Mrs. Chinyere Okere, a Newly elected Chairman of Oil and Gas Free Zone Onne of Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), has hinted that majority of the operational challenges confronting clearing agents and freight forwarders are as a result of their inability to be together.
Chinyere Okere who is the CEO of CELEFRANK NIG. LTD and the first elected woman chapter chairman in the history of ANLCA , promised to join other ANLCA women leaders to meet with the male dominated leadership to seek ways of ending the association’s prolong leadership crisis.
She also spoke of how to partner with the customs to realize its yearly revenue while seeking the leadership of the Nigeria Customs Service to look into the proposal made by ANLCA to grant one percent of customs total annual revenue collection to customs brokers to end the regime of sharp practices, known in industry parlance as ‘bad jobs’. Excerpt
How do you feel been the first woman to emerges chapter chairman of ANLCA?
I feel so excited, I feel honoured, I feel cherished. You know I see it as a privilege and a call to service. I actually promised not to disappoint them for having this level of confidence in me.
What is your agenda for the chapter?
My immediate agenda is to address operational challenges confronting us, there are lots of such challenges, ranging from shipping companies to terminals; and even access has become a problem. Most of our members are complaining that companies sends in their manifests two weeks after vessels have arrived, which is much against the shipping policies. Demurrages would have accrued because there is nothing they can do without the manifests been submitted to the customs. So they have to wait for two weeks before the clearance processes starts. My first meeting was to get facts and figures of manifests that arrived two weeks after vessels arrival and to have demurrage that was paid before we now fix the shipping companies that did that. So that is a big hitch in our operation in oil and gas zone chapter.
How do you get along been a woman in the midst of male dominated business?
I have no issues with them, I have been with them. I will be 46years maybe I don’t look it and by God’s grace I have been in this business for 19years. In Onne I am the first female among them, I am used to them. I know what I want and know how to get what I want. I know they have looked at me very well before giving me the privilege to lead. As a much younger person, I grew up in the midst of men. I used to play football in my school days, so it has been a man, man, man thing. My major concern is that I have a target and I need to make an impact and whether I am a man or woman doesn’t deter me from achieving my set objectives.
I know we have been trying but my intention for now is, I need to consult with Hajia Muse our President and Patron, we look up to her. I intend having meeting with her and other women leaders to see how we talk to other ogas…the men, on the way forward. Like I told you, a good number of them have accepted their faults and mistakes, so what is happening now is an ego thing. So we need to work on them, to appeal to their conscience to swallow whatever might be hitting them up, at least for the peace of ANLCA and the generation of ANLCA behind. Most things we do, we are not just doing them for ourselves, we must think of those coming and think of tomorrow, when we are no longer there. Death is inevitable, like Prestige Ossy just died yesterday. Am sure he never knew he would die now at the climax of his career. So, yes, for the sake of prosperity, I think Hajia Muse and some of us will go and meet them and beg them to soft pedal, so that we can move forward. Most of the operational challenges we are having is as a result of us not been together. ANLCA is already a force but we are unable to be push-full because of the ongoing disagreements which I think is very slim if we look at it very holistically. ‘I am a board chairman’, ‘you are not the board chairman’ so what I believe our women leaders will do is to plead with them, not to apportion blame or find out who is at fault.
The Eastern zone election was preceded with much outcry and protestation about candidates been asked to step down for others, which sort of polluted the air, despite that the election was peaceful. What gave room to such outcry?
Well, you know that politics is a game of interests, everybody has his/her interests and everybody have supporters and idols and I know as at two weeks before the election, a group of young men came together and said they have had enough of candidates been imposed on us. They said ‘we don’t want that any longer, we want to select our leaders by ourselves.’ And they have put their efforts, resources, time, money and they have chosen candidates and other too who have similar interests want to present their own candidate but at the end, the popular opinion, the people’s candidate emerged. So, it is not unexpected in any election that there must be no opposition. What matters is that at the end, the choice of the majority emerge winner.
One of your zonal chieftains talked about multiple customs desks and concerns about extortion and rise in cost of cargo clearance. How are you set to respond to it?
Well, most times I am always the odd person out there. Personally I do not believe in extortion, I am not somebody you can extort, till tomorrow. You met me working on my desk; I take my time to document my jobs. 1f you do your documentation very well, take time with it to ensure it is okay, you will do your work freely, with less distraction and less pressure. But if you document anyhow you are exposing yourself to a lot of risks, a lot of people will take advantage of that, it is not only customs. All the government agencies will see it as an opportunity to extort you so it’s what you bargained for that you get.
