Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF); Dr. Boniface Aniebonam in this chat with Assistant Editor; Dapo Olawuni, addressed contending issues in the port system, such as; transfer of overtime cargoes that are currently littering the port, the interference of Port Police in cargo clearance process as well as the delay in inaugurating the newly- elected Governing Council members of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN).
“By next year, it would be over 20 years that I have been on this (NAGAFF), talking on one thing or the other, so I need to rest”
What do you think is the solution to the current challenge of moving overtime cargoes out of the port, especially in Apapa command?
First of all we have to look at the basics, what does the law say, you can only get a good society when everyone obey the rule of law and enforcement of existing regulations, so the statement by the PRO of Apapa Customs does not hold any water as far as I am concerned. Section 31 of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) as amended in 2004 is quite clear, it talks about the dwell time of cargoes and it is the law, laws are meant to be obeyed and this is how you get a good society. If you look at section 13 of the customs law, you would see the responsibilities of the terminal operators then as the Nigerian Ports Authority to enhance the optimal performance of the operations in the customs port, I will also take you to section 11 where it talks about obstruction of lawful detail of an officer, the issue now is the capacity and the political will of the customs to enforce regulations, this is main thing we should be looking at now. But I guess from my vantage position that there is more to it than meets the eye and this has to do with corruption. What we are beginning to see now is that the new controller of Apapa Port is beginning to look at the law, this is the only time we can get it done, I am happy when he raised the matter of overtime cargoes, who is responsible to move the containers? It is the terminal operators that will transfer overtime containers to the outer terminals once the dwell time is over, but then again, customs still have a role to play by giving them the authorization to prepare the Uncleared Cargo List, once this is done, the customs gives the approval and probably provide escort for such containers to be taken to Ikorodu or any other place that customs have designated.
On the issue of cost, the port is not a dwelling place where you can warehouse your cargo, so once the time has lapsed, directive would be issued immediately for the cargo to be moved, whatever it costs the terminal operator to move overtime cargoes would be borne by the importer, and when terminal operators refuses to do what they are supposed to do, it means that the cargo is being warehoused constructively inside the port and what should be attracting is just the rent and not demurrage.
The other side of it is that, I know that terminal operators paid cargo throughput, this is a serious problem because the NPA collects this money from them, hence terminal operators feel reluctant to move overtime cargoes out of the port believing that nobody will refund them their money they have paid, therefore we need to reconcile all these issue. However, the issues are not complicated, if terminal operators transfer overtime cargoes, the NPA and terminal operators should reconcile the cargo throughput inherent in such operations, these issues were canvassed during the Ease of Doing Business meeting , we discussed on it extensively, I spoke with the MD of NPA particularly, I raised the issue also at various meetings and I discovered that something is wrong somewhere. A s far as I am concerned, the terminal operators are making so much from rent and demurrage, so they are reluctant to transfer the cargoes, sometimes when you have even made payment for such consignments, haven accounted for customs duty, the customs are also reluctant sometimes, the truth of the matter is that if we don’t follow the law, we cannot get it right. I believe the Comptroller General of Customs should do a further study of this, we cannot be talking of trade facilitation or Ease of Doing Business when the port is already blocked, and as long as you don’t move containers, then the demurrage will continue to increase.
What is the role of NPA in all of these?
NPA technically is a regulatory agency as far as the concession is in place, the major role of NPA has been given to NPA, especially port operations, so the NPA still have a role, I can tell you that the MD of NPA is in tandem with these things I have told you, but there is something somewhere that is not too clear and it is not far from corruption.
The creation of one stop shop, do you think it would bring an end to alerts and other trade disputes?
One-stop-shop is still a process of trade facilitation and ease of doing business, sometimes some of these things are put on paper as a policy but the implementation is always a problem which we all know that our problem is implementation and enforcement of regulations, if you have a consignment in any of the ports, you would be seeing various alerts like CIU alert, valuation alert, headquarters alert, CGC alert, SON alert, police alert, NAFDAC alert and on and on, it is limitless, and at the end of the day, all these alerts are vacated, if you get down to Federal Operations Unit and see the second examination when cargoes are intercepted, you would be wondering whether all these alerts were not there before, we all know it is wrong, but it is all about the human elements. To me, leadership comes to play, we need a strong leader that can unbundle all these problems, there is nothing difficult in it, when some of us point out these anomalies, we tend to attract enemies to ourselves, it is unfortunate that we keep talking about it, the world is a global village, there is a system collapse in the port as far as operations is concerned.
Are you satisfied with the recent movement and reshuffle of Customs Area Controllers by the CGC?
It is the prerogative of the Comptroller General of Customs to deploy his officers, and to the best of my knowledge they look at it from the aspect of merit, but then, some sections of the country is complaining, for instance, the Igbos are complaining that there has not been opportunity for any of them to be given a strategic place to command like other officers from the North and the South West. I think this should be addressed in line with the Federal Character. Like I said, it is the prerogative of the Comptroller General of Customs because whoever is working under the customs platform is doing so under his authority, so it is left for him to carry everybody along because if you talk about merit, in every region , we have people that have that kind of merit.
