Honourable Tony Iju Nwabunike is a man of many parts.Apart from being a renowned customs broker, he’s the pioneer Chairman of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria(CRFFN).
He has been the National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents(ANLCA),where he has been carrying out myriads of institutional reforms, since the last two years.He’s an unassuming , frank, honest and intelligent and lucky individual , who finds successes in almost all his endeavours.
In this interview with SHOLA FADEYI, he speaks about the achievements that have been recorded by the Executive of the Association, How the Nigerian Seaports can function well post-COVID-19, How Ease of Doing Business Policy can work, Domination of local freight forwarding business by foreigners, Excessive charges by concessionaires and shipping companies, , maintaining that the NECOM is crisis free and contributing to the development of ANLCA.Excerpts :-
Hon. Tony Nwabunike, President , ANLCA
The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) was established since 1954 and has since then undergone a lot of transformation in areas of administration, management, education and operation. But since about two years ago, when this National Executive Committee(NECOM) came on board, we took a decision that we were going to streamline those things that are not in line with the spirit of association.
Building of Institution
We decided that we were going to build institutions that would be enduring for the association and focus on collective decisions and capacity building instead of what has happened in the past when the association was building individuals. In that direction, since then , we have been giving all our members equal respect and treatment , focusing on training and retraining , welfare and insurance for our members .
Charter Institute of Brokers
For instance , we have visited the National Assembly, with a view to submitting a Bill for the Legislature to institute an Act that will lead to the chartering of our association, by having the Chartered Institute of Brokers.Also we are working to ensure that the Federal Government contact and consults the association before formulating any policy for the freight forwarding sector, and this has led to a situation where the NECOM has been meeting with those in government circles to let them know what the ANLCA stands for, and the positive impact of our supporting government, when it comes to decision making for the customs brokerage sector.
Influencing Decision Making
We have thus started to change the former narrative, where government comes out with policies without consulting ANLCA .This is because before the outbreak of the COVID- 19 Pandemic ,the NECOM visited the Secretary to the Federal Government , Boss Mustapha as well as ,the Minister of State for Transportation , Senator Gbemi Saraki very recently and we intend to continue in that direction so as to influence policy decision making in the industry. Both of them assured that they will be consulting us from time to time on issues in the sector before taking decisions. We are working to ensure that ANLCA is seen as a body that must be consulted by government on issues that concern freight forwarding , while we are trying for the Association to be seen as an embodiment of knowledge on customs brokerage matters in the maritime sector.
Tackling operational Issues
The NECOM has also been focusing attention and tackling issues that have to do with the operational areas of our members particularly in the ports as they concern the excessive charges of the shipping companies , terminal operators ,Standards organization of Nigeria (SON) , National Association of Food ,Drugs , Administration and Control(NAFDAC) multiple checks by the customs, through its various units and its indiscriminate issuance of alerts and demand notices(DN) including double checking of containers by the Maritime Police.
So we have been reporting the illegal activities of these agencies to the National Assembly and other relevant government ministries and the SGF, as we visit them and through correspondence.
What we want is for these agencies’ activities to be seamless and for them to do away with the series of units they are parading that carry out multiple checks on importers containers , for the purpose of extortion , which also lead to increase in the cost of clearing of goods
People will always try or talk about maginalisation. Under this administration the Secretary, Treasurer, and other Members of EXCO are from different tribes in Nigeria. We work and relate amicably as one big family to move ANCLA forward but some people sit in the comfort of their offices and begin to say that we are not united or that I hardly come to office. For your information, I come to ANCLA office three times a week and dedicate the rest two days of the week to my personal business; yet some people say I travel round the world. Anyway, we are working to cater for the interest and welfare of the members and to leave the association better than we met it.
Post COVID-19 Nigerian seaports
I think on the issue of COVID-19,rather than worry over likelihood of job loss, customs brokers, freight forwarders, truck owners, chandlers and other ancillary service providers in the industry should gravitate towards keeping themselves abreast with virtual presence and operations in the ports. At ANLCA we have always advocated for a modern port regime with lesser amount of persons coming into port areas. This will now be a fast track drive because persons and businesses can meet virtually, submit,process and receive documents online without leaving the comforts of our homes and offices.
ANLCA independent research shows that over seventy percent of persons using our ports are yet to understand these things which they need for their professional future and business survival . Over eighty percent of them do not even know the many unused business tools to advance their trade embedded inside the mobile phones they carry about.
Unknown to them, they can set up virtual meetings to discuss all business related issues and perfect related bank transactions without moving around the cities bugged down by snail speed traffic. The haulage section will always be there. It cannot be taken over virtually, we only foresee a regime of improved rail services.
Nigeria as a matter of urgency must also use the opportunity of the COVID-19 to develop non oil exports to keep jobs up. As a country , we took an unfortunate back stage position in export of commodities like cocoa, palm oil, and many other agricultural products. This must resume. Nigeria should also identify products for which it has comparative advantage. Nigerian made electric cables have been noted for being of higher quality than most imported ones. Government should be the number one buyer of quality made in Nigeria products while encouraging citizens to do same without promoting monopoly and profiteering. Urgent steps must be taken to refine crude oil locally and stop the importation of refined petroleum products. A good amount of what should have been earnings for the country from the sales of crude oil has gone into payment for subsidies on imported products.