Customs target for 2021 is N1.3tn and the leadership of ANLCA has said its members should join efforts with customs to realize this revenue projection. The prior regime started the struggle to get 1% commission on customs net earnings for brokers, but somehow, the FG appears not to be listening. As part of the new crops of ANLCA leaders, how best do you think that demand can be realized?
We have people that makes laws in this country, the FG have not been fair to freight forwarders in this regard because we bear the brunt of the risks in the business. We are the one that collects the revenue and pay into government coffers. Federal Inland Revenue Service feeds on us, we relate with NAFDAC, we make payment for Standard Organisation of Nigeria and Nigeria Customs and at the end you find that millions and billions passes through your account. The bank takes their charges and nothing comes to the clearing agent rendering services to the FG. I think Customs only enforces government policies aimed at generating these revenues, we are the actual people. Importers don’t pay duty to Customs, they pay to us, we are the ones that through our licenses and our bank accounts pays the money into government coffers and a lot of risks is been taken by us to achieve that. So it is worth doing and I think when it is done, it will encourage us to work harder to even exceed set targets. A good number of us might tend to cut corners since they know at the end of the day, the FG is not thinking about them. They may say ‘ok’ let me work for myself now instead of working for government unappreciated’. After all the licensed given to us is to work to generate revenue. It is the government that granted us the license and that is the authority we have to generate revenue and if at the end of the year, you know nothing comes from the government, what do you do? This commission can help cut down on some of the abnormal things that are been done for some customs brokers to save something for themselves.
As a chapter leader, what is your take on the issues of Form M for 61 items by the CBN?
Every other day we hear the Comptroller General of Customs talk about local content, which is a policy direction designed to encourage local producers in order to create employment. But yet, the requisite raw materials to drive local production are not been given adequate attention. Examples, yawn, elastic which is raw materials for textile and tailoring industry in Aba and elsewhere. FG through the Central Bank of Nigeria puts a lot of stringent measures in getting From M approval for their import. Meanwhile, these local fabrics at Aba service most neighbouring West African countries. I was in Uganda last year, I was also in Tanzania, Aba fabrics service the region. How can the Aba industrial estate survive, grow the economy and create employment when the FG sets up barriers against sourcing its raw materials? I think our National Assembly should look into the matter because the stringent importation policies are not encouraging local manufacturing.
Are you satisfied with the current gender balance in the freight forwarding industry?
I am not satisfied. Like I said earlier, in the beginning, I was alone at Onne Chapter. Over time few more have come in. Personally, remember that I mentioned that I have trained some, out of which some have become very successfully, even more successfully than I am. Others who came in through other persons are also in and have survived and are doing well. So the gender bracket is increasing steadily, it is no longer a surprise when you see women you think, what is this one doing in this male dominated industry? We have crashed the domination by men, we are pretty many now.
How can more come in, how do you encourage them?
They are still coming in, many have operational licenses. Like I told you earlier, I have brought in a number of women. I have a sister I brought in through Port Harcourt, today she is a big licensed customs agent. There was one who used to sell telephones, whom I brought in when her telephone shop got burnt. Today she is on her own and have operating license, the only condition is that you must be willing to work, you must be industrious. There is one whose husband was a licensed customs agent, he died and she was like asking, is it what a woman can do? I told her yes and encouraged her. I remember she was asking if it would require her going up and down, I said yes, because, come to think about it, cargo clearing is not an office work as yet. And of course, you must be on the move; it is not peculiar to freight forwarding and customs brokerage. It is so in many other occupations, so all it requires is determination. I studied Chemistry, if I could beat a lot of male undergraduates, why can I not do better in the larger society?
What is your advice to the male folk in ANLCA regarding an end to the ongoing crisis?
My advice to them is that they should remember that life is transient. They should be concerned about what they want to be remembered for when they have gone.
What is the relationship of your association with the customs in Onne oil and gas command?
Like I told you, we are partners. Customs cannot do without agents and agents cannot do without customs. We are like husband and wife. Under my stewardship, we are going to build greater synergy. Take for instance the yearly revenue target given to customs and customs cannot realize that without the agents. Just like I was discussing with the areas controller recently, customs and agents should sit together and plan how to achieve set revenue target, how to improve compliance and correct documentation but somehow, it is like some agents are tilting towards connivance with importers, which is part of the problems we are having. The policies are made by the FG and the representative of the FG is the Customs, so it is the Customs that will put us through on how best to understand and utilize international best practice to achieve our set goals and objectives, which is to realize revenue.
How do you rate the leadership of Honorable Tony Iju Nwabunike?
Well, he has been all encompassing. He embraces everybody; it is just that I believe this disunity has brought a lot of distraction for him. I truly wish that all the fight and problems will end so that he can focus.