Like most unregulated professions in Nigeria, the business of clearing and forwarding is highly regarded as unstructured with free entry and free exit. What it takes to do the job of clearing agent is to show interest about clearing consignments. It becomes faster when you know one or two persons importing goods into the country. With little effort, the person secures a license if he pays the required fee.
To many commentators, the job of clearing of consignments is considered in Nigeria as one reserved for illiterates or drop outs from school. They contend that most of the so called custom agents do not know their left from their right, with many led by the nose while some cannot sufficiently express themselves and would require other people to interpret documents for them. Also at the ports you see an admixture of semi illiterates milling around, most without any known license.
As a result of their limited exposure, analysts have variously argued that majority of the agents are easily deceived by customs officials who sometimes use them for dirty assignments and in turn help them with their clearing jobs.
In 2007 the government sought to regulate the profession by creating a standard that will befit status to those practicing it. It led to the birthing of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) to organise the practitioners on the path of professionalism. The CRFFN Act of 2007 gave the Council the power to determine the standards of knowledge and skill to be obtained by persons seeking to be registered as freight forwarder.
With the CRFFN Act, it was clear in Section 2 and in subsequent sections that the Governing Council must be elected to pilot the affairs of the Council. It is meant to have a two years’ lifespan. Thereafter, the first Council was constituted in 2008 and the second in 2010. The third Council was to have been constituted in 2012 but due to petitions and smear campaigns by some people within the group, the project was truncated and ever since then what is being paraded as CRFFN is the management staff of the Council who are merely employees of the Council.
Last year the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, threatened to revoke the licenses of freight forwarders if they fail to resolve their differences with the Council within two weeks.
The Minister maintained that the Nigeria Customs Service is not backed by law to register agents and so agents should seek to register their trade with the appropriate Council.
Amaechi ordered freight forwarding associations to, as a matter of urgency, resolve their differences with the CRFFN.
The Minister said the Comptroller-General of Customs has agreed to meet with him and that he might be forced to instruct the CRFFN to commence fresh registration of practitioners.
The present state of limbo of the CRFFN is regarded to have been fueled by the introduction of sharing formula in the collection of the practitioners operating fee (POF) by the Council which brought a clash between the Association of Nigeria Licensed Custom Agents (ANLCA) and other freight forwarding associations. While ANLCA insisted that they were not under the regulation of the ministry of transportation and cannot pay POF to the CRFFN, other associations which at a time came together under the umbrella of Concerned Accredited Freight Forwarding Associations (CAFFA) umbrella was on the side of the Council. It tore the council apart.
Former National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, Ernest Elochukwu, said that “the story of POF dates back to 2012. It was borne out of the necessity to create an alternative funding arrangement for the Council in the wake of reduction of federal government allocation to professional regulatory bodies. The Governing Council of the Council, which I had the privilege to serve, made a regulation to authorize the payment of operating fees on freights being handled by registered freight forwarders.
“Just as the committee to interact and interface with the associations and stakeholders involved in freight forwarding operations (which incidentally I headed) was going about her assignment, a spate of petitions and smear campaigns was unleashed by some persons who believe that in the freight forwarding, it must be them or no one else. This led to a suspension of the collection of the POF, which they manifestly declared as illegal. But that was not all. By the instrument of their same campaign of calumny, the second Council which came into being after our own tenure elapsed was unceremoniously disbanded and that was the beginning of the problems we are witnessing today,” he declared
Speaking on the directive of the Minister for the agents to come together, President, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Amiwero said the Amaechi was not properly briefed. “I think the Minister should look at the laws properly. We have sent letters to the President, the Minister of Finance, Customs and the Minister of Transport to educate him on those areas. “There are issues that have to do with laws, there are issues that have to do with procedures, you don’t combine the two. It has no relationship in any way. There is nowhere in the world you have that kind of regulation of freight forwarders. Nigeria is the first country to duplicate regulations, ’he insisted.
