What is your view on the current state of the ports in terms of corruption involving representatives of the government agencies, including customs men and importers on the other side who try to maximize gains through concealment, under-declaration ,under-invoicing among others?
The repetition about the ports situation makes one look stupid. It is only in Nigeria here, you see a problem, there are solutions but they go and try something else first, trying the other side, by the time you come where the solution is, it is either events have overtaken it or the thing has grown beyond the proportion of your intervention. All of us are just repeating what should be done. We all know what should be done, but nothing has been done. I remember during the time of Dr. Mrs Ngozi Okonjo Iweala when she set up the Presidential committee on ports reform, and I was lucky to be there. And what did we do, we ended up (that was the time of Jonathan) submitting the report and recommendation …Five Smart Steps to Cleaning – because then everyone was saying 48 … The five smart steps also included PAAR – operation that has been ongoing, eventhough that one .. (this PAAR is not the original one that we envisaged, there was supposed to be a final document). Custom was supposed to do due diligence on value, quality and quantity by having direct contact with the supplier. We even suggested to them, if Nigerian Immigration Service can have staff in our embassies abroad, why can’t custom have staff in our embassies too.
Military has attaché, so let Custom arrange and send some staff at least to countries that do business with us, not all the countries and they can interlap – one seat can take care of 2-3 countries – so it will be easy to do verification of some of these things. By the end of the day, they say PAAR is advisory. So you don’t even know at what stage your compliance level is acceptable. How do you determine somebody is compliant or not, because when you are even compliant, you are a very honest person, am talking of the importer, you don’t want any corner corner, let me just pay my money to the government and go away. You are still subjected to all those pitfalls – all those mountains you need to cross because somebody wants to extort from you. So that is why people say, cash 2-2, if I am okay I will suffer, if am not okay, I will suffer, let me suffer once. You know that this trading we are talking about is competition – the lower the cost of bringing out your goods the better for you in competition with your colleagues. However, government did not bother to think about that – so how do you put your finger, could it be government is deliberating ignoring what is right to do, and this thing started during the time of President Babangida. He was the one that introduced multiplicity of security agencies in the ports. Then it was the more people you meet on way under checks and balances, the more it will be discouraging to you, therefore, corruption will go down. It is the same thing with the same Customs Comptroller General, that when you finish clearing goods at the ports, from there, you are seeing different units with different branches. You can meet three different branches of FOU between here (Festac) and Ikeja, then Task Force in different places, then you have CG own, at the end of the day, they were supposed to cure us of the appetite of non-compliance. By the end of the day, they must still do something – so why would they not tinker with value – instead of doing additional cost. So, those our approaches are the ones we said will not help. Now that five smart steps to cargo clearance is what is trying to be imbibed in the so called modernization of custom.
The details are not yet out but it could be what we recommended that time where there are people that will check quality, quantity, just like the Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) that was supposed to go with Shippers Council.
All they need to do is to come together and have a format. Like those days of CRI if the importer submits his documents, they do inspection there, they do confirmation there, they supervise your loading way to Nigeria, so they determine how much you are going to pay. That is why they want to raise so many billions of dollars and if you are able to pay, just pay and carry your goods. It will be a pleasant thing for me in particular to do a job that way, so that you don’t have this interface here and there.
If you see the headache we agents get and the effect on health, it is damn too much. That is why I thank God the way He has kept me up till now, that I don’t have depleting illness. That will be a better thing, but we want to see what they want to give us. Because we are yet to know, I want to tell you, all effort to break the ice – even some management staff of customs, they pretend they don’t know what is going on, that it is Ministry of Finance. So we expect our leaders to go to Ministry of Finance, because we are stakeholders, we have things at stake, we are going to implement this, government makes policy, agents implement, and custom enforces. That middle chain, if you remove it, nothing has happened. Then you come back and blame agents again. That may be they know, they just want to play. They are not carrying us along.
From what you have said, it appears that the problems importers and custom agents are having at the ports is one of the reasons why they have kept on with the level of trade malpractices.