Increase In Membership
One beautiful thing about this association is that the more people think it is not organised or that the crisis that characterized its Board of Trustees (BOT) has affected it , the more licensed Customs agents are coming into the Association. This year alone, we have nothing less than 300 licensed customs brokers, who are managing directors of their customs brokerage firms that have joined the Association.The difference between ANLCA and other Licensed Customs association is that , we do not register anybody that is not a Managing Director of his company.Ours is such that , if there is an AGM of the Association a member must be present physically , he cannot send any of his managers to represent him, if he does , he is considered to be absent.
So, in ANLCA , we don’t chase rats to become members of the association , otherwise elephants will continue to escape.It is people , who are of high calibers and who are well connected even to the Presidency and the National Assembly among other vital corridors of powers that one has been working with to move the Association forward.
Court Cases/Capability to Lead ANLCA
I do agree with those who are saying that I have what it takes to address the challenges of the Association. Let me put it on record that for the almost 10 years of my immediate past President’s regime, he had almost 10 cases in court filed against the association,but the association remains strong. So when people take us to court, I don’t see them as enemies. That is why we have the judiciary to adjudicate over matters. Is just that in our case, the court cases are delaying us. Besides, we are spending so much money to pay lawyers. Ordinarily, the constitution of our esteemed Association should be our manual and guide and at the worse of times, we can go for arbitration. However ,if our people chooses to go to court, it is still a healthy development.
ANLCA Board Crisis
Let me tell you in all honesty that the Current NECOM is very intact while the members are working together to develop the association. Before , there was a slight problem cause by the so called leadership crisis in the ANLCA Board , which led to two factions, and that has been sorted out.When the problem was on a few of the NECOM members, such as the National Treasurer , National Publicity Secretary, the Western Zone Chairman who joined a particular faction were suspended by the NEC in 2018 but in 2019 they were pardoned .They have all resumed and have been working for the progress of the Association.
Also, the Vice President a very vibrant man has also been representing me and doing is work.The thing is that he is an Operation man while Iam administrative in nature and I believe in dialogue to solve a problem all the time.
While , the Board seems to have loomed large in the ANLCA is the fault of the former President , Prince Olayiwola Shittu who because he wanted respect for them as elders , made them to arrogate to themselves powers they do not deserve.The truth of the matter is that that will no longer happen because we are now working with the provision of the constitution of the Association .
In that wise, the Board does not have any business with the day to day running of the affairs of the Association – that is the role of the NECOM and that is how it will be henceforth.The function of the Board according to the association’s constitution is purely advisoryAs the National President of the Association , who was elected into the position, I will not take any advice from any Chairman of the Board that is not geared towards the development of the Association.
Ease of Doing Business
Even before the challenge of the COVID -19, the Ease of Doing Business Policy of the government is not working, because of many units of the Customs and multiplicity of other security and non security agencies stopping trucks carrying containers and cross checking the content of such containers several times over even when they have been duly examined and certified by the various agencies which are into examination of goods at the seaports.
The implementation of the policy has also not been very effective , and this has been affecting the fast clearing of goods at the ports and making our members to spend more time in clearing their containers.
It takes not less than two weeks to access the ports, due to the gridlock on the roads, the scanners are not there for goods examination, making customs to conduct manual examination that leads to delays, the terminal operators do not have adequate number of equipment , the agencies cause a lot of delay through double checking of containers while the barges are not there to even carry the goods through the waters.Even ,the 24 hours clearing of goods that would have been a testimony to the fact that the Ease of Doing Business is working at the Ports has been absent.
I started the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) , meaning that I was the pioneer Chairman of the CRFFN Board and my number is 0001.So , I can speak authoritatively on that Council. If the customs brokers and the freight forwarders who collect revenue for customs on behalf of the Federal Government have never been compensated in any way for the job they have been doing .
If it is now saying that part of the money that is collected from the implementation of the Practitioners Operating Fund(POF) scheme would be used to train them, while the associations would also be given a percentage of what they declare for the welfare of their members, to provide insurance for them, I think there is every reason for ANLCA to support the collection of the money.
For instance , the Customs is to generate N2 trillion as revenue for 2020 and this will be collected on their behalf by the Customs agents and brokers, while government has no plans to give brokers anything from the collection, despite that we have been clamouring for at least one percent of the revenue collected for customs as declarants.
So , we as an association believes that government will fulfill its pledge to the customs brokers and freight forwarders from the POF collection and it is when the time comes and it does otherwise that we can decide the next course of action to take.
Terminal Operators, Foreign Shipping Companies as Untouchables
When our NECOM visited the SGF , one of my posers to him is to know who controls the concessionaires and the shipping companies at the seaports.If we say that it is the Shippers’ Council, the question is whether it has been given the wherewithal and the government backing to enforce and penalize these service providers on the excessive , illegal and arbitrary charges they impose on importers and collection of demurrages and rents even during holidays when there are no clearing operations at the ports.
