Apart from being a frontline member of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Prince Olayiwola Shittu is also the chairman of the publicity committee of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding Practice. He was the only person who (probably because of the position he holds) was ready to bail out the Council in the face of the prolonged bashing which it has received from a cross-section of freight forwarders over its apparent slow pace of activities or outright inactivity. In the first part of this two-serial interview, he puts up a strong defence for the Council and spoke on other industry-centred issues. The second part, where he opened up on the crisis which is brewing in ANLCA will be served next week.
You mentioned congestion, what do you think is responsible for this?
So many factors, one: the terminal operators are reluctant to allow consignments to leave their territories for bonded terminals, the idea is that why should I receive cargo and let it go and collect rent after handling, so it is a matter of survival for many of them. Two: the inland container depots (ICD) were supposed to be a buffer zone; goods arrive and you send the goods there and thereby, the ports do not become a warehouse, rather as the goods are landing, you are taking them to this inland depots or bonded terminals where customs activity can be performed. Thirdly: by the time the terminal operators realized that they are being overwhelmed by the quantity of the goods that are arriving, it is then they now said, okay, we can move them to the bonded terminals.
Another factor is that those who bring in prohibited items and then they could no longer do business as usual in the ports, maybe the people they made arrangement with are no longer in the ports or its becoming too dangerous for any body to go release contrabands, they leave it in the ports for the opportunity to move the goods out of the ports, this creates congestion too. Also when you look at the tariff structure which we operate in Nigeria, yes they say it’s Common External Tariff, but Nigeria is a very large market, we are import dependent and our tariff is not helping us. So it is multifarious, as long as the private operators are not allowed to go and build their own ports and they inherit what is on ground, and there is no competition between public and private sector players, automatically our problems in the ports will continue to be there.
Do you also subscribe to the argument that has been put up by some industry operators that the problems in the ports are there because there are no law on port concession?
It is not only that there are problems, when the issue story of the ports concession is going to be told, we will not forget the role that was played by former president Olusegun Obasanjo. I am not bashing him; because that is the pastime of some people, the idea he had then was to empower some individuals that is why within the period of his regime, there was an emergence of sudden multi billionaires who were using their money to acquire whatever they can acquire and who are the owners of concession areas in the ports now? Trace it back and you will find out that those behind them are players in one government or the other in this country. When the issue of concession is to be done we attended a lot of seminars and hearings during the time of Ojo Maduekwe as the minister of transport, but we can read between the lines that between Ojo Maduekwe and Chief Adebayo Sarumi who was the managing director of NPA, the target was to sell this thing off and get out of it because they accuse the NPA of inefficiency. But its like calling the dog a bad name in order to hang it, if they had allowed NPA to operate just one port, you would have seen the difference because the way they operate the private sector is different from the public sector, that is just by the way. The next thing they did was to arrange the Bureau of Public Enterprises whose job is to oversee the sales. You are concessioning the ports and you brought in BPE because it is government property, are the BPE verse in maritime operations? The people in BPE what is there role, what is their target, what is their expectation of government? So we now went to discover that everything was done with political consideration and in anything where you put politics before reality, there is no way you can arrive at a justifiable position. So, concession was not done primarily because of efficiency, it was done because of political consideration and ones you put politics before anything it can not work. I see no reason why APM Terminal can not go to Koko port in Delta state and develop it. I see no reason why Dangote can not go and build his own port to handle all its goods, the amount that APM Terminal has invested in their terminal so far is enough to build a new port, but no body is thinking that what is happening, it’s more like a game for them.
But aren’t the ports better run now than before?
The only difference is because those who are in charge of the ports today are private people, they don’t wait for too much of bureaucracy before they repair their folk lift or change electric bulb in their office. Rather when NPA was in charge, whoever was the minister of transport was regarded as the grade ‘A’ minister, because that dollar received by NPA became a pot where everybody must deep their hands in, that is why we say that allow NPA to run a terminal and when you juxtapose it with the other terminal, then we will be forced to say that why are we allowing this to happen, then something would have been done. So that inefficiency was just an excuse to get rid of it. Let me use another example, look at NITEL, during the advent of GSM all of us said that NITEL was inefficient, but there were so many Private Telecomm Operators who were given landline operation license, how many of them are operating the land line? Because the difficulty in running landline based communication is not the same with the GSM, but people don’t look at this at that time.
Do you also agree that once we have the National Transport Commission, all the problems will be solved?
It is not as easy as ABC, after all we have the Nigerian Police Service Commission, we have commissions all over the place, problems don’t get solved because you just have a commissions but it’s a necessity that we have a transport commission, a transport commission that will sit back and put up policies that will enhanced transportation. As long as the railways does not work, it impacts on the ability of the ports itself to work, take for example: we need to take 500 containers from Apapa ports to Ifo in Ogun state assuming that is were an ICD is, the best way to move it will be by rail, everything will be done within two days but when you load them on the trailer, all of them can not move within one week and you know what is happening on our roads. So these are parts of the necessity, the transport commission is a necessity, but it cannot solve our problems over night, we have the Nigerian energy commission, has it given us anything?
Do you support the calls for the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to be elevated to the transport commission?
