meeting on port congestion?
If you watch you will discover that I never said anything at that meeting. I never said anything because sometimes I get worried over certain things; what we are talking about is Nigerian ports, we are not talking of our personal interest. I keep telling anybody who cares to listen that laws are made for man and not man for the law, that anything that has to do with the law except criminality, the focus must be for the good of the greater numbers, but if you have decided to make it a personal thing then so be it. I felt some how, the innocent minister of finance and the minister of transport, they were so innocent, but while I was there I was seeing how they were being manoeuvred, As far as am concerned, I don’t know were those things that were brought out as the communiqué were discussed. Who and who discussed those things in the communiqué? The things that people talked about were basically on issue of cargo handling equipment, the issue of circular 026, and if you were in that meeting, you would see that the high point was circular 026 of the Customs. So invariably the communiqué only created a soft landing for circular 026. This communiqué will not solve the problems of the port.
Obviously, you have no confidence in the communiqué
Of course I don’t. Because it simply created more tension and my position is very clear on the matter. The import guide line is in conflict with section 46 and 47 of CEMA and as far as that continues to exist; the problems will remain in the port and that is the truth.
Is 48 – hour cargo clearance deadline achievable?
Let me tell you 48- hour is very easy, it’s achievable if we remove all this human barriers. Also, there is something nobody tells you or talks about, and that is corruption. Why 48- hour cargo clearance is not working is corruption. But people play to the gallery. There are simple things for us to do to get our system working, we are talking about congestion and inefficiency in our ports, who and who are leading the ports? What knowledge do they have about the ports, so the failure started from there. When you bring somebody from another discipline to come and run the port that requires professionals, the failure has started from there. If you want to decongest the ports now for instance, you need the president of ANCLA; you need the president of NAGAFF, president of Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents. At the end of the day, one thing that is common is that we all pay the supreme price and that is death, we will all die and when we die, we leave all these things; all this stupid wealth that we have acquired, it does not help in any form. To me life means a very simple thing – what is the legacy that you have left behind? Is there anything that when you die you will be remembered for. I can tell you that if I die tomorrow, I will be remembered for establishing NAGAFF; if I die tomorrow I will be remembered for founding the New Nigerian Peoples Party.