TRIBUTE: INTERVIEW WITH LATE USMAN SANUSI

(File Copy) We tried to trace this interview shortly after the news broke that Mr Usman Sanusi had passed on, but it was difficult. But the comments of notable leaders of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF); including its founder, Dr Boniface Aniebonam about the roles of late Usman Sanusi who died on Sunday January 30, 2011 after a protracted battle with prostate cancer. Late Sanusi was at different times the association’s national president and chairman, board of trustee; until he passed on. These eulogies made us to trace an interview which we had with him and which was published in our Vol. 3, number 28 of May 23 to May 30, 2010. This is the second part of our tribute to him.

Can you share with us, briefly, your experience over the years, first as a member of NAGAFF and also as the immediate past national president?

I don’t know where to start from because I have lots of experiences. I actually started with NAGAFF as head of the technical team and then we were rendering technical advice to NAGAFF. I was just an ordinary member and head of the technical team. We did a lot of writings, position papers and the blueprint for NAGAFF. Thereafter, the association met and felt that my contributions were useful and that they still wanted me to be relevant in the association because I told them at a point in time then, as the head of the technical team, that I have done my work and that I wanted to go and face my business, but they said no, that they still wanted me in the association. Things happened and I became the deputy president to Dr. Aniebonam.

Being the president of the association for four years, what will you consider as your experiences in those years?

I had tremendous experiences in those four years. It was been filled with ups and downs. The first thing I want to say is that I feel fulfilled and happy that NAGAFF did not collapse. I was able to pioneer it and saw it growing from strength to strength and becoming more relevant. The greatest of all is that during my period, we were able to make sure that the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria became a reality which was the cardinal point of NAGAFF and that even brought me to the association when I discovered, genuinely, that there was a vacuum as there was no professional freight forwarding association in Nigeria. Then I was really encouraged, because I have had the experience by going round several countries of the world and had the advantage of seeing how they operate freight forwarding in general, how organized and professionalized they are and that was why I bought Dr. Aniebonam’s idea and came to NAGAFF. So the passage of the CRFFN bill during my tenure was really very good, but there are lots of things. You know when you deal with people especially freight forwarders whom they used to call clearing and forwarding agents, the perception of who is a clearing and forwarding agent was a challenge to my presidency. I discovered that there was a high level of ignorance and illiteracy in the profession. So the first thing I set out to do was to make sure that the machinery was put in place where people must be educated. We encouraged most of our members to attend the NAGAFF Freight Forwarders’ Academy and then a shipping programme at the University of Lagos. I was one of the resource persons there and we encouraged a lot of our people to go there so that this question of ignorance and illiteracy will be tackled. This is the greatest problem of the industry and the problem is still there today. Another problem is that of managing the people; this is not easy. Don’t forget that association is voluntary and not compulsory and we have our ethics’ books including our rules and regulations. You need to convince people to behave according to the rules of the game and don’t forget that we deal with elders, matured and people who have their families and there is a limit to which you can control them. So there was a problem of getting people to comply and so we had to engage in a lot of persuasions.

What do you consider as the most challenging period during those years when NAGAFF came up (apparently) from nowhere and became known?

The first and greatest challenge then was the massive opposition from the so- called rival associations; especially with the threat of violence and coercion. It was a very big challenge because then when we came up, we thought we were fighting a genuine cause. We never knew we were stepping on toes, so with the threat of violence and the use of coercion, getting people to support our concept then was very challenging. My greatest and most challenging moment in NAGAFF was when the Federal High Court proscribed NAGAFF. At the formative stage, a rival association had gone to court and secured an injunction and NAGAFF was proscribed. But that was when the judiciary was still suffering from the military hang-over. Then you can go and get an injunction anyhow, but we are happy now that you can’t get such again.

As the immediate past president, what will you say keeps NAGAFF going?

