Since the controversial removal recently of Mr Lucky Amiwero as the National President, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents, I have made several efforts to talk to the dramatis personae. Mr Amiwero pointedly refused to talk, the same goes for the chairman, Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, Mr Tony Nwabunike who was also not wiling to be dragged into a purely association affair, especially after conferring legitimacy on the new leadership . Even the interim president was unavailable, yet I was determined to get an insider firs hand encounter. So I went for the founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr Boniface Aniebonam who in his usual manner whole heartedly agreed to speak. Let me point it out that my decision to speak to Dr Aniebonam was informed by the allegation that his association was instrumental to the removal of Mr Amiwero. This interview was the second since this paper (and this column) came on stream on October 27, 2007.
What is your reaction to the recent change of leadership at the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents?
Well, whatever I say here, I am saying it as the founder of NAGAFF and I want to be quoted as such. The removal of my very good friend Lucky Amiwero was not a surprise to me because I know that 13 years in office is undemocratic and I expected Lucky to have taken his exit from the Council when the ovation was very loud. I will rather take myself as an example, even though my involvement in NAGAFF is quiet different from that of Mr. Lucky Amiwero in the Council of Managing Directors, I and a few others who are still members of NAGAFF had a mission statement and that mission statement was to change the way freight forwarding business is being conducted in Nigeria and since then we have been on that and of course, you recall that I was directly involved in terms of finances and all the necessary logistics that are required to actualize the dreams and the objectives of the establishment of NAGAFF. Six years on the dot and in line with our constitution. I had to relinquish power and I do recall that members of NAGAFF were not happy about that, but, I had to take the decision because we have to live by example. But in the case of Lucky, you will recall that in 1996 the licenses of all the freight forwarders were revoked by the Nigeria Customs Service and through the platform of the Council of Managing Directors, all of us came together to negotiate with the Customs with a view to recover our licenses and we actualised that. And there was a consensus at the end that the various managing directors that have come together will now form the policy group of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents; that was the genesis of the council. It is most unfortunate that my good friend remained in that office for the past 13 years and today the people have spoken, the founding members of the Council through a vote of no confidence which they passed on him, they stated clearly that they do not want his leadership again, that is the way I see it and its not quiet a surprise to me.
From what you have said, it does seem to me that his offence was that he perpetrated himself in office?
It is not in line with democratic tenets, Nigeria is a democratic country and I expect leaders to live by example, if you are leading an association for 13 years and you never conducted an election and there was not even a referendum by way of consensus for another leader to emerge, you are not living by example and we need to show example to the younger ones. The same democracy that we are now practicing in Nigeria must be looked at from both the micro and macro level, from our families; we must be democratic and up to the national level. So it’s not a particularly good example from my very good friend Mr. Lucky Amiwero. I have said it severally that the best we can do for ourselves is to live by example.
You said that the Council of Managing Directors was formed as a policy group; does it then mean that it is no longer relevant?
From all indices available one can not readily say that it’s no longer relevant, but rather the leadership seems to have derailed in terms of the association’s objectives.
There was a time when there was only ANLCA, later, the Council came up, made so much noise and everyone rallied round it, it later went down kind of, then came NAGAFF, what…..(Cuts in).No, you are mixing it up, you have to go back to what brought about the existence of the Council. I recall that in 1996, the licenses were revoked and all the managing directors came under that canopy to negotiate with the Customs and the licenses were restored, the next level now is what do we do with the council, don’t forget that the managing directors of all the companies were the engine room of these licensed customs companies. And if they have come together now as only managing directors, then they have the capacity to form the policy group of ANLCA, that is to say that they will make the laws.
Since the change of leadership about two weeks ago, there have been calls and insinuations that the Council of Managing Directors should or would be scrapped, what is your take on this?
Well, you must not forget that we have freedom of speech in Nigeria provided you don’t infringe on other people’s rights, the Council of Managing Directors is a body registered with the Corporate Affaires Commission, but then members also have the right to say that this particular association can no longer carry out its original objectives therefore we have decided to wind it up; of course, there are procedures for doing such a thing and if there is a consensus by members to collapse it, they will collapse it into ANLCA, you will see that the way ANLCA and Council of Managing Directors are doing, its just a mere duplication of functions.