We belief that the terminal operators and the shipping companies have backers within the government circles and that is why it has been very difficult for the Shippers’ Council and even the Federal Ministry of Transportation to call them to order .They have become untouchables.
For instance, most of the Terminal Operators lack adequate number of cargo handling equipment, while a larger percentage of their equipment is obsolete. This is partly why there is delay in positioning of cargoes at the ports.
So the performance of the concessionaires generally has been very woeful. If I am to score them, I cannot give them up to 30 per cent, despite that the concessioning programme started since 14 years ago since ,when they have had enough time to invest in the Nigeria’s economy. Their investment has been inadequate, but they have rather been interested in repatriating money to their home countries.
One is not surprised that their operations have not been reviewed , when under normal circumstance , this was to have been done , every 10 years.This has lent credence to the fact that they have backers in government. There is a need for government
to let the public know the agreement it signs with the concessionaires , which has been shrouded in mystery so far , so that it can be used to judge the performance of the terminal operators.
Striking over Illegal Charges
Even, the National Assembly is not coming up with any legislation to make these shipping companies and terminal operators to comply with the laws of the nation and make them to stop incessant increase in their charges without any consultation with the stakeholders and the Nigerian Shippers Council, which is the Economic regulator of the seaports, despite the fact that we have been acquainting them with what is going on at the ports concerning illegal charges.
Anyway , what we have decided to do as an association is to continue to attract the attention of government to the shortcomings and inadequacies of the terminal operators and the shipping companies and if they continue in their way , what we will do as an association is to collaborate with other freight forwarding associations in the maritime sector to down our tools.That should be our last option and we will then see what government will do.
FG Revenue Target for Customs
It is a paradox that the government is trying to discourage importation of goods by making over 40 items not valid for foreign exchange (FOREX) but yet it is still imposing revenue target on the Nigerian Customs Service , thereby over stretching the Service and making it to employ under hand tactics on importers to fulfill the target and turning it to the enemies of the people.
Foreigners taking over Freight Forwarding
The issue of foreigners who have taken over Nigeria’s freight forwarding sector has been of great concern for us in the Association and we are not just folding our hands about it.The unfortunate thing us that Nigeria’s National Assembly suppose to be a place where such things would be looked into in terms of legislation , but it has become a case of them only attending to issues that concern them mostly.
I was at the Cotonou Port in the Republic of Benin and Tema Port , Ghana and I saw how strong their indigenization policy is, when it concerns issues of protecting the job interest of their citizens.If you are not from those countries , there is no way you can own a licence to do any clearing job there at all .It is not possible ,once , you are not on their biometrics. The thing is even that , if you are a freight forwarder , journalist , transport , trucker among other professions in that country , you must belong to your relevant associations and so , you must have a reason to come into the Port.
But in Nigeria, you have a Chinese man who produces in China, imports the good into Nigeria , have his brother clears the goods from the Port and , eventually takes the cargo to the Chinese Village , before selling to the final consumers .When you report them to the National Assembly, nothing is done about it , because they know their ways with the lawmakers.
With the ways the right things are not been done in this country I think there is a need for all and sundry to change our ways and embrace the right way of doing things so that Nigeria can be better. For example, In as much as I will want the Customs to cease taking bribes or arm twisting importers to fulfill revenue target, the shippers should also stop to import into the country contrabands, and desist from over valuation , wrong classification, under payment of import duty and even attempts to evade duty payment
As the President of the ANLCA , there is no way a member, will attempt to want to cheat government of its revenue , and when he’s caught in the act by Customs , he comes to me to go and speak for him in any way , and I will yield to such, because in the Association , we are for proper procedures and sincerity in clearing and duty payment.
Blaming Customs Brokers Wrongly
It is unfortunate that the Customs Agents/Broker is made the scapegoat in certain atrocities that are claimed to have been committed by the importers in international trade and in the process of payment of duty on such goods.As Customs Licensed agents ,we are Customs Brokers. We barely hold brief for importers. If you know how the importing business works,the customs Licenced Agent/Broker only gets to start handling the consignment when the documents are given to him. Sometimes, it is during the examination of the consignment by the customs that the agent gets to know what is in the container.
Ensuring Fast Clearing of Goods from Ports
Apart from fixing all the nation’s roads leading to the ports, the federal government must ensure that every vessel coming to Nigeria return with the empty containers used in bringing goods to Nigeria.
For your information, containers expire and the foreign shipping companies are using our country as a dumping ground for expired containers. We must not allow this. Again, the time is ripe to decentralize the ports and make the ports at Warri, Onitsha, Calabar, Port Harcourt work, or is they not part of Nigeria?
More importantly, we need to fix the waterways since our roads are not good. That way the inland waterways can be used to move goods from Warri to Lokoja, Port Harcourt to Lokoja, Calabar to Onitsha and so on. Afterall the six – geo – political zones all have dry ports. The Nigeria Shippers Council has tried no doubt, Federal government short term measures are always the nation’s albatross.