Tony Uju Nwabunike is the National President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent (ANLCA). In this interview with Shulammite ‘Foyeku, he speaks on sundry issues including the raids of markets by officials of the Nigeria Customs Service, allegation of corruption against Customs Comptroller-General Hameed Ali, and the imposition of the so-called Practitioners Operating Fee (POF) on cargo clearance by government, among other issues.
Penultimate week, the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) announced the Federal Government’s approval of Practitioners Operating Fee (POF) payment as one of the requirements for cargo release across the nation’s seaports and land borders. What is your position on this?
ANLCA is one of the five associations registered under CRFFN. On 30th April 2007, an Act was enacted given CRFFN the power to train and retrain us, regulate and guide all our formalities. On that training, section 2 of the Act said that all association members will source for money for their own training. So CRFFN came up with POF as a way of getting money for the training and on our welfare. It then behoves on us to uphold the principles of CRFFN. So we support it. There is nothing anybody can do because it is a government policy and we should support it.
But agents have argued that tying cargo clearance to payment of POF will add to the cost of doing business. What would you say to this?
I understand their agitations. What the agents are asking for is simple: if CRFFN wants us to pay the POF, they should look into our problems and solve them. That was exactly what I told the stakeholders in Kano last week. I have asked all the presidents of other associations in conjunction with us to articulate the challenges we are facing at the port and present them to the Council to champion it to the appropriate quarters of the government where it will get adequate attention. I understand the feelings of the agents that CRFFN has not done enough for them to pay POF but my own counsel to them is that we should give CRFFN a chance. If you look at CRFFN, after the first and second (Governing) Council, it has not been well positioned, so it is just like starting afresh altogether. We should give them a chance to stabilize and get the money to train members to institutionalize us.
What is your take on the call by the Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Customs, Senator Ade Fadahunsi that the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali be sacked over alleged fraud and incompetence?
The person that actually brought out that information is a Deputy Chairman of Customs Relation Committee in the Senate. Retired Deputy Comptroller-General of Customs Fadahunsi was a very seasoned Customs officer whom I met on this job. I believe that those allegations coming from his person are weighty and I would suggest a public hearing be called on the allegation to substantiate the claims of the Senator backed with documents. That would give us the opportunity to know the true position of the whole thing and we take it from there.
A couple of days ago, officials of Customs raided Yaba market where bails of clothing were seized. Do you support the argument that Customs operation should be limited to the borders and not carried out in the market?
We have written severally against Customs operation at the hinterlands. It is a very wrong procedure for Customs to arrest goods. I wonder why Customs would go the market and seize goods that have already been cleared from the port where they have multiple customs units on the roads including the Federal operations Unit, Customs police, Strike Force and border drill officers, yet they still come to the market to seize goods that poor people are selling. It is never done in any part of the world except in Nigeria and it is wrong. We condemn it totally. Traders that are affected in this raid should network with us so that we put serious petition against this to the National Assembly and the Presidency.
It has been six months since the Federal Government closed the land borders to import and export. With few months to the take-off of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), would you say Nigeria is ready for its implementation?
Border closure is suppose to be a temporal closure and by now the Federal government would have put the whole system in place to reopen it. But when you talk about security lapses and the border closure, everybody is applauding it. But looking at the economic value, you will find out that Nigeria may be having a good time closing the border but the trade and service according to ECOWAS Trade Lberalization Scheme (ETLS) is not in tandem and we are talking about African Continental Free Trade Agreement. So by the time we look at both sides, we’ll begin to know that we should put our system in place, partner with neighbouring countries and secure our border posts properly.
When you talk about AfCFTA, you are talking about borderless trade and that means that every border should be open within the African continent, the same way it is suppose to be on ETLS. I always believe that the government through our internal mechanism should have a deep relationship with other West African countries to know exactly the principles of ETLS. If you say that you have Common External Tariff (CET), you should also have a common contraband item as well as a common import guideline too. So I strongly believe that they should streamline their guidelines on the ECOWAS scheme just like the AfCFTA is coming up with so many guidelines too.
I have said it times without number that we are not ready for AfCFTA. In as much as the government has actually inaugurated the committee but with the situation on ground, we should be very prepared otherwise we would be disgraced. It is an open market. What do we have to offer? What can we say we are the highest exporter of apart from petroleum? What can we boast of in raw material? What is the product? South Africa is ready; Morrocco, Algeria and Egypt even Angola are all ready to showcase what they have. What do we have to show? The government agencies at the border posts, are they ready? It is going to be a holistic thing. If we call ourselves the giant of Africa, we should be able to show it.
What do you think is the way out of the looming congestion at the Lagos Ports occasioned by the border closure?
The ports are filled up even before the closure of the border. Our ports are congested because the roads are bad and the trucks are not too good coupled with the multiplicity of government agencies at the port, making clearing very difficult. Cargo clearance cannot be obtained within 24 hours. Ease of doing business has been so neglected. Recently, Nigeria-bound goods are being transferred to Cameroon because they cannot offload. What has happened to the Calabar port? Why can we not use Calabar and Warri seaports? Why must we concentrate on Lagos and Port Harcourt alone? So we should decentralize our ports. We should make every port viable. We should make sure that government agencies at the ports reduce the number of units within them.
ANLCA ended its over one year crisis last year with a seven-man committee set up to reconcile members. What is the update on the report of the committee?
The mandate given to the committee was very clear on the issue of bringing every faction together and map out the way forward for the association in 2020 and beyond. The committee is still working till the end of this month. We don’t want to pre-empt them because we believe that they are going to do a good job on the way forward. It was a two-week period that we gave them but because the meeting rounded up towards the end of December last year, the committee asked for three weeks holiday. So I am very sure by the end of the month, they will give us a holistic report.
So are you looking at conducting election in the western zone anytime soon?
Yes. After the report comes out, there will definitely be election in the western and northern zones.
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