Why must the Council collapse into ANLCA, why not into NAGAFF?
No, we can see NAGAFF from the aspect of the CRFFN Act 16 which offers a definition of who is a freight forwarder; they can not merge because sections 153 and 154 of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) have given credence to the existence of licensed customs agents. We will see by the grace of God if the out come of the forthcoming amendment to CEMA may lead to the deletion of those particular sections 153, 154 and 155. If this happens, automatically the Council of Managing Directors and ANLCA will collapse into NAGAFF and that’s the truth.
Isn’t that too tall an expectation?
If that happens, it’s the Act. Whether you like it or not, it’s quite clear that the Customs and Excise Management Act as far as sections 153, 154 and 155 are concerned is in conflict with the freight forwarding Act, go and look section 17 of the Act.
I have started noticing some degree of a blossoming relationship between NAGAFF and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, what is responsible for this sudden romance?
There has always been a very good relationship between NAGAFF, Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding, Council of Managing Directors, Institute of Freight Forwarders and other associations. One thing you must take from us is very clear and that is our open- mindedness, there is nothing in contention, we are not really fighting with anybody, we have a mission and we are achieving it. For instance, look at the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, how can we kill a baby that we nurtured? The Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding is a baby of NAGAFF, all of us know this fact, and even some of these people that are making all the noise today were totally against the establishment of the Council at the National Assembly. My good friend Lucky Amiwero’s position was quite clear at the National Assembly; the tapes are with us here. He was purported to be working for Customs, he was vehemently against the creation of the Council, Ernest Elochukwu was also against the Council and virtually all of them, except maybe Tony Nwabunike who was a bit silent about where he belonged. But surprisingly now all of them are in the Council and we can not say that because they are in the Council, we will not support them, that will defeat the essence of the Council, we have our mission and our mission is to professionalize freight forwarding in Nigeria and if they are there in the Council, for how long are they going to be there? When they used the system they used to remove members of NAGAFF like myself, Usman Sanusi, Eugene Nweke and others who muted this idea and know how the system will work after doing an excessive research they could not do much. It is not only because of the case of Mr. Lucky Amiwero that is in court that is disturbing them, there are other things. That is why one must commend the Council’s chairman, Tony Iju for going the extra mile and for travelling to different parts of the world to see what is going on in other places and I think he is better informed now. And he has acknowledged it severally that no one can claim to know everything and that is what makes him a great leader and definitely that is why the Council is taking shape right now.
I have heard people say that the problems of Mr Amiwero was not entirely because he spent 13 years in office, some have said that he stepped on some powerful toes
I am sure that you are indirectly making reference to what might have happened at the Shippers’ Council; to me it is neither here nor there. The much I can tell you about that is that I think part of his annoyance was that he was told to prepare for elections for the remaining slots in the Council for the regulation of Freight Forwarding. He thought that he could use the court case to negotiate his way into the Council and probably ask for slots up to two or three, but it’s most unfortunate, what he got was the opposite. The truth is that another round of elections is coming and if he desires to be in the Council, he must be ready for elections. Any other thing that anybody may be saying I don’t know anything about that. The much that I know is that I was invited to the Shippers’ Council, he was also invited and the chairman of CRFFN used the opportunity to tell us that we should let our members know that another round of election is coming so as to fill the remaining vacancy. Don’t forget that the Shippers’ Council is the arm of government which midwived the CRFFN and Hon. Tony Iju Nwabunike was at the meeting when I came, I was told that Lucky Amiwero had stormed out of the meeting, he is not interested in the election and I think that was the reason why he stormed out, he thought he could use the court to negotiate himself into the Council, but he can not do that; even the minister does not have the powers to do that, he is neither here nor there and its not important, if he goes out to say something else: that is his own business.
What about the rumours making the rounds about some requests?
I spoke with the chairman of the Council and he told me that Lucky Amiwero demanded for N5million as out- of- court settlement and he could not understand what that meant, because nobody has asked him to go to court and in any case, he has no moral justification to go to court.
