Sir Ernest Elochukwu is the immediate past president of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’s Uju Ozoeze caught up with Elochukwu in his office at Port Harcourt for this interview where he spoke extensively about the problems plaguing the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) among other issues.
A few months ago in Port Harcourt, you summoned a meeting that did not go down well with the present leadership of ANLCA…
First, I want to put the record straight. The meeting I summoned was not an ANLCA meeting and not meant to be an ANLCA meeting. It was a freight forwarders kind of consultative meeting and it has a genesis. The genesis to it was that the CRFFN Act inaugurated gave us the opportunity to create a professional platform and being a new phenomenon I believe a lot of people did not understand how it will function and so there were some misrepresentations and misunderstanding as I would want to say. But then, it was a needless friction because going back memory lane something happened last year where the second council was somehow abruptly ended due to some internal wrangling within the Council especially among the freight forwarders members of the Council.
There was some kind of emotion running very high because of something that some of us felt were clear mischievous representations. For instance, when we talked about the incident that happened in the Council especially as it has to do with collection of charges, some of us felt so bitter that people could twist fact out of context. My understanding of the idea to collect the charges was to enable the Council meet up certain obligation that is expected of it and those obligations include the issue of training capacity building and all that for members because when we interacted with other freight forwarders outside the country we understand the basic difference of what they do there and what we do here is that ours has not been standardized and there is a whole lot of knowledge gap with the practitioners here in terms of knowing what is the standard. You will agree with me from the traditional approach to the clearing and forwarding in Nigeria there is some kind of primitiveness or crudeness to it. Many people look at the clearing thing as going to the wharf meeting the custom officer and all that.
Many people didn’t know that they have professional input to make in the issue of import or export cargo movement. They wouldn’t even know where their role comes in because some have come to see only one side of the job- negotiating, wheeling and dealing and so the extent that the CRFFN was concerned was to bring professionalism into the practice of freight forwarders in Nigeria. Some of us are so fortunate and privileged to be among the pioneer elected council members and then we also took it up to ensure that we are putting our best towards the building you know it’s like building from the scratch building of this culture of professionalism. It entails a whole lot of things apart from getting the knowledge base or certification. It also involves exchange programmes with other countries and key into the world body of freight forwarders, the FIATA. These were kind of rapidly achieved including the approval of certificates that were to be awarded under the CRFFN for freight forwarding. In fact Nigeria became a member of the freighter not up to three years ago but then we were able to achieve some mile stones for instance in Los Angeles, October last year Nigeria was approved to award diploma in freight forwarding and this year again in Singapore the request to award higher diploma in the aspect of freight forwarding was equally approved.
The brought it alongside countries like Egypt and South Africa that had been long membership of FIATA so there was rapid thing and then some of us felt that the issue of money collection should not actually be the reason to reverse the progress that has already been made. At the inception of CRFFN, the government tried to kick start it but then none of us were in any doubt if it was going to be operated on its own because as of the time the Orosonye report came out it requested digressing of budget allocation to such bodies like CRFFN, so there was nothing like expecting government will be funding it. So the idea of collecting such charges in order to be able to operate the Council was generally accepted by everybody. Now this whole problem came with when the association came with what percentage they are going to have and all that.
I wasn’t involved in their early discussion but then when the committee (committee on collection of the charges set up by the council under the chairmanship of Alhaji Hakeem Olanrewaju) which I headed was now asked to work, in my usual way of approaching things I said let’s try and see how we can make this thing work and while everybody was talking about what do we get I said I wasn’t interested in that. We should be able to create what will be a legacy for us and so I was taking aback when the issue about some associations saying that they were been left out, they are not being taken into consideration; they want to collect percentage and all that. To be candid nobody was trying to undo anybody is also to my own benefit because my association is the biggest association so if it’s getting percentage it should get the biggest percentage. But when we as a committee after having consultations with the association went back to the Council meeting to report the associations demands of a percentage the Council in unison well as a resolution or as a decision said no! Don’t forget that majority of the people in the Council were nominees from various government agencies and they were like no saying that in government money or government funds situation nobody talks about percentage, they are saying that the association should able to be able to be given yearly budget of what they intend to do and then the Council funds and I can tell you that they even that since it is the associations that are privy to what they are doing that what they are expecting of their percentage they could as well translate to their budget but it didn’t go down well with the association.
