The founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, in this exclusive interview with Shulammite ‘Foyeku, bears his mind on the issue of corruption by officials of government agencies at the port, his expectations from President Buhari’s second term in office, and the collection of Practitioners Operating Fee (POF) by the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), among other issues.
What are your expectations from President Buhari’s second term in office as it concerns the maritime industry?
As a leader in the political terrain, I believe the next level of President Buhari’s administration, looking at his body language, will be more robust. However, if I am to narrow it down to the port, I am sure the signals are there that the port is fraught with high level corruption which I believe will be stemmed in this new dispensation. I hope he will bring in a more sustainable reform at the port because what is going on at the port in terms of corruption is very terrible. For instance, the access roads into the port are so degrading, where do we start from? Unfortunately, the executive powers of Mr. President under Section 5 of the Constitution have been delegated so he will have to increase his supervisory role as to who is doing what. We expect him to appoint a technocrat, somebody who has the understanding of the ports as Minister. The issue of trade policy in Nigeria should also be looked into. It is very clear that every import into the country must have a Form M, so for the fact that certain items were disadvantaged from having access to forex does not mean those goods should not come because the interested parties may have foreign exchange but then you will still need to register your Form M. But here we are, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the commercial banks don’t accept such Form M. That is a very wrong implementation of trade policy and that is what has led to the high level of non-compliance in the port because those goods that do not enjoy registration of Form M are still coming in like rice. This, to an extent is creating avoidable problems for the Customs. The trade policy on vehicles is also not the best to the extent that Customs has even advised government to take a second look at some of those policies. When you look at the automotive council status, they say they want to increase local capacity but it is not functional, rather it is a mode of smuggling while revenue accruing from importation of vehicles from 2010 model upward is more than what you get in a container and that barrier has increased smuggling activities of cars through unapproved borders. So these are few things I expect the new government to take a second look at.
Clearing agents have opposed the deployment of Customs Strike Force, which is described as the third layer of defense in the prevention of smuggling and duty evasion at the port. What is your take on this?
I am sure you know that the biggest problem in the port today is the issue of compliance. Many of us are simply very greedy and the greed in us does not allow us to see and to that extent, you don’t wake a sleeping giant who for the sake of patriotism have continue to tolerate the criminality inherent in cargo clearance out of the Customs control hiding under the mantra of trade facilitation. You don’t run a society without obeying the law and we need to be careful. We don’t know what the next level of the President means but it is likely going to signify zero tolerance for act of corruption in Nigeria no matter who is involved. What is it that Customs has done that is wrong? Are you going to tell the Comptroller-General of Customs how he should go about his administration when he is relying on the Act that set them up? The only thing we can tell the CG is to take cognizance of the alleged inherent abuse of such powers by the operatives and not to tell him how to run the administration. The Customs has said that the Strike Force is their third layer of intervention. Are you not aware as a resident reporter at the port that people do not comply with regulations at the port? There is no government that will keep quiet over matters of fraudulent practices especially when it revolves around revenue due to the government or bringing in prohibited goods into the country. No government will keep quiet on that. Can you evade tax in America or Switzerland? No government will tolerate that. Anybody who thinks what the Customs CG did was not right can go to Federal Operations Unit in the different zones to see their exploit. Nobody blackmails government, you can only talk to government when you are doing the right thing and somebody is abusing that right to check you. That is where you can take responsibility probably by going to court. How do you explain a situation where somebody is clearing a television set and when asked what is in the container, he said computer accessories at five percent rate of duty or even pharmaceuticals that is zero percent and when the agent connive to clear at the port, they pick it up on the road, and he starts making noise. May be next level will get to the level of prosecution. People don’t seem to understand and look at the law. Relevant sections of Customs law; Sections 46 and 47, 161 and 162 talk about matters of untrue declaration for Customs purpose. If you are found guilty, it is five years in prison; no option of fine. It is an extant law. Yet Customs try to see that because this is trade, they give you penalty to pay maybe 25 percent of the value of the goods; yet people are still making noise. Let me remind you that there was a time NAGAFF championed that freight forwarders were tired of giving bribe. If there is a way we can stop giving bribe, let us stop it right away or is that what we are going to tell our young ones that their lives would depend on giving bribe with anything they are doing at the port? Who told us that a professional cannot earn his legitimate income? That is where the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) comes in, but at the same time that is why some people don’t want the council to work.
Talking about CRFFN, it has been over six months after the inauguration of the Governing Council but it appears the council is still docile as it is yet to come up with any blueprint of action that will impact on the freight forwarding industry. How would you react to this?