Asked whether his members are registered with the Council, he said “No. Many of them are not registered. I am not registered. I took them to court; we won them in the High Court. We took them to the Appeal Court, we won them in the Appeal Court and the court said the council has been dissolved since November 2012 so the council cannot function. The Minister doesn’t understand that there is no functioning council and its Registrar is just an appointee of the council under Section 11 of their Act. Under Section 11, the Registrar was appointed and every component of their Act restricts the Registrar from performing any function if the council is not there.”
But Founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Boniface Aniebonam, does not subscribe to the view that the council cannot function without an elected governing council in place. “The Ministry of Transport is the supervising Ministry because there is nothing that envisages any situation whereby the governing council will not be on ground,” he volunteered.
For him, the failure to constitute the governing council is fueled by some people who took positional interest and made sure that first and foremost, the CRFFN would not operate the way it was envisaged by the Act. “They put up a whole lot of issues to confuse the system and at the end of the day truncated the idea of having a council since 2012. Now, they are the same people who are now hoping that the CRFFN can go on even without a governing council and that everything is okay.”
According to him, the CRFFN was meant to fail since day one by the ANLCA. “The national assembly public hearing is clear, even the formative stage of the various meetings at Nigerian Shippers Council in Park lane, Apapa. The position of ANLCA was clear against the formation or establishment of CRFFN. Even when the public hearing was over, do you remember that the former president of ANLCA Alhaji Sani Kamba who was a Senator then, came to the national assembly and told them that he was there to kill the bill as a Senator of the Federal Republic?
“You saw what happened in the maiden election domiciled in the Shippers Council supervised by Captain Adamu Biu, the first election, you saw what happened, how the election was rigged… Some people went and colluded with some officials of Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) and forged voters’ cards, went to a market in Abuja and gave them to people telling them to vote.
“They were caught, the police were present and till today who has prosecuted those people?
National President, ANCLA, Prince Olayiwola Shittu said “the approach of the minister to bringing agents under one umbrella was faulty. The ministry officials were misleading him because they are more interested in the Practitioners Operations Fee (POF). ANLCA’s position on POF has been known since 2011 and up till today our position is still the same. The minister has been wondering, how do I remove this crowd from the port?
“It was only recently that the minister discovered that 80 per cent of the people roaming about the port should not even be there at all. What will it take the minister to understand that there is no operation in the port that is carried out by an individual?
‘Declaration of cargo is done by a corporate organization licensed by Customs. Customs, shipping companies and terminal operators do their releases through that corporate name. So, why should the port be a place where an individual will be roaming about? Just because they are registered with CRFFN!
“We told CRFFN, the Council for the regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) knows that some engineers are for electrical, mechanical among others. They have separate registers for them and they regulate them according to their professions. Rather than toe the same line, CRFFN carry one register and mix chicken with pigeon and turkey all together in one place. It is bedlam,” he declared.
But Elochukwu, is of the opinion that before the present state of affairs, the regulatory body as a matter of fact, was being regulated and controlled by the freight forwarding associations.
“Whereas it was said in the Act that among the functions of the Council is to control and regulate the associations in the freight forwarding industry, it becomes a paradox that the associations in the freight forwarding industry were actually controlling and regulating the Council because when they were now saying what will happen and if it doesn’t happen nothing happens. What again is control and regulate? So, it’s a paradox.
He said he foresaw the CRFFN’s present state of instability because, in his opinion, it would be difficult for the Council, established by an Act, to control another organization that was also established by law.
“When this Act was being made, I actually strongly opposed involvement of the associations because I foresaw some of the things that are happening now because an association exists under the Company and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) – the law that guide formation and operation of association, so it’s already under an Act.
“CRFFN was brought into place by an Act so the idea of letting one organisation that was brought about by an Act to be controlled by another association that had its existence based on an existing Act, I felt it was going to be a difficult thing,” Elochukwu said.
However, the acting President of NAGAFF, Increase Uche, NAGAFF Apapa Chairman Fred Ajuzie, and a member of ANCLA Task Force, Apapa chapter, Frank Aliakor, and Festus Ukwu, told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY that the Council is not dead but will bounce back being an Act of parliament.