They believed that it was a kind of situation where there was an agreement to collect money and how it will be shared will have to be agreed before anything will be done. That was the problem that came in and rather than the association seeing it as something that has happened or the problem as coming from the Council members as a whole, they now narrowed it down to the freight forwarders in the Council. In fact they the elected freight forwarders. Every insinuation was brought up to bear that we did not want it to happen and that was the genesis of all this. It became a very big embarrassment for some of us when there were issues or some insinuations that was been made including about the motive for registering some other association besides ANLCA and NAGAFF. Not that I took offence per say because the realization that a lot of people here even if not ignorant are not on the high side of being conversant with what is happening in the industry.
A lot of people were relying on the hearsay, on the rumor mill to get their information and it was possible for people to start making insinuation that this was done because of this and usually whenever you talk about people’s motive in doing something and it’s easy for people to say “oh, this was done because this person wanted to gain this or wanted to get that” so eventually that was what put spanners into the work and till now which is almost one year after the activities of the Council have come to a stop. I wouldn’t say that my president wasn’t right, perhaps he was right in his own way but some of us felt there was a little bit of embarrassment. As a past ANLCA national president I was heading that committee and I couldn’t imagine myself working against the interest of ANLCA and so I didn’t talk much except when we had some kind of stake holder meeting with the minister and I told him much of what I knew. You see the present ANLCA leadership under have a way of passing their information to their members and in Nigeria there is always a tendency of who shouts more looks like he’s right. I was just trying to give you the background information. What led to this current one was that somewhere along the line, Alhaji Hakeem sometimes this year or thereabout called for a meeting of all the freight forwarders that served both in the first and the second council we all converged at Rockview Hotel in Apapa and in true openness he realised that there has been a lot of mistakes, misunderstanding and misconception and that he felt that we could move on and everybody present most people attended.
Was the National President of ANLCA in that meeting?
He was in the meeting and he was the one that said that it was a very good idea just as every one of us said. In the process of discussing how we could move on to achieve that harmony he was the person who moved a motion that the committee that I headed should now be allowed to go through with harmonizing views, consulting on how those issues as well as reactivating the CRFFN would be done. There was a communiqué to this effect and it was widely published in the papers. When we came back from that meeting some freight forwarders in the East here came to my office and said, that they saw something on the paper but that apparently those in the East were not been carried along that they don’t know what happened most of the time that they rely on whatever Lagos interprets for them and they raised the suggestion that calling for a meeting of registered forwarders will be a good idea which I bought and we held that meeting and it was successful. That meeting, the leadership of ANLCA in this zone as symbolized by the Chairman Board of Trustees and the Vice President all attended the meeting.
I wouldn’t know probably what was interpreted later in the process of the mandate given to the whole committee in one of the consultations. In one of the meetings we called again in Lagos in about a month after I reported about the meeting that was held in the East which everybody felt was good. At that meeting that was held in Lagos, where the presidents officials and BoTs of various associations attended, it was agreed that there should be some kind of sensitization campaign, letting the freight forwarders know what’s the new understanding in the fact that we want to reactivate this because it is ours, it’s the only platform we have, at least the government approved we have, to bring our profession to the level we want it.
So it was agreed that this is what we are going to do and then the committee because I am the chairman of the committee, I told the committee that almost all the amount of meetings we’ve been holding had been in Lagos that the sensitization should start from Port Harcourt, judging from the complaints that the freight forwarders here in the East have always been having. It was based on that that there was an approval by the committee that that meeting should hold on the first of this sensitization. So for me and for everybody concerned it wasn’t an ANLCA meeting. That meeting is actually a meeting of that committee which was mandated by the same people to work towards reactivating and reconciling everybody. It wasn’t an ANLCA meeting! So I was surprised because I came into Port Harcourt two days before the meeting. When I came in I called and some people were saying “I hope this meeting has been arranged” and it was there I started getting the feelings that all wasn’t well. Someone was saying the next meeting he’ll be willing to host which to me is a good thing. If somebody offers to host a meeting but I didn’t know that it had some undertones around it. So, it was because of them that they are saying that there will be a boycott. The members of the committee were already coming from Lagos, in fact it was a Monday meeting so by Sunday when I started calling people they said they didn’t know about the meeting and I said they shouldn’t worry please if there is any misgivings they should come to the meeting so way that we can trash it out there; that the meeting of the committee to sensitize the freight forwarders towards the new movement that was agreed jointly by all the associations that which this committee was mandated to drive.
