Dr Ralph John is President of the Importers Association of Nigeria (IMAN). In this interview, he argues that contrary to the belief that importation is not healthy for any nation’s economy, it can be well exploited by government to drive industrialization. He also speaks on various issues concerning the import business in Nigeria and proliferation of illegal arms.
Considering the fact that importation largely dominates the Nigerian economy, would you agree IMAN has not been visible, as it should?
The Importers Association of Nigeria was established a long time ago and the essence is to bring all industrialists and importers together and to assist them in doing genuine business that will help economic growth.
We bring the importers together under one umbrella which will help to boost trade in Nigeria, both locally and internationally. It will help to reduce corruption at the borders, highways and every area that have to do with the importer. It will also foster unity and mutual understanding among members, and protect its members from all forms of intimidation and exploitation from the government and general public.
Above all, it serves as a reference point for government and non-governmental organizations. But the organization has lost its direction because of poor leadership. We want to ask all Nigerians and those who have been affected by the inactive leadership of the past to bear with us, but everything is about to change.
So far, how has IMAN, beyond its members’ routine activities of importation, which some believe doesn’t necessarily drive any economy, been contributing to Nigeria’s economic growth?
If government would provide the enabling environment, importers would reduce the rate of unemployment in the country because importers who are also industrialists will be setting up factories in different locations of the country.
Government has been emphasizing on employment and one of the fastest ways to achieve this is to provide importers the incentives to become local industrialists.
Importation itself is not anti-economic growth. Government can make the business of importation easier by not squeezing importation through unnecessary blockades; otherwise it would be opening the door to smuggling.
A government can’t say because it is fighting smuggling, it must strangulate legitimate importation of basic items. When it does that, it runs a risk of allowing all sorts of items, including arms, into the country illegally. So we are calling on the Central Bank of Nigeria to look at some of the financial policies that are not favourable to importers and relax some of them.
What do you say to the allegation that your members are the economic saboteurs engaged in importation of contraband goods?
We are educating our members on issues bordering on prohibition of some goods into Nigeria. Every year, the Customs, through the Ministry of Finance, brings out a policy it calls prohibition. This has to do with items which the government does not allow anybody to bring in. And if they are to come into the country, the Customs Excise Management Act (CEMA) has to authorize it.
We are aware that most importers are not thoroughly informed on what to import and what not to import into the country, hence they go about importing anything. We took time to list all the prohibited items in our recent publication. We are making our members realize that if they bring in any item on the import prohibition list, it will be seized outright.
Many importers are still operating with the importation knowledge of 20-30 years ago. Some of them may not know that there have been changes in the world of trade, Customs laws, the global market and the rest of them. We will soon organize a seminar in collaboration with the Nigeria Customs Service, CBN and other relevant federal government agencies on this. We advise the CBN to enlighten the importers on government policy.
Another important thing is that if an importer brings in items that don’t have much market value at home, he has only succeeded in transferring abroad money that would develop other economies. But the importers don’t see it that way; all they look at is an opportunity to earn easy money. We want to make them know that they can shift from that perspective to a patriotic perspective that can serve the country better while they earn their more money. When an importer shifts from importing just anything to importing the necessary things, he earns more money.
Government too should be conscious that its responsibility is not all about clamping down on importers, but is more on providing the enabling environment to do business. That is the reason why we were unhappy that the past administration was unserious with importers. That administration was toying with importers without telling them what exactly they were supposed to know.
Without importers, no economy can function well. We are calling on the government to partner with us as it should for the nation’s economic growth. Importers shouldn’t be regarded as people who bring in illegal goods. Rather, they should be respected as genuine businessmen helping government for economic growth.
Government should even be consulting importers before it formulates its economic and financial policies. We could present papers, even to the National Assembly, on economic issues. Importers could help in bringing in vital equipment that could boost industrialization. The government can give loans to importers to set up small-scale industries. We are also calling on government to allow banking policies that could encourage industrialization.
How does your association ensure that its members don’t import arms and other illegal items?
Article 20 of our constitution empowers our association to set up a sub-committee or a special task force on illegal proliferation of small arms. We have a task force called the National Task Force on Illegal Firearms, which is collaborating with the office of the National Security Adviser and the Ministry of Finance. The task force is working with federal government agencies to check illegal arms importation.
We want to correct the erroneous impression that it is an importer that does illegal importation of firearms. This task force will scrutinize the activities of our members. Of course, you cannot check members who are not registered with you. One of the basic functions of the Importers Association of Nigeria is to ensure that all importers are registered. And when they are fully registered, we can easily detect who is importing what. This new leadership is calling on all members to be registered. We will have the database of all registered members through which we can regulate importation of firearms. To give the National Task Force professional muscle and make it effective, we have appointed to head it a new Director, who is an ex-military officer we are confident will give it an improvement.
Illegal importation of firearms is a big problem to the nation. We want President Buhari to support our task force and the new leadership of the Importers Association of Nigeria. The President must know that checking illegal importation of arms and ammunition will be easily done through importers than any other channel. We are also calling on the security agencies to assist the task force. Of course, there are other committees on other areas like trade, the economy and statistics, planning, the Customs, arbitration and finance that IMAN has set up.
Your association has been embroiled in leadership crisis, with two factions laying claim to control. Has peace been restored?
The person claiming headship of the office of the President couldn’t be a leader in the association if he was not made so by the IMAN Board of Trustees. The Board, headed by Chief Gilbert Obi, and with members Ubong Udoh, Alhaji Bature Abdulaziz, Alhaji Aliyu, Ahmed Yar’dua and Osita Okereke and two others appointed him President. One is late. Out of the six remaining members, four, led by the chairman, said because of an issue of lack of credibility in running the affairs of the organization, expelled him and appointed the new President and board members. We have addressed all the gray areas, peace has been restored to the association and we are forging ahead for our common good.
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