Recently, we have heard clearing agents and freight forwarders complaining about police interference in cargo clearance
The police are trained personnel and you don’t know the source of their information, they are statutorily responsible, and you know what the police is all about, even a civilian has the power of arrest. Some of these complaining will not get us anything; other than for us to learn to do the correct thing, as long as we don’t do the correct thing, all these issues will continually come to bare, the main issue is about making genuine declaration for custom purpose, when you do this, let’s see how the police or any other agency of the government can stop your cargo, if they do stop you, by the time they finish what they are investigating, they will see that nothing was found, and by the time they do it four times and nothing was found, they would be reluctant to stop you again, but behold, each time they intercept a container, I am sure you know that something contrary is found, this is why I told you that there is a system collapse, the corruption is quite high in the port and this is exactly situation on ground.
As a result of this interference, sister association’s like ANLCA have called for merger of the maritime police and port police
I have been reading some articles about ANLCA complaining about the police and I felt that some of us speak from disadvantaged position. When you don’t have information or you don’t moderate what you say, you can aggravate serious issues; to me, if they are not careful, they will provoke further actions because you don’t go to equity without having a clean hand, if the police have intelligence information, they will go ahead and if something incriminating is found, they will send you to appropriate authorities, you and I know that we can place hand on somebody and tell him he is under arrest and hand him over to the appropriate authorities; when you find him doing something to the contrary. What I thought the associations should be doing is to do more in letting our people know that they need to do the right thing and this would give us more impetus to speak with one their behalf, you have right of arresting somebody when you see him acting contrary to the law, this is one thing you can get from me. It is not about blackmail or mudslinging, you cannot intimidate government, the emphasis on the part of NAGAFF is to continuously educate our people on the need to respect the rules of engagement and do the right thing. For instance, you are talking about the Standards Organization of Nigeria and the SONCAP regulations; do you know the damage that substandard products, fake and adulterated products are doing to the economy of this country and the life of Nigerians? All these anomalies are being committed all in the name of business; I think if we have done something for so long and it doesn’t work, we should change to the other way round. In NAGAFF here, we would not sit down and watch any of our member being intimidated, harassed or extorted when you have done the right thing. I don’t think the Comptroller General of Customs or the MD of NPA, the ES Shippers Council would take that, neither would the AIG of Police, Maritime would accept that anybody should be intimidated by his officers.
Recently, you hinted on your intentions to step aside from association, whom are you handing over to?
I would be exiting association politics because by next year it would be over 20 years that I have been on this, talking on one thing or the other, so I need to rest, the succession in NAGAFF is quite understood by the public and this is what we have agreed upon, the democratisation in NAGAFF is a continuous process, the organogram of NAGAFF started from me, as the first president of NAGAFF ; I groomed Usman Sanusi, Usman groomed Eugene Nweke, Eugene groomed Adeyemo who later groomed Increase Uche, now somebody else is following Increase Uche, until we finally get to that level of election where we can elect our officers, but I hope to do that before I leave by next year.
The CRFFN conducted elections recently, what is hindering inauguration of the governing council?
I don’t know, nobody knows, even when you ask the registrar, he doesn’t know, but all I know is that if you hold something that belongs to a child for so long, when your hand is heavy you would finally drop the hand, the election into the council is the best thing that has happened to the industry, and strategically, CRFFN has so much to do by adding value in the port reforms. However, we are getting some hints on the part of the Honourable Minister who has the mandate, but has actually stopped the inauguration and nobody was told anything, but we are patient about it, election has been concluded and inauguration can come up at anytime, we are looking forward to it. The snippet we are hearing is that maybe in the next two weeks, the CRFFN board would be inaugurated, but even if it does not come, we have conducted the election and we are not dying today, so we are keeping our fingers crossed, I think those that might be complaining are those who were appointed into the council, they have been inaugurated and their time is running, it means that if it gets to one year, they have clocked one year without being effective, but for the elected members, their days starts counting from when they are inaugurated, so nothing is lost. However, if I may speak from experience, I think the minister has been very busy, he is the Director General of President Buhari campaign organization for 2019, primary elections are being held in various states and he is a very critical person, but I thought that by now, he should have been able to direct the permanent secretary to handle such responsibility, but again, we were told that he really want to be present during the inauguration, probably there are few things he wants to tell the new council members. CRFFN is the most critical agency that when we get the right people there, just like we have got six NAGAFF members inside it, we facilitated and we know what the council should be able to solve, some of the problems in the port including be solved by CRFFN, almost all the agencies of government are represented in the Council as a professional body with a lot of powers, it has a tribunal, some of these corrupt behaviors in the port can be handled by CRFFN. But let’s see what would happen when we get there, the good news again is that from our sister association ANLCA, those that were elected are of very sound mind, when they combine efforts with NAGAFF, we would now steer up CRFFN to be able to bite.
Is it possible to have a practitioner as the chairman of the council rather than one of the government appointees?
That area you are going is not too critical or important, it is not the leader that does everything, but like I said, we need to follow the law, what does the law say, it is very clear that only elected member should be the chairman of the council, but laws are made for man and not man for the law, there are lots you get from leadership, it is not only about the technical aspect, there are also political angle of leadership. For instance, the CRFFN might have a problem that needed political solution, so whoever is there might not have the technical angle, but he has the political solution, so we need to balance it. I have been hearing the utterances of people here and there, but when we get there we would cross the bridge.