How they started reading ANALCA agenda into it, I didn’t know! It is the same meeting we all held in Lagos, continuation of that same meeting. The next thing I saw was that there is a meeting called by so called freight forwarders that this meeting had been declared illegal by president of ANLCA and therefore anybody who attends will be sanctioned. I felt so bad. Then I was faced with a situation, do I call other members of the committee and tell them and tell them that the meeting is not going to hold because some people have termed it illegal? In fact they were the people to call me and Alhaji Hakeem who called first. It was based on his prompting that I called the president of ANLCA and tried to explain to him that the meeting is still the same meeting which you had sanctioned and he asked why I didn’t tell him to which I replied that I travelled out but however it was not an ANLCA meeting. That was what happened. The only thing then was that when people were saying that the meeting should be postponed, that is after they had actually declared it illegal, they were now suggesting that why can’t we have this meeting before and I said what for?
People are already coming. As at the time we were discussing that some people were already here so I made sure that those who came had a meeting so that was probably the beginning of all this; the fact that the meeting was held after all, after been declared illegal. So a lot of people felt beyond themselves that this now like an open challenge, that is way I read it. I want to say that believe in continuity, I also believe the fact that nobody knows everything all by himself and that is why I’m also very open to any suggestions, any corrections. Anywhere I have not done it right I also want to be told just like I will also without any hesitation or reservation telling anybody where he’s not doing it right. Insinuation holds a whole lot of potent here in the industry. I think that is what many people even those who knows the truth continue to exploit in this industry, I’m not talking about ANLCA, or CRFFN because it’s the same people who are in ANLCA that are in CRFFN but again it will appear that because of the paucity of knowledge or certain level of formal education, it will appear that it’s a fertile ground for people to be misinformed and once an information is given no matter how wrong it is people start acting and working on it; they start having their own bearings based on what they have perceived of the information that was given. So we know all this, these are the things that with the coming of the CRFFN Act we’ll start correcting. All professions started somewhere and maybe at the time they started there were some kind of difficulty but there was genuine commitment on the part of the practitioners at the time it all started to bring it to the level they want it to be. This is what the Act wants to achieve for freight forwarders and some of us saw the need to take or seize the opportunity but then you know the same problem within the system made it not to… that happens to be the major thing that may have been seen as the friction.
CRFFN gave full accreditation to three more freight forwarding associations in addition to ANLCA and NAGAFF and this move by the Council was to the displeasure of the two initially accredited associations. What do you think about the move?
This is one of the issues of which some of us, some of the elected council members, were been maligned for. There were lots of insinuation put forward as to the reason. Like I say this is a peculiar industry where the issue of logic and reason is sometimes given a shove and sentiment brought in. It was widely alleged that the reason for the accreditation of that three was with some ulterior motive. First there was the motive of spiting the so called two big associations. I say so called because the only big association, maybe my opinion may not matter because having been the national president of ANLCA I could be accused of been biased, but then talking about structure, talking about organs, talking about membership and foundation ANLCA is the only association in the freight forwarding industry. Maybe it’s also good to say this because at the start of this issue there was the problem of criteria for accreditation and what was given wasn’t anything serious but when the other associations could not meet it NAGAFF resorted to black mail alleging that members of the association committee are all ANLCA members and it became an issue which was not supposed to be because if there was a criteria that says that you must have offices in all the ports or zones in the country that shouldn’t depend on whether the members of the committee are of any particular association.