You see, the level of malpractices in the ports cannot change. Just look ordinary direct traffic on the road alone became multi-billion Naira thing. They brought Army, Navy, they brought Road Safety, they brought Opeifa, former Commissioner of Transport, Lagos State, still yet. It is because we have a penchant that where we see food, you can’t remove it from my mouth oo. That is just that, nothing more. Inside the ports, you can never eradicate corruption – because I have tried on my own to look at, what do we do? Okay. Online transaction, like the one we do with Custom, as long as along the line, there is interface, is a problem. This new modernization as I am talking to you, if due diligence is done abroad, it is not impossible for somebody to use transshipment instead of loading direct from China to Apapa, you now see the person going down to Antwherp – they say they are trans-loading, anything can happen. Eventually, Nigerians have the brain to work around it. Because it is attractive to be corrupt. The bottom line is money and it is a reflection of the larger society. Even if what you are getting is more than enough for you, you just want to amass and collect more, that is why you see a young officer, 2-star may be not up to 2 years in the office, will be boasting in the office, ”me, every Friday, if I don’t have N500,000 then the person I catch on Monday is in trouble”. When he starts getting N500,000 every Friday, at the end of the month N2m, how much salary do you want to pay him. So between me and you that is too attractive to him, and he remains there, he now has enough wealth to influence his posting so that he does not leave that area. Is everywhere, I am not talking alone about Custom, even all those agencies in the ports are involved. That is why SON is fighting to be in ports. But if it is the same online single window, one-step-shop, even me, the agent, have on
my declaration, I have received the assessment I sent it online while sitting down here. That is what happens in America. It happens in Ghana. You don’t go to CPC in Ghana and see people. You are supposed to be in your office, that is why you are licensed to have an office. Once you send it (your declaration) to your client, he forwards it to his bank, bank pays, he forwards the receipt through the owner, to you, to the agent and you forward to the customs. You don’t have any business except to wait for notification of delivery that custom has released your cargo. And everything is online. If for example I want to know the state of the cargo for the payment I have done, I go online, under custom examination process. You see it, check back 12 hours. That is what happens abroad, if they suspect anything through scanning, they will do that examination without you, all those crowd at the port is not necessary.
That is what they do abroad. But can we fine-tune it to that level. Will the scanner not breakdown as it use to breakdown for a purpose. You have yellow lane, red lane and green lane. Green is for you to go, red lane is danger, and yellow lane is neither here or there, they can give you benefit – especially when they are homogenous product – that is what PAAR brought for us. But now it is 100 percent examination. So the system is blurred. Even when you do examination when the machine was alright, they will tell you, yes we have scanned, but this report we are not satisfied, go and position your container.
The Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) is championing automation among stakeholders at the ports, do you think it is possible for an agent to stay in his office and clear his goods without physically being at the port?
We just have to start it. There is no reason we will be waiting. Nigeria has not done this or that, for instance, now there is no light, I am using generator, I needed it because we have work continuously we are doing.
This is survival, for me if that is the route we need to take, it is better for me. For 8 years, that was what I was crying for. I give you example why I was crying, and don’t know why you media guys did not bother to help us than to amplify it, even now – it is a necessity. Before you came I was talking to somebody in North Carolina, who is doing shipment, and that shipment is giving them problem through the agent here. They went to our site and found my name too, so they called me. So I directed them to the new National Secretary (ANLCA) to see how they can help them, because we set up that table then– a web page – where we say – find a custom agent – so through that they contacted us. What am I bringing, you need to be necessary to do port operation. There is no area of port operation that does not certification. And that is the quarrel I had with them, the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), this idea of everybody come, this one come, you register because they pay money – they are registering as freight forwarders to do what?
There must be a job for you to do, it is not just to answer I am a freight forwarder. Oh, yes, I have my own ID card as a freight forwarder, but I am a custom broker working in a licensed company. You could be a ship chandler, is part of the line, you can specialise in transportation, there is nothing wrong, you can do business in the port without necessarily being a graduate – but those distortion, they are not looking into it. Myself and Engene Nweke (former NAGAFF President) in our collaborations, we came out with seven different categories of freight forwarders. But people are not interested, all they think is how much do I make in this project. Be that is it may, online transaction is what works abroad – because my partners abroad, Pegasus, anytime I travel on holiday to the US, I go to them, I spend three days with them to see how their operations go. And they go to the port. They have ingate clearance. Any terminal they are going, they have clearance, everywhere they have clearance. I saw a load of these tags we are wearing (form of ID when clearing goods at ports) – and I said what are you doing with all these, and they said because, if you don’t wear them, you cannot enter there. Why should people go to the terminal in large number, following themselves, saying yes, they are going to do examination. That is why the ISPS code did not work, that is why people are crying there are now wharf rats, because if that Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) had worked with Shippers Council, probably it needs to work, even the loading arrangement of that container abroad is already received there so this suspicion, (I have told you personal interview leads to trouble), I am suspecting something in cargo is not necessary, because they are sitting down in their offices and monitoring, because they are all interlinked. But once there is no interface, you will see that many people will not be interested in coming to the ports. Because there is nothing carry.
