Dr. Boniface Aniebonam

There was nothing like benchmark – Aniebonam

Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, who is known for his controversial postures on issues that may be generating heated debate within the maritime industry especially the freight forwarding circle vis-à-vis Customs’ operations, in this interviews takes a look at the suspended controversial benchmark policy of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the subsequent arrest of the factional National President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Mr. Lucky Eyis Amiwero by operatives of the NCS.

The issue of benchmark, people don’t seem to understand what it is all about; can you enlighten us?
Let me say that I have a background as an officer of the Nigeria Customs Service and I think It is important that the Public Relations Department of the Customs is fast forwarded because it appears there is a communication gap. Now what is benchmark? As people called it, in my opinion there is nothing like benchmark. Rather what I think Customs succeeded in doing is to show the levels of benevolence in them; by not invoking sections 46, 47, down to 164 of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA). We should be looking out non complaint import into the country, which can be easily referred to as illegality. When you get yourself involve in instances of concealment, false declaration, undervaluation of imports, wrong description of import etc, you go straight to section 46 of CEMA which extensively tells you what the sanction should be, seizure of the consignment and prosecution of the offender and if you are found guilty, it is five years imprisonment with no option of fine. Now I take you back to import guideline 2006. That section of the guideline which is an inferior document to the CEMA Act; created opportunity for demand notice to be issued to defaulters. But that should be for what one might call first offender. It is not right for you to continue to make untrue declaration for Customs purpose and the punishment is quite obvious. So what you saw happen was Customs maybe because of the level of poverty in the country, we don’t want to actually seize this goods and then decided to say okay, if you are at default, non complaint to import regulation, we impose this penalty.

So in essence the benchmark was meant to be instead of seizing it, you pay this much?
Yes, powers to do that are inherent in Sections 4, 5 and 6of CEMA. That is the powers of the board of the Customs to impose sanctions. So what you saw that played out was sanction against non complaint imports.

I heard you say recently that it was a way of providing soft landing by the Nigeria Customs Service?

But people misconstrue all of that. They thought Customs is desperate to realize one trillion naira?
No! No!! That is what exactly I said that of course at a very high level, we’ve communicated to Customs on the need to bridge the gap of communication. I am telling you authoritatively because people were not properly informed and there was no follow up. You recall that the Comptroller General of Customs appeared at Trade Fair Complex, Lagos where he had a town hall meeting and that was part of the effort to enlighten the public in line with all I have just said.

But one would have thought that association’s leaders, freight forward leaders like you, leaders of the organize private sector groups etc; would have taken it upon themselves to say look my people this is good for us it is a soft landing from Customs, lets embrace it?
Well I am sure you might be talking about others because this is not the first time I have been saying things like this and I will continue. The position of NAGAFF is quite clear and we have it made very clear and recently in the guardian newspaper you will see what the president of NAGAFF did extensively on this matter.

One of the fallouts of the benchmark was that Customs eventually suspended it because of a whole lot controversy around it. One of the fallouts is the alleged molestation of Mr. Lucky Amiwero the factional President of the National Council of Managing Directors of License Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), by Customs Officers. What do you make of this?
I beg your pardon to use the word fallout. Whatever might be the difference between the Customs Lucky and NCMDLCA has nothing to do with benchmark and I will not want to believe that Customs has any hand in that. A petition was written of course by the President of NCMDLCA.

What instigated the petition was that Amiwero sent a petition to the Senate as President of NCMDLCA?
Don’t input that. Amiwero from those who write the counter petition alleged that Amiwero does not have the right to handle the letter heading of NCMDLCA because he has been removed from NCMDLCA as President and of course you should know the regulatory agency; Council for The Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) did recognize only two associations NAGAFF and Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and a provisional approval was given to NCMDLCA led by Ejiofor and I am sure you know that Amiwero as an individual is in court with CRFFN and CRFFN is the regulatory body for freight forwarding. So you can see that somebody is in charge and I have expected my good friend Amiwero to respect the rules of engagement to maintain status quo pending when the case is disposed off.

If we have a council of freight forwarding and we have this kind of dispute within the freight forwarding groups, how come the council did not intervened?
CRFFN may not go into that because it is in court with Amiwero as an individual under Eyis Resources and it is not everybody that you talk to, they know that CRFFN has given provisional approval to NCMDLCA led by Ejiofor and CRFFN saw that there was no issue. So it is Ejiofor and his group that wrote a petition to the authority and they intend to investigate what the whole thing was all about. I think that the chief law officer of the Federation which is the Attorney General and of course you should know, if the matter has to do with a petition that has to do with port operations in relation to Customs formalities, the Attorney General of the Federation has the prerogative of asking any of the agencies of government and Section 8 of CEMA gives Customs the power of arrest and that was what they did probably to invite Amiwero and it degenerated into fight. And this is what borders me about Amiwero . At level we should know the prerogative of the government, particularly the agents of the government to enforce regulations. The rights of Nigerians of course must be respected but the agencies of the government have the powers to invite any person when there is a matter under investigation. And so each time these agencies go to him, he keeps fighting them. Remember the case two years ago, the same NCMDLCA. He fought them and he was almost naked, today again the same problem. From the public opinion Lucky Amiwero might be suffering from psychological inadequacy but really Amiwero is somebody we all appreciate and probably public opinion again appreciates him for his nuisance value.

Some people will even point accusing fingers at you that you have a hand in his ordeal especially in the hands of the police two years ago which you refer to?
No, Amiwero is my good friend. The thing is that he doesn’t listen. And those who describe his situation as having psychological inadequacy might not be very far from the truth. Lucky Amiwero is appreciated but he needs to take one or two steps backward and learn how to live with people and this is the honest truth, it bothers all of us.

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