Hon. Iju Tony Nwabunike, National President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), recently engaged Journalists under the aegis of Association of Maritime Journalists of Nigeria (AMJON), where he spoke on sundry issues affecting the Nigeria maritime industry.
The ANLCA president also explains his recent visits to key government agencies, which according to him is to draw their attention to the happenings in the Nigeria ports system.
He stressed the need for Nigerians to learn how to do things right and change our attitudes towards money, adding that its all about doing the right thing so as to be free from fake products.
He however expressed optimism over future of the nation’s shipping sector.
You have so far visited quite a number of government institutions since the beginning of the year. Kindly tell us the outcome of the discussions you and your team had with them?
In line with the question, I want to let you know about what we are doing and what we are going to do this first half of the year.
For the year 2020, we have actually visited three very key officers of this nation. One is
the Secretary General of the Federation (SGF) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Two, is the Minister of State for Transportation and the third is the Director General of SON. Then we have a whole lot of others to visit for example we will visit the Nigerian Shippers’ Council and Ministry of Finance. Why are we moving around? We have a whole lot of things to discuss with the Federal Government of Nigeria.
One is total modernisation of our ports. If you look at our ports as at today you find out that our ports cannot be compared with that of Tema in Ghana, there is no modernisation, so much things to talk about in that area. We are only talking about the gridlock, we are not talking about dumping of containers, we are not talking about the concessionaires and shipping companies doing whatever they like to do, we are not talking about no scanners in the ports, we are not talking about multiplicity of government agencies at the ports, incessant influx of substandard and fake products coming in to the country, we are going to talk about the truck and truck owners, the gridlock vis a vis the NPA and Customs, Quagmire; not forgetting the issues of NICIS 2; whether it’s going to be seamless and how they want to harmonise it. We want to talk about the standardisation of Customs in line with the World Trade Organisation. There is also need to talk about even the SON because we have them as a very key stakeholders in port operations and other numerous to talk about today. And as we will continue in this interaction, we will tell you more about our meetings with the SGF, Minister of State for Transportation and SON.
For the port access roads, we spoke extensively with the SGF and Minister of State for Transportation about the bad roads because our roads are bad, still not accessible, we don’t know the exact problem but let me say that the SGF actually promised that they will actually facilitate the job on those access roads and in a very short period of time, we will no doubt smile over the roads. We briefed him about the security agencies in the port and the border posts and we actually told the federal government that opening of the border is long overdue because it is a temporary issue but today almost 2,000 cargoes are trapped and these are economic wastages for the country. We also discussed about indiscriminate multiple alerts from our various agencies like Customs and they mentioned that they will harmonise them into a one stop shop.
We talked about availability of scanner because most times, 100 per cent examination will lead to a lot of manhours being wasted; so the SGF actually mentioned that scanners will soon be back at our ports. Then we talked about the non-availability of synergy between the stakeholders and the government, a situation where government takes unilateral decisions without consulting the stakeholders vis a vis what they want to do. They mentioned that it is important to carry stakeholders along that very soon and shortly, we will be having a total stakeholders meeting for us to forge ahead together. We mentioned efforts by the supervising agencies like NAFDAC, SON and the Quarantine and their activities especially as it affects the border lines problem. That also brings us to the issue of SON. We mentioned to the government the need for all shipping companies and terminal operators to automate their transaction processes and on that note, we actually asked some salient questions on which of the ministries supervising the functions of shipping companies and terminal operators . We learnt that shippers council must be encouraged , that they are actually given the powers to treat the case of shipping companies and terminal operators very decisively so that they can work and do the things right because you find out that most of these companies are foreign owned and interest of the nation is not paramount to them. The major concern about our journey was on gridlock and when we mentioned operational problems to them that for us here at Apapa cannot access Tin Can Island port because the roads are bad.
Two, the trucks are actually not having truck parks where they can offload their empty containers for onward transfer and these are all the things we discussed with the SGF. I can tell you that the outcome was enormous. The SGF was very happy as a matter of fact as he asked me to come and visit him again in order to get him details about what is actually happening in the port industry for first hand information. For us at ANLCA we are ready to support and give him all the necessary information.