If you have it and they don’t accredit you, you now have a reason to cry that there is bias but then when you don’t meet up and the committee forwards your report that you failed to meet up so? By the way all these five associations applied at the onset and they were all given provisional accreditation pending when they satisfy the committee that they have met these requirements. Only ANLCA met those requirements and was so fully accredited. Now, NAGAFF resorted to blackmail and at the end of the day everybody was blackmailed into fully accrediting NAGAFF not because NAGAFF met the requirement but like in Nigeria “let peace reign”. So later when the other associations requested for full accreditation the committee…I wasn’t a member of the committee on registration but I understood that they used many things to come to their conclusion and I guessed that one of the things they used was that the issue of spread and structure may no longer be necessary since one association didn’t meet it and had been so fully accredited so why not give everybody full accreditation. Let everybody be there and in renewal certain things will now be possible to now be fully assessed, I guess that was what they thought as I wasn’t a member of the committee like I said, and we felt that that it is not a big deal association is association. When this Act was being made, I actually strongly opposed involvement of the association inside it 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 is been brought into place by an Act so the idea of letting one organisation that was brought about by an Act be controlled by another association that has its existence based on an existing Act, I felt it was going to be a difficult thing. But then the legislature insisted that they should be there and it is there and now we are seeing the benefits of it being there. 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 today that the associations in the freight forwarding industry are actually controlling and regulating the Council because when they are now saying what will happen and if it doesn’t happen nothing happens what again is control and regulate? So, it’s a paradox. Again, a lot of things happen that makes people to be angry because when certain insinuations come up… For instance there was an insinuation against the chairman of the committee, Peter Obi, that he himself said at an ANLCA meeting that he heard that why he fully accredited the other three associations was that he stuck a deal with them that whatever they will be getting will be shared with him (laughs) He swore that if such thing ever crossed his mind not to talk about whether it was discussed that God should take his life.
You know people don’t understand what it means to make up things that impugn on other people’s integrity. It becomes really a sore point because though some people believe that clearing agents don’t bother about their integrity but some of us believe that this is a profession like any other profession and I can hold my head high before any professional in the world so my integrity means so much more to me. I think this is one of those things that have appeared to have drawn up this big divide and it probably has spilled into the internal relationship in ANLCA. Perhaps if those who believe that the president should be told of any move that we are making in the CRFFN for him to give an approval before it will be made. They are entitled to the opinion, I don’t believe that. I also want to say this despite our individual dispositions and differences I have no issue with Prince Shittu. I supported his bid for the ANLCA presidency. In fact when he came with the present vice-president to ask me to go for a second term I was like why would I? I believe I have played my own role and should give others chance. And they were like no you haven’t groomed someone to take over and I said ‘who do I groom again? Both of you have always been with me in all the things we are been doing. Why not both of you? You both can do it and that was how it started” So I became like involved in his presidency.
So you can comfortably say that you have nothing against Shittu’s administration?
Nothing at all! There were things he was doing that initially I didn’t understand and I had to ask him “how he thinks this will turn out” and he assured that they will turn out well. For instance this issue of the handshake across the divide, the cooperation with NAGAFF and … I was very uncomfortable with it because as the president of ANLCA I knew the problem I had from the leadership of NAGAFF. Not just on a personal level but talking of a situation… we are talking about how the industry will be sanitised, when we talk about the industry a lot of people will look at it as that of the agents but it’s not clearing agents only that make up the industry, there are those that play key roles here who need to be told that they are not doing it right. But then, during my tenure, I discovered that when the association comes up with anything NAGAFF was always coming up with a counter! So when I saw that Shittu was disposed towards cooperation with NAGAFF, I said okay fine…maybe this will bring peace and I was pleasantly waiting to see the benefits. But what I saw that it still has not changed anything rather it brought about more shenanigans, more scheming, more intrigues and all towards personal gains. I felt that he’s (Shittu) done it his own way but I don’t see it working at all. Maybe it is also good because you may have read in the paper that my company wrote to the terminal operator requesting…. Some newsmen have asked me, and I said did I write to ANLCA that my company won’t pay the practising fee? And I said if people want to ask something, it should be done on a factual base. I don’t need to write to the terminal operator that I won’t pay practicing fees. If I won’t pay, I will direct the letter to my own association than direct it to the terminal operator. It was because what was going on there was not in tandem with what I consider the ideals of the association.
So did your company at a time refuse to pay practicing fees? If yes, for what reason and how does it contradict the ideals of the association?
I was told that NAGAFF had to stamp my consignment and when they showed me a document with NAGAFF stamp and that it was the basis under which the jobs are been treated there, I said no! I was comfortable because that’s not what I bargained for. I’m not a member of NAGAFF and therefore should not be subjected to NAGAFF approval. I had brought the attention of the chairman of the chapter to that which he didn’t do anything about.
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