Will I call it elevation? It’s like calling for the scrapping the Shipper’s Council and creating a National Transport Commission. I like to tell you that Shippers Council was a noble idea, many people use to refer to the time when Chief Adebayo Sarumi was there, but you need to look at the prevailing circumstances at that time. Probably we had a president who all you need to do is get his ears and he will bark orders. But we now have a president whom you cant take such a thing to, you have to follow due process, So Shippers Council is operating within the ambits of the law that sets it up, so what do you expect Capt Adamu Biu to do? I heard a lot of people that they are toothless bulldogs; they are toothless bulldogs because they were created without teeth. But if a transport commission is set up to do the job that the shippers council is doing, it depends on the extent to which the laws establishing it will give it the powers to perform. Take for example, Shippers Council met with members of Shipping Association of Nigeria and told them that these shipping charges are illegal and that it is not so all over the world, why don’t you drop it and they went to court, if the court says that status quo should remain, what happens? But if they were given that authority to sanction, then things would have been better than this, so you don’t blame them it is just the way they were created, you can not create a shot man and expect him to go and pick a mango by hand.
Why has it been difficult for the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria to function?
Who says that we are not functioning? What we are doing and what people should expect from us is laying a foundation. It took almost 10 years to create the Council and we are the first set of people who was put in there. I have heard a lot of insinuations that the people who are there are not competent, well, it is left for the individual to imagine whether we are competent or not, but I know that there are a lot of competent people in the council and the job we have been doing primarily is to lay a foundation for the future, people are in a hurry to see the council metamorphosed over night and achieve something as if it is a military organization, things must be done in the proper way and don’t forget that everything that we do is supervised by the ministry of transport. We have a council that is set up under the supervision of the minister of transport and the minister of transport is not somebody that you can even get to see every day.
Is the council a parastatal of the federal government?
The council is not a parastatal of government, but the law that sets up the council says that major decision of the council have to be ratified by the minister. The council has no funds as of today, we are asking government to give us funds which they have approved, but no money has been released, individuals in the council have been spending their money but there is a limit to which personal money can be put in there, we have been responsible (most times) for our own expenses, but what we are trying to do is to lay a foundation. Part of the foundation is that if for example, we tell members that we are registering with the council for so and so amount, tomorrow some people will say for what reason, so we need to do underground contact with people and we are going to do training, what criteria’s do we use to choose the training centres, what universities do we accredit; all these are parts of what has to be done. So, the first one or two years of a newly established council can not translate over night into success, it is not possible, it may not even be during the time of some of us who have two years tenure, but we need to create a foundation that others will come and build upon. I want to tell you as the chairman of publicity committee of the Council that by virtue of what we have in place, within the next one month things will just fall in place and people will be wondering whether we just woke up, because that is what people will say. Let me even tell you that when government sets up certain judicial enquiries, the first thing you notice is that for the first three weeks or one month nothing happens, before you know it, they will now say memorandum and then hearing and then it goes on, but this is a council created by law in perpetuity, it is not a council that has a certain period within which it must accomplish something, it’s a new law and even the law itself is not perfect, so we are trying to look at our actions and ask ourselves whether they are justifiable. We can be taken to court, so how many litigations can we afford to face, so what do we do, we try as much as possible to be careful with what we are doing, we have lawyers who are working with us, we have even consultants who are approved by the government itself through the minister of transport, we are even planning a retreat that is not limited to members of the council but even some selected stakeholders that will meet with us to fine-tune what plans we have in order to now go public. So, if that is all we are able to achieve between now and the first two years, I think it is all well and good because the Council is not an association where you gather two or three people and if you have formed a quorum, you go ahead.
Some people have claimed that certain actions that they took has stalled the Council
I only know that the president of Council of Managing Directors went to court because he is aggrieved by the way the election came and went and what we know is that the court said that the status quo should remain. But, of course that is one of the reasons why the Council has to slow down its activities, because the council have to be careful by not creating room for too many legal actions it. It is the legal action of the Shipping Association of Nigeria against the Nigerian Shippers Council that has made sure that anybody; either terminal operator or shipping agent can charge any amount that they like, so if you can avoid any legal tussle and achieve what you have to achieve, the best thing for you is to tarry a while and the issue of the court case that is on ground is not even against the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding, the Council is just a bye-product of that suit. It is between the litigant and Shippers Council and the government; the claim is that they conducted elections and the right people did not win, I don’t know what they mean by the right people, but I have always believe that as long as you are a freight forwarder and you know what you are doing, you can sit in that council. The Council is a collective agreement of people in the industry, who brainstormed, thought on what is good, came to an agreement and put it forward, there is nothing fantastic about the council, I don’t have to be there, it could be somebody else.
I am told that the ministry is intervening and calling for a truce, what is the truth?
I don’t work in the ministry, but if what I have known is what I know, the court has said: let the status quo remain, the government wants to go and appeal, but I don’t know whether that appeal is going on. That is the more reason why we are working silently; that people don’t know that we are working, that does not stops us from brainstorming or having ideas, that has not stopped us from having a retreat in which even the man who is championing the court case is even playing a prominent role, because the issue of the retreat is no longer a Council affair, it is now a matter for stakeholders which is even an opportunity for him to tell the whole world what the Council is doing or not doing, that is the way I look at it. Everyone has a right to go to court, but I feel that the court may take some years to finish adjudication, if along the line, the people who went to court say: okay, we are no longer going to court, whether they are influenced or not is not the issue, when they withdraw, it we will continue, if they don’t withdraw it, whatever the court says, we go ahead.