Then the Minister of State for Transportation, that is Gbemisola Saraki, she was very excited when we told her about the issue of NPA and the concessionaires; we told her about vessels that are being delayed and how NPA can stem-down cargoes to other areas; we mentioned the use of train and how we can evacuate containers from the ports seamlessly with that mode of transportation without having problem with the locomotive and the wagons. She also told us that the ministry has been putting so much money on rail transportation and very shortly we are going to have a wonderful solution to the problem of gridlock. She was very impressed with those areas mentioned.
Then we actually went to visit the management of SON. Some days back you people may remember that SON has been in the news, some people were saying SON was not living up to expectations and we took a stand for us to visit them. During the visit, we had firsthand information from the DG SON himself and all the directors. I will like to give you the highpoints of what we discussed with SON.
First of all we took a decision that we shall be having monthly stakeholders meeting to synergise with the importers. We also told them that it is going to be a committed working relationship with all government agencies to promote ease of doing business as a policy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So our recent visit to SON too gave us a cordial working relations we needed between ANLCA, freight forwarders and customs brokers as a whole and SON. We were shown too many seizures and destruction of fake goods and you know sometimes we may not actually know that they are doing a whole lot of work but we saw things for ourselves; the high level of seizures and destruction of substandard products but the issues is that they said they are going to get us involved in all the goods seized. We mentioned the issue of automation. Recall in the news that some people said SON has problem with automation whereby accessing PAAR was difficult because you need SONCAP to access your PAAR .They explained the role of WebbFortane and customs on the issue and that they have almost finished the backlog of the system failure and promised as far as automation is concerned they will continue to key into the process for progress to be achieved. They also promised to give us our SONCAP in hours so that we will experience any further delay in getting our PAAR. In fact they actually said they will carry out sensitisation campaigns all over the country with freight forwarders and customs brokers plus our clients, who are the importers. We urged them to carry journalists along for them to be reported positively. They promised to have a deeper relationship with the press. Then they asked us to have a cordial relationship with them and their DG was very happy that everybody can go home happy and sleep with their two eyes closed because he will be working with freight forwarders and importers alike. On that note he wants us to be having monthly stakeholders meeting which will start at the end of this month.
Going forward, I want to critically say that the federal government is doing everything possible to reopen the border posts. Today the ECOWAS committee is having a meeting to bring out the white paper that concern the closure.
Our ports are overstretched and we are actually supporting NPA to divert some cargoes to other ports. Lagos port is full and the alternative port should be Calabar and Warri. We mentioned specifically, who is dredging the Calabar Port. Because for almost six to seven years now, there is this contract for the dredging of Calabar seaport for years and nobody knows about them to engage them on the delay. Why are they not doing the job on time and what is the actual problem. So the issue is very clear that we need to know the company handling the Calabar Port dredging contract and let it be dredged immediately. Calabar is a critical seaport in the sense that they have very good and improved road network from Calabar to Ebonyi and Benue states even up to the north eastern states. So it will go a long way in solving the problem of decongesting the Lagos ports. So we support the MD of NPA on this in line with the critical stakeholders.
On the area of the airport; the airports don’t have much compliant because my chairmen from airports are going on seamlessly. We should applaud them for that. We will not also subscribe to one agency of the government dividing themselves into multiple units to a particular job and I think the federal government should streamline this and have a one stop shop. Let there be one examination point and let’s move on most importantly is that we need to educate our clients and do the right thing. Genuine declaration is very important and if a consignment is well declared there will be no problem so I believe sensitisation is very important to our importers because it will help everybody.
On CRFFN collection of POF we have agreed but we want them to train us.
Finally, I want to say that we are now working on how to get our chartered. We are currently at the national assembly and by the time we get it done we will have an institution where our members will be trained for us to be in line with the NICIS 2 and the training will come and we will have it with CRFFN. Yes you can be a freight forwarder but it takes more for you to be a customs broker.
