Founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam in this exclusive interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY, speaks on the crisis bedevelling the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN).
What is your position on the recent directive by Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi that all freight forwarders must register with the CRFFN within two weeks?
By Amaechi’s standard, he is a revolutionist in nature, from some of the actions he has taken; even though some people may not understand why he has to infringe on the right of freedom of association. I would not want to believe that the Minister is saying people should not associate, you are free to associate but then you must be under a regulation.
How about the contention around the collecting of the Professional Operating Fee (POF) by CRFFN?
The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) is just being childish and I don’t think they are getting the right advice.
What is stopping the collection?
I think it has to do with the leadership in CRFFN, nothing is stopping the collection. But I think the Registrar of the council from what he was saying; felt he was not safe in Lagos because he has been under threat from some of our sister associations. The investigation is on, information is being gathered as to who is violent or not, how can you destroy government vehicles, beat up everyone and think the government would fold their hands, so people should be careful. As far as we know CRFFN is an agency of the government, domiciled in the Transport Ministry, more so there is revenue due to the government in that regard. For me, ANLCA doing things like this is not the best way; they went to court and keep saying they are settling while they are not settling anything, they are not discussing with anybody. I do know that the last meeting has jolted most of them because the Minister has asked for refund of any money collected illegally. There is a port order that associations should not collect money within the port environment, if you want to do that, do that in your office. It is a standing order. So when you listen to some of them that collect money from their members, is it inside the port or is it their offices? And the records are there. The truth is some of us are not interested in all this; all we are saying is that people should respect the government of the federation. But the issue of refund that the Minister was talking about I don’t think it is important. What we should do is strengthen the council and our sister association should understand that CRFFN is an agency of the government and as far as you are a freight forwarder, you are under the subject of regulation.
The inability to collect the POF, is it because ANLCA is standing against the collection?
I think it is that of the management team of the CRFFN, I don’t think ANLCA can be above the government.Even if you have to do so, you have to look at your security.
As a chief executive of a government agency, shouldn’t the Registrar be provided with security?
Mike Jukwe has written to the government. Until they give him security he can’t come to Lagos. The Minister has given a directive, a lady in the legal department is heading a committee that is investigating certain things to know what is going on, and so there is no further collection from any angle. When one keeps doing this, they should not forget that records are being kept. It isnot about eating money. It is about refund and when the government says you will refund the money, you are going to refund it because it has the power of coercion. So you can keep doing what you are doing until the day government will ask about you, and you know what happens when government asks about you, then you will understand what government is. Just because government has not thought or asked about you, you keep making noise. I think some of our colleagues in our sister association should understand that CRFFN is an agency of the government and we should be law abiding. If we had gone to court, that is all right; in a good way that is fine but don’t threaten people because we are not in a banana republic.
Who are the people behind the threat to the life of the CRFFN Registrar, which you talked about?
There was a meeting at the CRFFN office in Apapa and he was physically threatened, thereafter at Seme border the CRFFN vehicles were destroyed and people got beaten up, that’s not right. Those leading those organisations should know that violence does not take anybody anywhere. You keep on committing all these things and you keep saying you don’t know what is happening that they are urchins and you don’t know that people know what is going on and you think government is not aware. Government expects you to be civilized in your conduct.
There is also a school of thought that the absence of a governing council for CRFFN is also one of the reasons why that agency has not been functioning?
It is not only clearing agents that are members of the council, agencies like NIMASA, NACIMA, customs and all are members. The Registrar himself who is the administrator is a member.
Who is the current chairman?
It is not about being the current chairman but it is about carrying the functions of CRFFN and the Registrar is there. The chairman as it stands is the Minister of Transport. He is the supervising minister. He is the man with the powers, everybody is subsumed in him and he is giving directions. Look at Section 5 of the Council’s Act.So we should stop all this. You remember there was a case in court, I think it was Saraki’s case where they said there was no Attorney-General to take the matter to court and the Supreme Court overruled that, the action filed in court was sustained. The office of the Attorney-General is still there and somebody is superintending it. So we cannot continue to talk, that doesn’t make sense. All these things cannot not stop the CRFFN from performing its functions. What we are looking at is the collection of POF, the case is in court, and it is not an order of the court stopping the collection of the money. Jukwe is telling the government he cannot go for the money because his life is in danger and he has written and they are investigating and government money is involved. If the government discovers that certain amount of money has been collected through a channel like if you go to NAHCO or you go to the port, they are all being invited and there is evidence. If you owe government money you will have to pay.
