Chief Dennis Ukwu

Freights differences and political influence are responsible for low patronage of Eastern ports- Ukwu

Against the backdrop of low patronage of eastern ports by importers in the country,Eastern Zonal Coordinator of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Chief Dennis Ukwu explains what is responsible the situation blaming on differences in freight rates and political interests. He spoke with Uju Ozoeze.
Excerpts 

For some time now freight forwarding agents operating at the eastern ports have complained of dwindling activities at the ports, what is your view on this? 
It has been a recurrent issue. It has been there for up to five or six years now, and we’ve been asking questions. You know I just took over the position I have now as the ANLCA eastern zone coordinator a few months ago. If you recall, the eastern zone has no coordinator for four or five years now that shows that a vacuum has been there. When I took over the mantle, I tried to ask questions by reaching out to the stakeholders- those in the shipping line which you know that is the because if the ship is not coming to your area we should ask why. From the investigation I have done so far we’ve been able to find some couple of reasons. Most of the importers are complaining of freight difference which is a major factor when you talk about someone preferring a place he wants his goods to berth. We’ve been trying to find out why there should be a freight differentiate. What an average importer calculates before he ventures into the business is the cost of his goods getting to his warehouse inclusive freight charges and cost of clearing. And to an average importer, in the Nigerian context, fifty or hundred thousand naira means a lot when you talk about his business turning around. What am saying is that a slight difference in freight charges is enough to influence an importer’s decision to ship his goods to a particular port. So, what we are trying to do is to report to the appropriate authorities like the national or the regulatory body as we have in the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN). These are the people that have to liaise with the shippers council that it is its responsibility to ensure that we legalize the freight world. The situation is worrisome because eighty percent of the goods cleared through the ports in Lagos find their way to the east. Because of the freight difference that is why importers patronize the western ports even though all the facilities that makes an efficient port is in the east. For instance, Onne port has all the modern equipment to accept this trade facilitation we are talking about so I don’t see why anybody whose goods will eventually find its way to the east will prefer to ship them to ports in Lagos. Considering the risks involved transporting the goods by road to the east, which takes about six to seven hours, the importer would prefer his goods to be shipped to ports in the east but for the freight difference. There are so many importers in the east that want to patronise the ports but because of that clause of difference in freight they have to go to Lagos. We have had an interactive forum where importers have openly complained about this that is to show that they are willing to patronise this area. Really I don’t see why there should be congestion in Lagos ports while we are lacking in the east.

What would you say influences this disparity in freight charges between ports in the east and those in the west?
Politics comes to play in everything that happens in this country. In Nigeria, politics always has it ugly hand where the right things are supposed to be done but goes wrong. The Lagos State Government knows what they are benefitting from the ports. Because the more ships that comes to the Lagos ports, the more revenue and job created. If not, why then is the federal government disinterested in what is happening at the ports in the east? Why is the government not concerned about why activities at the eastern ports are dwindling? A premier port like that of Area 1 has a standard. In the 1950s, the British government came to commission this port which shows that it has a standard. As for Onne port, it has modern facilities that ports in Lagos cannot boast of! Yes! Compared to Onne, the facilities in Lagos is nothing to write home about. Yet, if not for oil related goods you won’t see any consignment in Onne. Because eighty percent of the oil facilities come from the east, oil companies like Shell cannot do anything but use that port in Onne; if not you won’t find any consignment at all in Onne. Because of what they are benefitting, our brothers in the west would not allow any port to function the way ports in Lagos do. If government can openly and genuinely find out all these causes, it is something that they can tell the shipping council to regulate the freight charges; everybody should go where he prefers to go. The government should take it as a challenge and say what is what doing at all is worth doing well. Let the freight charges be uniform, you would see all these things would change. This is beyond me as the zonal coordinator; I can only bring the attention of the National Headquarters and CRFFN to the situation agents are facing at the ports in the east.

Talking about CRFFN, do you think the Council has the potentials to carve a professional image for freight forwarders in Nigeria?
Sure! I remember in those days, when we were still learning the ropes of the job, we were regarded as touts. Now it is no longer so. As far as you are registered with the regulatory body of CRFFN, and you are licensed with Customs you are legitimate to act a freight forwarder in ports all over the world. Freight forwarders are professionals. The Council will take freight forwarders to a very high level; it’s just a matter of time and with good administration. Government has come to realize the role of freight forwarders in trade facilitation which is why the established the Council with the backing of an Act. People of questionable character have flooded the industry. Somebody who did not do well in his own profession, the next day he become a freight forwarder. And that is why the establishment of the regulatory council has to phase out these people. Before you become a forwarder you have to fulfil the requisites. You have to understand that we are the ones that make things happen in the chain trade facilitation. We are the ones that talk to customs; relate with shipping companies; relate with banks, on behalf of the government and the importer. You must be someone that is not questionable that is why the regulatory body has to come in. People have this misconception that just clearing agents are freight forwarders, no! A shipping company is a freight forwarder; the transporter is a freight forwarder and many others that play a role in trade facilitation. So there is a need for an umbrella, a formal body that will regulate us. Let us put more professionalism in our profession and that is what we are doing now.

Agents operating at ports and border posts here in the western zone complain almost every time of being subjected to intimidation and extortion by custom officers; can you say the same for agents in the east?
You see, the way and manner you present yourself to a custom officer is the way they will regard you. If you take yourself as a tout they take you as a tout. I come to do a legitimate business in the ports and some customs officer would try treating me like nobody, I don’t see that happening because what I’ve come to do is legitimate! If I don’t have a license in the first place I wouldn’t have anything to do with a customs officer. Such don’t happen in my place, it can’t. None of my members can ever be taken as a second citizen. Anybody customs treats in that matter should go back to his house; check well to see if you have what it takes to confront customs in the first place. Let me tell you something, a freight forwarder is the most legitimate and responsible person you can ever encounter. I am more important than that customs officer seating at his desk because it is only when I come with my documents, that he collects duty and remit to government. I will be the one to convince the importer and tell him what the government policies are! It is out of trust that the importer plunges all his savings in importing a container which he hands over the documents to me, in absolute trust! A freight forwarder serves as a shortee for his importer to the government and bank which sometimes backfires because some of these importers are not trusted. The job of a freight forwarder is a heinous task, and as such no customs officer should treat a freight forwarder as if he is a tout or second citizen.

What advice would you give to your professional colleagues in this regards?
Comport yourself. This is a noble profession and you should be proud of it. What am saying is that a slight difference in freight charges is enough to influence an importer’s decision to ship his goods to a particular port. So, what we are trying to do is to report to the appropriate authorities like the national or the regulatory body as we have in the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN). These are the people that have to liaise with the shippers council that it is its responsibility to ensure that we legalize the freight world. The situation is worrisome because eighty percent of the goods cleared through the ports in Lagos find their way to the east.



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