Accessing port in Ghana, truck operators must have their biometrics captured and with a thumbprint, the gate automatically opens for them. Do you think in the next ten years, Nigeria can achieve the status of automation that Ghana has accomplished?
It beats my imagination what we are seeing. You are talking about Ghana, have you been to Cote D’Ivoire before? If you get to Cote D’Ivoire, you will see that Nigerian ports are nothing to write home about. The problem we are having in this country is that the government speaks much and does less.
We can achieve that but the issue is that they are not putting the right people that will take these problems up. We should begin to forget about political appointees holding key areas because it matters a lot. I think it is achievable but a whole lot of work has to be done. Just like what we have started to do, we make them know the problems and areas we have in relation with other countries. We are talking about.
We are talking about AfCFTA that one is going to be a very big exposure because people will come back here to see that we are not prepared. If you find out the preparation by Morocco, Algeria, South Africa and Egypt, you will know that we are going to find ourselves in a backward situation on AfCFTA using ECOWAS trade liberalisation. In the table of 1 to 15, in the area of modernisation of port, Nigeria is nowhere to be found in the first five. It is something we need to be brainstorming with the federal government and let them know it is to time we put our house in order and make our ports like other international ports. Not only our seaports but our land borders and airports. Even if you go to Lome Port even though it is a small port is very decent. If you go there you won’t believe it is in Africa not to talk of being in West Africa. It is all about human beings and government policies. I think we can achieve it if we are very serious about it.
What moves have you made with SON to nip incessant importation of fake items into the country in the bud?
I was sceptical about SON but recently, I visited them but Nigerians must learn to do things right because a man who imports and bring in fake tyres does not know who is going to buy them. Apparently, it might be his relatives, friends or even himself that will buy the fake tyre. First, we must change our attitude towards money.
Coming to SON, from the time of Ajanta till now, it has been going through transformation. Here is another vibrant man which I think the only problem he is having is not letting people know what they are doing. They are doing a lot because what he showed us when we visited was very enormous. Some have reported to me that their items were seized and you will discover that they don’t only use fake SONCAP but bringing in goods that are not acceptable into Nigeria thinking that they will take it away and SON is saying don’t do that. I think we should join hands together with them to actualize their goals of sanitizing and removing fake products in this country. Nigeria should know that anything fake kills and its not going to be acceptable. Everyday SON is doing better but that is not to say they don’t have one or two Judas Iscariot among them but we will get up there because the campaign is for every one of us. SON is an important stakeholder in the area of import and export processes. I understand now that rod manufacturers show the original ones to SON whenever they visit their factories but they will manufacture fake ones at night and SON has taken it upon itself to visit the market to fish out these fake ones because they must put their names on their products. And if SON takes it for test and it fails, they will close up such factory.
For example, I never knew that borderline consignments; sometime you may say what concerns SON with water but SON is saying the packages used in making it because the packages may be having a terrible chemical that can contaminate the water. SON is concerned about packaging too and if you look at them, they have their logo.
These are the areas we do not know before now and we want to begin to help them sensitise our clients in a way of doing the right thing. It is a war that all of us will fight together with SON.
What are you doing as an association to checkmate your clients or members from bringing in fake products into the country?
This time around, we are going to have a total relationship with SON and prosecute anyone of such persons. Let me tell you, an agent does not know what an importer is having. It is at the point of bill of lading where you told me that this container is carrying this. I am sitting here my manager called me to ask an importer if what he has is a steel door or a wooden door and I asked the importer and he said it was a wooden door and I asked further if it was an armoured door or non armoured door and he said it was non armoured door. So we are going to do the examination based on what the bill of lading has said and if by any means there is an armoured door there, is that the agent’s problem? I will report it accordingly and that is what we are trying to do, we don’t want to hide in any corner that is why I said all of us must fight together for this course.
For instance if an importer brings in a harmful product for babies and your cousin or relatives children uses such, and the child dies. It would have been better if SON is aware to prevent such evil occurrence.