Yes, I am not a member of the Governing Council but I can tell you authoritatively that having six representations on the part of NAGAFF in the Council, I should know what is going on. For instance, in the area of funding, you can’t do much if you don’t have fund but that is not to say the council is not working. It is working. For instance, they got approval from the Federal Executive Council for the collection of the Practitioners Operating Fee (POF). I’m sure you know that somebody worked on that and you can see some vehicles being distributed to the leadership of the various committees and stocks are being taken and they are getting ready to move out to solve some of these issues. Any moment from now, they will commence visitation to the strategic stakeholders including Customs, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the associations and other groups that are key to their operations. The leadership of CRFFN to me is a hand of God because the chairman has no skeleton in his cupboard not to do what he is supposed to do. Good enough the chairman is also in politics and those issues that will be politically resolved, he will have the capacity to do so. It can take long but let us do it well. Don’t forget that the last council was in 2012 and it took eight years before a new Governing Council came on board and so they inherited an empty treasury.
There is controversy around the sharing formula of the POF, which stipulates that 35 percent of the collection should go to the declarant while the CRFFN gets 65 percent.
Anybody can tell you that the council met and took decision by virtue of the court order that made the council to be an agency of the government. Well, that’s a judgment and that has not touched the Act. The Act is the National Assembly. So, it remains as it is. We are only keeping quite with some of these things they are doing and the gazette they are coming out with because we are interested in getting the council running first. As I am talking to you, the council bill has gone to the National Assembly for amendment and a lot of movement is ongoing. There are moves to change certain columns of it and those things that made us to go to court are those things they are now going to National Assembly to amend. So ab initio you will see why we have gone to court to appeal on that judgement. The latest I am hearing now is that the appointees are making some subtle moves to make it mandatory that the Chairman of the council will be among the six appointees of the Federal Government and the Vice Chairman will become maybe an elected member of the freight forwarding associations. These are human thinking. Talking about the sharing formula of 65 percent to the government, 30 percent to the agents and then five percent to the association, I can tell you that the members of the council elected are the representatives of the associations. Those corporate bodies you are talking about are members of the registered associations. So, in this wise, who is a declarant? So there is an ambiguity. The CRFFN Act does not recognize the licensing regulation of the Customs. So if you are licensed by the Customs, for us, under CRFFN Act; it is basically an administrative procedure. But however, the Customs law is a statute that has been in the regulation of license Customs agents and it is extant. The CRFFN Act is a new law, which seeks to go professional and for you to go professional, you must deal with a natural person. So a declarant is a natural person registered by the council. A corporate body registered by CRFFN will be powered by an individual person whose name is also in the register of freight forwarders because a corporate body cannot talk, cannot undergo training, it cannot hear, it cannot listen. So when we talk about professional standards, it has to be done by a natural person. So, that matter is a subject matter right now at the council and I hope they will be able to look at that as the council settles down fully.
Do you think CRFFN can work efficiently with the different interests and positions of NAGAFF and the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) over who a declarant is?
We are coming together, ANLCA and NAGAFF are coming together steadily and we are moving very fast. For instance, the leadership of ANLCA being the first Chairman of the council is the number one freight forwarder of this country and I have told him, he has the opportunity right now to correct the mistakes he made now being the President of ANLCA. So, he needs to work with NAGAFF so that we can make things work for the good of the young freight forwarders that are coming up. We need to leave legacy as it is. We are no longer negotiating but to work together because the President of ANLCA is quite ready now to do the right thing, I spoke to him and I think he is determined to do the right thing now.
Do you have an idea of when POF collection will commence since the Federal Government has given the go ahead?
No. The Federal Government has given them responsibility by giving the necessary approval and provided that ANLCA and NAGAFF do not come with any obstruction, the payment will commence. So the Council will start the collection when they are ready and they can be sure of the support of NAGAFF. I am aware that some persons who are members of ANLCA went to court on this issue. Why do we have members of ANLCA going to court to oppose the council? If anybody feels he wants to become a stumbling block to an the agency of the government as it is now, then the person will have to blame himself in due time.
As an elder statesman in freight forwarding, what will be your advice to the leadership of ANLCA over the power tussle in the board which has been on for over a year now?
I am sure you know some of us have a stake in ANLCA and some of the things you see going on in ANLCA were the reasons why people like us had to leave the association. I am no longer a member of ANLCA and it would seem one is a meddlesome interloper by reacting to what is happening in the association when I have not finished addressing my own problem in NAGAFF. But because you use the word an elder statesman, I think I have that record founding NAGAFF and leading it and six years thereafter, I am out of it and subsequently, the young ones are taking over. The issue of ANLCA, if you ask me, as an individual, I do not understand and as I told you I am in touch with the President of ANLCA. NAGAFF has Board of Trustees; so also does ANLCA and we all know the duty and responsibilities of members of the board. Their role is advisory. Tony Iju is the Executive President (of ANLCS). He has the administrative power. I think that he is trying to do something different but since the problem has become intractable, I think it is time for him to go straight into the administration and management of ANLCA. That means he needs to be more proactive and radical to carry the responsibility as President while the BoT should go and sort themselves out and when they do, they should inform the executive. Otherwise, it will be like meddling into what does not really concern you and to that extent, distorting what you are suppose to be doing.
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