You contested an election and you lost. You are against the Council so what do you want in the Council?
But, he is at the moment not a member of the Council
Yes, he is not but when the Council’s Bill was being processed at the National Assembly, he was vehemently against the establishment of the Council. Anybody who thought that NAGAFF ought to have gone to court, we can not and we will never go to court because this is our baby. We can not cause an action that will kill our baby.
I have asked you before and I am asking you again, is Dr Boniface Aniebonam nursing a secret ambition to be in the Council?
I have never been interested in becoming a member of the Council; that was one of the things that happened during that election. It was about two or three days to the election, the pressure was on me from everywhere; from members of NAGAFF and non-members alike. As far as I am concerned, I am fulfilled because there is a Council and I know I am the brain behind the Council and anybody coming into the Council I see him or her as my baby, by implication. If we are talking about election, the president of NAGAFF, Usman Sanusi can stand for election, his deputy Eugene Nweke can also successfully stand for election, so also are some other great minds in NAGAFF. I remain the last man standing, this is what I want Lucky to begin to appreciate rather than the way he goes about some of these things that he is doing. But again, don’t forget that you can not run away from the wishes of the people, because like I have always told you, the whole concept of the Council was all about myself and other great minds in NAGAFF and a few others, so if there is total insistence that I should come and assist them to put things in order, fine. Just because NAGAFF is not there, you can see what is happening. The clean aspect that you are beginning to see is a fall out of the relationship between us and the chairman of the Council. Those who will read this interview will agree that I am telling the truth.
What role did NAGAFF play in the removal of Mr Lucky Amiwero?
Lucky is too small to be discussed in NAGAFF high command. I repeat, he is too small to be discussed.
How comfortable are you with the insinuation that NAGAFF members played a very pivotal role in the whole issue?
I don’t like joining issues. You have to know how serious we are at NAGAFF, we don’t sit down to discuss individuals and that is why you could see the level of policy papers that we push out and we don’t make noise about that. Whether anybody likes it or not, NAGAFF is the association to beat in terms of constructive engagement and policy issues.
What is happening to the alliance that was formed to garner support for wharf landing fees?
It is still part of what I am saying, sometimes, I get confused about some of the leaders in the freight forwarding industry. When the issue of wharf landing fee came up, the NAGAFF policy group sat down and looked at it, we had an open mind and of course, we know that laws are made for man and not man for the law, we checked out other information in other country and we came up with a concept or an idea of what we should do, we narrowed it down to our environment which is Lagos state, all of us are residents in Lagos and so our first priority is Lagos state and therefore whatever we think that will be good for the greater number of Lagos state, we must support it and we took that position to support it. Whether wharf landing fee is wrong or right, for me and for NAGAFF, it is not very important now, because even in the port industry, there are charges that we don’t really understand, there are charges that we have severally complained about and they still remain. If wharf landing fee wants to come let it come, a day will come when we will look at all the charges in the ports, then we can now begin to talk, we are residents in Lagos state and we took our position, but today some of them who went to the State House of Assembly during the public hearing to oppose the bill are saying something else. Wharf landing fee is a law and if you go contrary to the law, they will pick you up, charge you to court and you will go to jail, so the situation on ground now is that some people like my good friend Lucky Amiwero, some members of ANLCA and of course NAGAFF are now beginning to discuss with the collecting company to see how we can begin to protect our own interests, you can see now why NAGAFF is different from the rest of these people, hypocrisy does not help anybody and that is the situation on ground.
If you know what is happening now, the wharf landing fee has to go on because it’s an Act of the State House of Assembly.
What is your assessment of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding?
You may not know, but it’s not easy to start something, I can say this because I know what it took me to take off when NAGAFF came into being. Going through processes of documentation, trying to recruit a registrar and all of that is there, but I think that the Council is doing very well. And of course they cannot do much because they still need to make sure that the remaining 15 slots which must come from the register of freight forwarders are filled. I think that what they are looking at presently is first of all, who is a freight forwarder? They have to give conditions for membership of the Council, from there they will move to getting a registrar of freight forwarders, it is when you have got all these people that the Council can effectively take off.