In this interview with Managing Editor of TheLead Online, Ajibola Abayomi, the founder of National Association of Government Approved Fret Forwarders (NAGAFF) of Nigeria Dr. Boniface Aniebonam bared his mind on obstacles to effective port operation in Nigeria and other issues.
It is over a year, that the presidency had issued executive order on ease of doing business at the port, how would rate the development?
The first thing is to appreciate the effort of the federal government to improve capacity and strength productivity at the ports. That leads us to competitive cost around the port industry as well. That is appreciable. The onus is on all us to support the laudable programme of the government. The port reform is an ongoing process since 1975. Up till now, the ports are still going through a lot of reforms in terms of productivity or capacity. It is not easy to embrace change because of human factor, people tend to resist change however the ease of doing business order further acknowledges that fact that things were not going well. Those things causing problems have to do with human elements. I say there is hope because there is clear intention from government to get things done but values are not being added as expected by the stake holders. There is insecurity in the nation. There is a limit to where you move cargo to from the ports, if you are saved during the day what of the night?
The focus of the executive order was to accelerate business operations within 24 hours, any appreciable impact so far?
It is unfortunate that I was trying to build up before you came up with the 24 hours port operation concept. 24 hours port operation is an old song. Nothing like impact, yes if you say within the port business but not including cargo delivery, that is a huge joke because that is only limited to a particularly aspect of port operation. Cargo dwelling time is still very poor. Section 31 of the customs law stated that it should not be more that 28 days because port is a transit zone. But why are things not working according to the law? It is because of the human element particularly, the inherent benefits accruable to organizations especially the terminal operators. They take joy in keeping cargoes because of the demurrage they charge. Why are we are not enforcing the law? In a normal country where ease of doing business is working, it means that people should be ready to obey the law. Laws are made to obeyed and forced by the government.
If you say laws are to be enforced which agency of government were you referring to?
To start with the cause of PTMI port is very clear on who should have access to the port. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is the only body empowered by the law to charge money referred to as administrative charges and grant you access to the port. The Council for Regulation of Fret Forwarding of Nigeria (CRFFN) which an act of National Assembly clearly defines who is a fret forwarder provided for by the law. All terminal operators needed to do is to get the list of fret forwarders and input it into their computer system to be able to identify who should have access to the port. The list of all fret forwards in Nigeria is with the CRFFN. Nobody is saying the port should be an open gate however somebody is there now defrauding people before the nose of the NPA, that is the technical landlord of the port ditto for the Shippers Council of Nigeria, the commercial landlord and of course the police.
Are you saying the terminal operators are over reaching their powers?
Because there is no leadership that takes control at the ports, nobody is taking responsibility. I expect the NPA to take charge as a technical regulator, section 12 of the customs law states that the port is a customs port even though the customs is now concentrating on revenue collection and combating of the smugglers. The section 13 of the customs law states clearly that the NPA is in charge with the responsibility of providing all the technical and logistic supports to enable customs perform its duty. Other regulatory agencies too are not doing well as expected. Now they that National Agency for Food, Drugs and Administrative Control (NAFDAC) is back to the port again what is the meaning? Probably, because of the issue of Nicotine or tramadol which has been banned. That is the reason NAFDAC has to come to the port because if any drug is banned it goes straight to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) not NAFDAC.
But severally NAGAFF and other agencies have accused customs of duplicating it roles, where as the agency has consistently blamed your people for false declaration at the ports in order to cheat government?
The customs are now digital compliance where agencies are connected online with the government at once for you to indicate your interest while dealing in port operations. The whole issue is human interest. Under section 46 and 47 of the custom law, issues of untrue declaration and concealment comes in before you talk about physical examination. A business man wants to maximize profit. Government knows that there would always be tendency to cheat that is why it has set up agency to represent it interest. The bad news is the collusion you are talking about. What reason did any one serving under the oath has to connive to cheat the same government he or she is serving. That is absolute disloyalty. The truth of the matter is that whatever you are hiding when it gets to the customs declaration point it would be revealed. There is no doubt that corruption starts from that traders’ zones where wrong declarations are made for the customs records. I have been trying to make agencies and fret forwarders know that false declaration is criminal. The solution to this is uniform implementation of the law across all the customs commands and the entry points. We know what is wrong, we can’t claim ignorant.
CRFFN election is dominating the industry how prepared is NAGAFF?