The major thing that kept us going and which still remains is our level of determination. We were determined and we knew we were fighting a just cause, a vacuum existed in Nigeria which is a large market of about 140 million people and we trade with other countries of the world. So the market is there but no professional association to regulate freight forwarding in Nigeria. We agreed that this is a wind of change, its either we do it or the generation coming after us will certainly do it. There was no way it could be stopped, so we became determined that we must work hard and make sure that a professional association of freight forwarders starts in Nigeria and to restore dignity to freight forwarding practice in Nigeria and ensure that the Nigeria freight forwarder is able to compete with others in other part of the world and standards of freight forwarding as obtained in other parts of the world is applicable in Nigeria as well. Then we had further challenges as the so- called clearing and forwarding agents had no voice. They had no inputs in government policies that affect importation. In short they are derided anywhere they go and we felt that that perception had to change. The freight forwarder creates wealth, they are part of the supply chain and so they must be heard, they are professionals in their own right, they are involved in the handling of import and export of goods so they should be able to influence government policies and be able to tell government what is good or bad for the economy. So they need to be organized and that was our thinking then.

Are Nigerian freight forwarders known outside the shores of this country?

I must confess to you that before the advent of NAGAFF, Nigerian freight forwarders were not all that known outside the shores of this country. At the onset when we established NAGAFF, the first thing we did was to get in touch with the global body of freight forwarders which is FIATA. FIATA actually played a major role in the formulation and stabilization of NAGAFF because when we were writing the position papers for the establishment of the association, FIATA gave us a lot of literature. They directed us and they told us how an ideal freight forwarding association should be and how it should be operated. As at that time, they made us realize that we have only Panalpina, IAL and a few others that are known globally, and when we say globally it means you are either a member of FIATA or AIATA and that is when you are known because it is sort of a network. Since NAGAFF came on board we brought FIATA into the country and we were able to arouse the consciousness of the society, the practitioners and the government as to the relevance of freight forwarding and why it should be known in other parts of the world; through the media, the internet and so on; the whole world is now able to know about the progress we have been making and our strive to make sure that there is a professional body of freight forwarders in Nigeria and I want to let you know that the whole globe is now aware of freight forwarders in Nigeria because apart from networking with FIATA, we network with the International Chamber of Commerce, Centre for International Private Enterprise in New York; through NACCIMA. We have been able to reach out to almost all the globe.

What kind of relationship does NAGAFF share with other freight forwarding associations?

From our own perspective in NAGAFF, I think we have a very cordial relationship with other freight forwarding groups. Where they disagree with us is when we talk about who is a freight forwarder and who is not. When we still go further to say that license customs agent is part of freight forwarding because freight forwarding encompasses more than customs licensed agents. They disagreed, but knowing our goal and our mission we overlook such arguments because they will distract us, we make sure that we still maintain a cordial relationship and know that one day there will always be a meeting point, that is why I was personally happy with the new leadership of ANLCA now with Prince Olayiwola Shittu as the president. He has a firm grasp of what NAGAFF and what other associations stand for. We are all interrelated but we are a bit different.

Some people have said that NAGAFF is an “Igbo” association, to what extent is this true?

Well, we have always heard that, even when I was president, I was confronted severally that “gentleman, what are you doing in an Igbo organization? Get out from there otherwise you will lose out”. Let me reiterate here that NAGAFF is not an Igbo organization. But I will agree with you that we have a lot of members from the south eastern part of the country and this is obvious because when you go to Alaba International Market, Aspanda, Balogun market and so on, they are the people involved in the import and export and that is why many of them are into freight forwarding. But I want to let you know that we have a lot of Yoruba and people from different ethnic backgrounds here, the only thing is just that you don’t hear or see them every time. Most of our key officers are not even Igbo’s but one good thing is that even if you say that there is a tendency that NAGAFF is an Igbo association, we may want to believe with you to some extent because if you check our membership register, about 35% to 40% of our members are Igbo’s because they are more into trading,. We have some ethnic groups in Nigeria, some are into manufacturing while some are in different other professions. For us, we look beyond ethnicity.

As chairman board of trustees what are your responsibilities and what value do you think you can add to NAGAFF under this present dispensation?

Legally, it is the board of trustees that oversees the association, but we are not into the day- to- day administrative running of the association. We are more into the policy aspect. I think I can add a lot of value in the sense that I have been with NAGAFF from day one with Dr. Aniebonam. We know the concept. We drew up the blueprint. We try to execute part of it for the first 10 years and now we have handed over to a new generation. But as the chairman board of trustees, I still have to give them quality guidance. Apart from that, I still have to act as a technical adviser to the new management team so that they don’t derail from the concept of NAGAFF. While we expect them to bring in fresh ideas we still have the guiding principle of the association. Don’t forget that this industry is very dynamic, so what I want to encourage the board of trustees to do is to ensure that we are directly involved in research so that we can assist the young men that have taken over.