If someone gives you a bill of lading of spare parts and found out it is tramadol, why can’t you report because it is something that is going to be dangerous to everybody’s life. So, what we are trying to do is to begin to sensitise them that there must be prosecution. Every import guideline of SON has clause of prosecuting offenders who defaults.
Collection of POF is reportedly said to be around N5 billion annually and SON has been collecting N2000 on 20 feet container and N3500 on forty feet container for the past ten years, in your estimation, how much do you think they must have made so far?
First, I am not DG of SON, I may not know how much they have collected but every single money, SON gives you receipt and such monies goes into the Treasury Single Account of the federal government. It is only the Accountant General that can give you that figure.
What I am saying in essence is that if there is any money that is not receipts, we will go against such person
Coming to POF, I was the pioneer chairman of CRFFN, and at that time, we did not collect POF but now we have a new chairman, a new registrar and they are starting a new thing. The N5 billion they are saying may be a projection and we don’t know how they configured it. Even if they get such amount, chunk of it is going into TSA account.
The issue I would have expected you to ask is why all government agencies are becoming revenue collecting agencies. It is becoming worrisome and all over the world, no customs unit is given target except Nigeria Customs and nobody is asking that question. Federal government gave them N1.5 trillion target and they said they would make N2 trillion and you say you are discouraging import and you have over forty items banned from forex. Recently fertiliser and rice were banned and these are the areas we have to generate the revenue to meet the target. Again, you are encouraging local manufacturing meaning; de-emphasise on importation and encourage yourself on local manufacturing. So, how do you now meet target? You are reducing import procedures and you are increasing target from import proceeds. How do you balance It? The problem now is that you are going to get what is called over taxation. The issue is very clear, we need to sit down with customs and tell them that we are overstretched if they are not. I think customs is overstretched and they have forgotten what they should be doing to facilitate trade, to secure goods and services and for our border posts to be secure. Now, Customs is now the highest revenue generator collecting money for government which is not bad but impunity collection is what we think we should look into. Other agencies collect money for government; the government should relax in all these collection so that Customs can facilitate trade, so that we will do things according to World Trade Organisation, World Customs Organisation and World Trade Alliance and even FIATA.
We need to standardise and harmonise issues and get ourselves together and look at issues like human beings. What we do at the ports is not in line with other countries.
Given your vantage position as the national President of ANLCA, could tell what you think is the shortcoming of the implementation of temporary diversion of cargoes to the eastern port?
We actually told the MD of NPA that we are supporting cargo diversion. If we have vessels at the anchorage for twenty days, first it is an economic wastage; it is equally not good for the port as it were. The issue is very clear; the congestion did not start today. Nigeria likes addressing problems when it is almost getting out of hands. What NPA should have done was to have a serious sensitization for the stakeholders like the importers and network with other international trade organisations and say please Lagos Port is congested and if you must bring goods to Nigeria, reroute it to Port Harcourt, Warri or Calabar that vessels to Lagos as of now is not going to be acceptable for the next two months so that we can decongest the area. It is not fair that somebody who has his factory or warehouse here, whose supply and demand is in Lagos, you now take his goods to Port Harcourt and given the state of the roads, who bears the cost?
I think federal government through NPA should sit down with critical stakeholders like us who are the representatives of the importers and importers themselves to tell them why the cargoes are being diverted.
Warri and Calabar should be dredged. In fact, contracts have been awarded on them and its not working, what is stopping them. Centralisation of goods is good but it needs to be done properly.
Nigerian Ports are shallow and as a result cannot take big vessels to what extent has this affected shipping business and by extension the economy of Nigeria?
We are talking about economic leakage that is, consignments coming here, there was a time they were contemplating of taking Nigerian goods to Cotonou. It is purely not good on our economy and I think as a matter of urgency, dredge all the ports even Onitsha river port so that all these things can accommodate vessels even flat bottom vessels so that they can take goods to those places and the moment they do It, the economy will earn more money. So, I believe it is purely government policy where they will say something today and do something else tomorrow