We have 15 chances allocated to each zone and NAGAFF is ready because CRFFN is NAGAFF and NAGAFF is CRFFN. We want an all inclusive CRFFN so that we can speak with one voice. It was so unfortunate that our sister association rigged themselves into council last time and bastardised the whole thing. We are talking among ourselves so that big organizations like NAGAFF and Association of Nigeria Customs License Agents of Nigeria (ANCLA) could be apportioned slots into the council including the other smaller bodies however between us we know our strength. For anybody that cares to listen NAGAFF has taken over in terms of strength and spread so. We are in Sokoto, Nembe and Baga in Borno State. We are working to incorporate those young fret forwarders and show them the right way to go in the business and earn a living. If we manage the council, well it has the capacity to provide jobs for over 100,000 Nigerians. The young fret forwarders that are coming need to be trained.
Is NAGAFF not threatened by other bodies forming alliance against it?
NAGAFF members cut across corporate fret forwarding agencies and of course individual fret forwarders. ANCLA membership is based on individual licenses approved by the customs which all together they are not up to 1000. NAGAFF membership is over 10,000. These are the people that need training, that desire knowledge and certification as professionals. We are building bodies and not playing to the gallery. That is the fact.
So by the time NAGAFF fully takes over the CRFFN, what are you people planning to achieve?
That is the best thing that can happen to the economy. Fret forwarder is the artery of the economy. Why do the NPA refer to the port as the gateway to the economy? We are the critical persons that move good across the international boundaries of states to the final destinations. Shipping is dry demand, whether dry or wet cargoes, the fret forwarders are the life wire. So we need to get things right. That is why some of the agencies of the government struggle to get into the port because we are not professionally inclined. Instances of untrue declaration start from the examination zone under the nose of the customs because if the right things are done from the beginning, there would not be need for NAFDAC and NDLEA to come into the port because they would have seen all cargoes on their website. That is where we need to groom people for leadership to have ethics and standard. The biggest problem at the port is compliance and who will do it? It is the individuals. That is why we are building the CRFFN like NAFDAC. We want to ensure that only the fully trained individuals take charge as fret forwarders and that such people have their names in the register of CRFFN.
So how will all these anticipated efforts lead to job creation?
Look at the issue of carbotage law for instance. How has Nigeria Maritime Administration and Security Agencies (NIMASA) with that by creating indigenous opportunities? The issue of waiver clause in that law is what may bother you but we don’t have the capacity to fly the flag so what do we do? It was on record that there was a time NIMASA distributed money to people but does that solve any problem? Where is the money? My anger is that for that fact that you have loaned out monies to some individuals and they defaulted is not enough reason for you to fold your arms. What you need to do is to allow the law to catch up with such fellows. That is why we are encouraging individuals to be trained and create jobs. We need to be serious and block wastages in this economy. Good enough Mr President is fighting corruption. He should continue. The huge cargoes that come into Nigeria are prepaid. Those leaving Nigeria is on FOV value. Don’t you know the amount of money Nigeria is losing? Even at that the disbursing of account coming to Nigeria where fret is prepaid which means all payments due cargo coming into the nation have been paid for yet they still come here and collect money and nobody is talking. Government has to do a lot on disbursement of account. We are at the mercy of the foreign ship owners because we don’t own them, if we make noise they will withdraw their ships.
Government is working out policies on diversification of the economy, what do you think is the right way to go with the ports as we look forwards to the gains starting from 2019?
The money that is in the sector is almost more than the oil sector. Do you know how much we are losing to port inefficiency? Shipping is dollar denominated. When a ship is idle a lot of money is being lost. The shipping yard in the country is not working; it is a source of revenue. We need somebody that can fight corruption because they say when you fight corruption it will fight back. Have you asked yourself, how we allow the port road to degenerate to this level despite the money that is coming out of there? Three weeks ago they claimed they were clearing trucks from Apapa port now the trucks are. Our flair to get things must be very high. Again, look at the issue of articulated vehicles going into the port. Over 15 years ago, we have presented a strong position paper to the government of Nigeria through the ministry of transport on the need to develop a truck terminal that will service the port. Look what is happening now, the Apapa connecting bridges are under suspect. The integrity test of the bridge is suspect. If you get down there you will see the level of aggression. That means the bridge can collapse anytime. The bridge was built with a specification of moving vehicles not with stratification of static vehicles with heavy load.