Chief Ernest Elochukwu is an interviewer’s delight any day. He understands the industry quite well and his delivery on issues is equally quite excellent and eloquent. So I always do not have problems taking him on. When he called me up about two weeks ago to intimate me about his desires to be my guest once again, I had no reservation. The issues that he raised in this (two – part) serial are deeply soul-searching, especially for members of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA); they also very germane in the search for a very robust maritime sector. This is the first part; the second part comes up next week. Thank you Chief for making Shipping Position Weekly your preferred medium for information dissemination in the maritime industry. Enjoy it!
How involved are you in the politics of ANLCA?
There is no way that I can not be involved. I can even tell you briefly what happened in 1999, I contested in the election for the position of vice president of ANLCA alongside Mr Peter Okocha but for whatever the reason was, I did not win the election but some people came to ask me what was my next move, ostensibly expecting me as usual in Nigeria where everybody has a grudge with elections, maybe they want me to decamp to some other place and I said no, coming out for an election is like coming out from the rank and file to say please put me to it, I will be able to do this job. If the members and the representatives through the collegiate system that we use in ANLCA say they don’t consider you capable as yet of doing it, there is no other thing to do than to go back to the rank and file. So also if you held any position and you finished serving, you should go back to being a loyal member, I think perhaps the only thing that is accorded to having come to this peak is that you are now being regarded as the past president of ANLCA. I have no problems with that, I can never for any reason be found wanting because being the president of ANLCA is not as if it’s something that will end my involvement with ANLCA or my service to my motherland through ANLCA, it is just that I have been given the privilege of being in that position to contribute to the growth and development of ANLCA.
What is your take on the recent composition of a task force to reform the Nigeria Customs Service?
First, I have a general observation to make; I want to reiterate my position but what we need in the industry is not about committees or task forces but the political will to implement whatever we have identified as the problems of the industry. If you take Customs for instance, you will find out that the reforms of the ports and the Customs started way back in the 1980s and one will want to observe that a reform ought to be a time – specific experiment or assignment. In order words, a reform is supposed to happen over a period of time and I wonder that for over 20 years we are still reforming, what are we reforming into?. Again, part of the problems ostensibly why we have not made progress during this close to three decades of reforms has been because either the wrong persons have been put to carry out the reform and then they might be making a wrong diagnosis, of course when wrong diagnosis are given, the prescription will also be wrong. I have always likened it to a man who have been sick and is being treated for years and the natural question will be that why is this man not getting better, is it because his sickness is such that can not be cured or is it because the doctors are not efficient and if you ask me, the later seem to be more plausible.
You don’t have faith in the task force?
It is not about the persons who are so appointed in the committee, but my lack of understanding of what they are supposed to do, especially what they are supposed to do and which have not been done, that’s one. Secondly, our problems have always been systemic, but a lot of people especially government has never wanted to call the core professionals, those who are really in the system and have witnessed the good, bad and the ugly side of it, and because we are still operating from the point of “we the government and they the port users” , part of our limitations has been that there have been this great divide of those in government, those outside government, but I believe that an effective reform of the Customs can only happen when there is an integration of all the interest, especially the core interest because there are those who are the core people, many times we have ask the operatives of the government agencies and they will naturally tell you that the problems are with the Nigerian importers, with the shipping companies and the clearing agents, non of the times have they really looked at the issue of what can be done. Even let us now agree that the problems are with these people but why did it happen in the first instance, so the issue will be like anytime the government wants these problems solved, they should come and talk to the professionals and then the nightmare that is getting to three decades will be over.
I will only make the comment that I have always made about the government actions vis-à-vis our expectations. I have always said that the government has not been very kind to the Customs in the sense that the customs management from time, have never been given the enabling environment to perform. Also there is the issue of tenureship. A situation where from the day of the appointment of Customs C.G that is when the plan for his removal or exit is being discussed can never make for a meaningful progress in the Customs. The Customs is a specialized agency and therefore there should be a definite tenure for its CG, that is, a management that is appointed for the Customs should have a certain minimum tenure during which it is expected to achieve so and so and upon which it should be so assessed. The present arrangement of promoting people into the position of C.G or based on that appointing, a management should not be, it is something that I am still to understand. For instance, the last C.G Hamman Bello was not supposed to spend just six or seven months, it was not supposed to be so, when a man is due for retirement and he is not holding that position prior to his retirement, it is assumed that he is being put there to do something just like the government can as well call in an outsider to head the Customs. It has happened in the past, even the Dr Bello Mohammed that you are talking about was not in the Customs but he headed Customs, so if anybody is heading Customs, whether it is somebody who have retired or going to retire, the important thing is that it should be treated as a tenure and I have advocated for giving Customs a definite tenure just like all the other agencies of government that have tenure. Customs is not a civil service, maybe they could be operating some things based on the government’s way of doing things but they should not be treated as a mere civil service, because civil service is a wide octopus, a machinery that is running the country. Heads of specialized agencies like the DG of NAFDAC have tenure, the Chairman of EFCC, the Chairman of National Communication Commission and DG all the agencies have tenure, the Comptroller General of Customs is equivalent to these DGs, because he is the chief executive officer and therefore anytime a CG is appointed with his management team, they should be given clear tenure, it could be renewed after the expiration, it could dissolved mid- way if there is any reason to do that. But a situation whereby Customs keep on going this way of unsure tenure is quite bad. And again the people in government make things worse because the day they appoint a man like I said, that is the day the rumour about his removal starts and therefore you find out that what we get is more of scheming because it is always like this man is going and who is the next man to take his place. There is utmost suspicions, even some officers will be coming with genuine intentions and suggestions on how the service could be run, but because they have been marked as having some interest in occupying that seat, whatever genuine thing they say will be disregarded, rather they will be treated with suspicion and this is one thing that the government must do to save Customs.
It has been very difficult for ANLCA to elect officers to run its affairs at the chapters where elections are due, why is this so?
Well, some of the chapters have problems of being organized for elections, but actually the major thing has been human, some persons have constituted themselves into obstacles towards the easy conduct of elections in many of the chapters. In some chapters they do claim not having the necessary resources to be able to participate in the election which is still a suspicious position.
I am surprised to hear that money is a problem.
Normally there are specified amount with which to purchase the forms, some of us had initially been opposed to the idea of making people pay, especially if they are coming to serve but then the explanation that was given to justify it seems as plausible as anything. First and foremost, if there is no form of restriction in terms of obligations, it is not impossible that the whole of the membership in the chapter will want to be the chairman, so the payment being put on it is like a token of seriousness. That is the way I see it and so for some people to say that they don’t even have that ability to get that token is a suspect, but then the areas that do have cargo traffic problems like some chapters or ports that do have cargo traffic problems and so it is not usually easy to get people who are buoyant enough to come out. Again at a point I too have advocated for the general review of the fees that are paid. Well, another argument has also come up that the rules keep changing to suit some people, that a time will come when the rule will not be easily identified, it also does not subtract from the fact that even though the amount is not high or not too high, it does not also subtract from the fact that it could be further reduced.
How much are we talking about here?
Well, it is in the electoral guidelines that are usually published by the association’s electoral commission that, is ASECO. But I know it ranges between N100,000 to maybe N500,000 for the national elections, but I know that some positions in the chapters is much as N100,000.But, one is saying that maybe we are talking in terms of the standard of our money, then we could even say that N100,000 is not much, but with the present economic realities, it is much, so there is nothing stopping it from being reviewed but the major problem is the fact some persons constitute themselves into a clog in the wheel of progress of the association because they want the association to always go according to their whims and caprices; they do it through whichever means that catches their fancy.
To be concluded next week