What level of control does the BOT have over the national leadership?

The board of trustees has a lot of control over the association; don’t forget that I said they are not into the day to day management of the association but they draw up the policy trust for the association and if the management doesn’t stick to the policy trust, the board of trustees will have to come in there. So you can see the BOT is like an advisory leadership body, but the biggest thing going for us is that we have our constitution and our code of conduct, it stipulates the role of everybody; both the BOT and the new management as to rights, obligations and duties.

It was said that only Dr. Aniebonam retired willingly from active freight forwarding business and that the others were coerced into leaving?

I cannot generalize, but I want to tell you that personally when I was assuming presidency of NAGAFF, I suggested it and I agreed that I cannot stay beyond four years because we had an agreement based on the advice of FIATA that we should manage NAGAFF for 10 years and thereafter handover to a new generation of professional managers and also start conducting elections and that is exactly what we have done. When I was exactly four years old in office, I had to call a meeting of NAGAFF and I told them my time is up and I have to go and that was when it became obvious that the elections were already in the cards. So I waited for some few more days for it to be concluded. I already had it in my plans to go; it is also an unwritten agreement that after 10 years we have to bring in new managers.

You have worked closely with Dr. Aniebonam for some couple of years, what kind of person is he?

Outsiders see him as controversial, but let me tell you this; he is a very nice man. It is when you don’t understand him that you will not always agree with him. He was my student in the University of Lagos. So initially I do disagree with him although I still do but what we do is that we believe in superior argument, he is somebody that is very loving, he likes people and he likes to fight for what he believes in, he is very intelligent and thinks beyond today. What we do in NAGAFF is that we don’t have much time for ourselves, we think of the industry, how to move it forward, he is a workaholic himself and so we are always working round- the- clock, if you can understand him very well, he is a very nice, hardworking and patriotic individual.

What is your take on the CRFFN from the inception till date?

You will recall that NAGAFF wrote a bill that we took to the National Assembly to make sure that NAGAFF transforms into the CRFFN. It was then that ANLCA and IFFN brought theirs. As freight forwarders, we felt that if you are a customs broker you have a place in NAGAFF. If you are in the airfreight business, you have a department here, if you are in the courier, you have a place here. NAGAFF came in as an umbrella body of freight forwarders, but people misunderstood our intentions. They thought that we are being selfish and they never believed that we are working for posterity, so the council is part of our idea and we are very glad. Personally, I think we are fulfilled because my main reason for coming into NAGAFF is due to the vacuum that existed and how the industry is not being coordinated and I was not happy with the perception of clearing and forwarding agents as touts, never do wells, illiterates and so on but with the coming of the council, I think it’s okay now. However, we need to give the council a chance because it is not easy to start from the grassroots especially when some members of the council were not with the idea when it came up. They were against the bill because they were not thinking beyond that moment, but now they are in the council and so it will take them time to grasp the meaning of the council. I am very happy now with the new Registrar. As you can see now the council is moving forward, there is an attempt now to register members, accredit associations and register cooperate bodies. After all these, I know the real operation of the council will start; we are still talking about development of skills which is the most important aspect. Don’t forget that we have a teaming population in the ports and these are the freight forwarders that if well trained and harnessed, will add value to this country. The council has a very big role to make sure that the teaming population of freight forwarders are brought together, trained, given proper skills so that they can go and set up small and medium scale enterprises in the freight forwarding industry and they will be able to generate income, employment and the economy will be better- off for it and also be able to keep people off the streets, so there are lots of challenges before the council.

What is your advice to the new leadership of NAGAFF?

My advice to the new leadership is that they should not forget our cardinal principles and philosophy, NAGAFF is not a labor union but a professional association, so they should stick to the ethics of our profession and make sure that they carry everybody along, the best leaders is those that always listens and respects their subjects. They should make sure they embark on massive membership drive so that the spirit of NAGAFF does not fade away.