You said CRFFN is functioning the way it should that the only issue is POF collection, I know people who have dared CRFFN, they said they are not registering that they are licensed customs agents and they are not registering with CRFFN and they are still carrying out their businesses in the ports, no sanctions. Are you still convinced that CRFFN is doing what they should do as a regulatory body?
CRFFN was meant to fail since day one by 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 SaniKamba 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? Nwabuwa told him that please we are here to make good laws for the Federal Republic not to kill bills or intentions to make a better legislation for the good governance of our country. If you are ANLCA you can go back and submit your own bill to be chattered clearing and forwarding agents or whatever name you want to give it and we will look at it. But today, we are looking at the bill to regulate freight forwarding practice in Nigeria.
You saw what happened in the maiden election domiciled in the Shippers Council supervised by Captain AdamuBiu, the first election, you saw what happened, how the election was rigged; the categories of the members of council are in three folds- association, individual and corporate body and the election was conducted under corporate license body by the customs and we raised issues but said okay let the elections be conducted first. 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 was present and till today who has prosecuted those people? You can’t imagine that out of the seven members of the council, six were from ANLCA. They went into the council and startedrunning Association Nigerian Licensed customs Agents Council. Lucky Amiwero went to court saying that he didn’t win the election. You know we masterminded the emergence of the council; we kept calm, at a stage we had to go to court but at a stage we had to go back. We said four years will go, let’s see how it goes and after four years you saw how it went. Do you know the amount of money that went through the council? Over two billion naira wasted. Nowthe same people are struggling to come back. Some people don’t want the council but they are wasting their time. The council is an Act of the national assembly and if it did work in our time, it will surely work.
You alluded to the fact that a group forged names, but some said one of the problems with CRFFN is that when you check the CRFFN register, you will see about one thousand names with the same address which is number 2A Maybin Street, GRA Apapa, Lagos – the headquarters of NAGAFF. Don’t you see anything wrong with this?
That is the freight forwarders village housing NAGAFF. The membership of CRFFN is in three categories- freight forwarding companies, individuals and associations. That is why five associations have been registered – ANLCA, NAGAFF and the rest. Under corporate membership, freight forwarding companies not even licensed by the customs, even those licensed by the customs, are there. The council is to build professionalism so it centers on individuals. That is where local content act comes in, that is where cabotage comes in, protection of indigenous operations. The intention of the council is to create a wide margin of opportunities for Nigerians just as you have lawyers and other professions. A freight forwarder as an individual under the control and regulation of CRFFN is to administer and manage corporate companies involved in freight forwarding or licensed by Nigeria Customs Service. Now back to the question, NAGAFF is a big organization with members and we are a freight forwarding association, we are not licensed customs association.
One would expect the registered freight forwarders to have their individual offices or corporate addresses?
Is there a law that says so? So why do you infringe on the rights of people to make their choice? Any NAGAFF member is protected by NAGAFF and you are at liberty to use the address of NAGAFF and we are basically individuals because we are going professional, we are not a corporate body that do not have eyes to see or cannot talk. We are not building a vocation; we are building professionalism in freight business.
Why are you calling for the scrapping of licensing of agents by Customs?
The Section 153,154,155 and 156 should be expunged completely from the Customs law to give room for CRFFN Act because the action of Customs under regulation for licensed agents is subsumed in Section 19A and B of the CRFFN Act. The Act says for you to be a licensed customs company or agent, your name either as a corporate person or agent should be in the register of freight forwarders. In other words, if Customs give you a license under corporate body and the person who is manning that company; his name is not in the register of freight forwarding; it is illegal. A time will come when we will go to court because Assistant Comptroller General Charles Edike came to NAGAFF the other day and told us that by the end of April if you are not licensed by the Customs you will not have access to Customs responsibilities and we don’t know what that meant and we told him that day that we hope he will take a second look at that because it is an infringement on people’s right as contained in Section 19 A and B in the CRFFN Act. The CRFFN recognizes Customs, the licensing regulation of Customs; look at Section 156, you will find out that Customs have the authority and power to license corporate body, individuals and firms, and so why is it that Customs have not bothered to license individuals? The bone of contention is licensing individuals and the individual should be somebody who has been trained to acquire skill and knowledge and the skill and knowledge should be given in an approved institution of the government and you are certified and so, the CRFFN is supposed to provide a work force for Customs responsibility as far as cargo movement out of Customs control is concerned. Customs hasthe power to train its personnel, not to train freight forwarders because the basis for CRFFN is human capacity development. So we are trying to make Customs understand what CRFFN is, because I feel Customs is not comfortable. We cannot have two legislative instruments controlling one entity definitely, there would be a clash. The last document we are writing is for the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Finance to sit and harmonize a better cooperation in this regard.
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