Talking about CRFFN, how far has the council performed in terms of the objectives of setting it up?
It cannot work now ….because CRFFN has been hijacked and made a parastatal of the Government. All Government parastatals today, forget about the denial of the immediate DG of NIMASA when I met him in Abuja, he was saying, we are not like them, they all have target, both official and personal target. Quote me anywhere—both NPA, NIMASA have targets, even the minister, Amaechi said it, that the Ministry alone can produce half of the budget of Nigeria-not to talk of FIRS, Finance, when you give somebody a target and he is struggling to meet government target, he must be meeting his own target, it is natural. When somebody has to use his/her discretion to determine whether you have complied with government regulation otherwise it will cause you this. He is determining the fate of that operation, he must think of himself, because the average Nigerian will say: I know you are working for the government, but this amount too much for government now!, if we pay it now, they will share it in Abuja, “make I give you this, make we pay this, make me self get this one”. That is how it is being done. Talking about CRFFN, the reason why they are not focused, from Mike Jukwe, is because once you give them good advice, they turn you to enemy. I know several times when he had issues with Dr. Aniebonam, when the man (Aniebonam) got too tired with their nonsense, he will just throw one bomb, and they will now be calling from there, but me I don’t have stomach for that. As soon as I left office, I decided to leave them. CRFFN business is training, is not for them to run a training institution, they are supposed to accredit schools that will take charge of training freight forwarders in all the fields relevant in the maritime industry . That is their job. Like COREN, you can’t have a University that wants to do an engineering course, and they are not accredited by COREN. It is because of that interest in money they started in a wrong footing, part of the problem I had with Jukwe, one of the reasons I said rather than to be counted among these people, let me resign. They were receiving budget from government, area of operations of freight forwarder, we know land borders is part of it, but how many goods go out of Nigeria through the land border? Even the goods that are coming in through the land border, are their documentation at par with seaports. We told them if they might have offices, let them put it on zonal basis so that their expenses can be accommodated by their budget. But what did you see, offices all over, CRFFN now has staff, even you will be asking what do they need all this people for. It now became, “ na we we, employ my brother now”, you continue to hear that. SO what do I bring in there, when that money is no longer enough, they must be looking for ways to meet it up. That is why you hear stories about Ports Operating Fees (POF). Ooh-it is going to be for training people. All the training we have been having since we do this business, we pay from our pocket. Nigerians are ready to pay. If that becomes part of requirements for you to remain in business, you will pay to go for training. But you say, no, we will do training, I am just telling you why they are not getting it right. When going for POF, you know recently, they wanted to do like all these agbero that stay in the road to collect money, I mean, we have gone beyond that level. I want to tell you honestly, if there in honesty, if CRFFN wants to generate money, whether to sponsor people for travelling abroad or going for same training here, assuming they went to do that, what do they do, let government put it among the payment that goes along with customs duty. Just like we have ETLS, CISS- they go under different headings. The money is warehoused in Central Bank, and you now make a budget requesting for that money to be used. You go through due diligence. Not for you to say, you will go online. I got a job, I don’t even know how I am going to go about the job, I don’t even know whether I am going to make something or not, I go online, you pay through such cumbersome exercise. The reason why they don’t want to go the way they should have gone is because there is no way they can touch the money. And that is why those who are in the council today don’t want to leave there, talk of tenure extension. Say, COVID, we did not do enough because of COVID. Buhari that is not even doing enough, 2023, he will say he is not going because COVID has eaten part of his tenure.
You think this option of seeking more funding from government will take care of the issue in POF?
Yes of course. I said if you are talking of POF, in the association I was talking for the association, because we had meetings several times and our position was no. We went to court. A new regime came, they now decided that this court case…(the court case was not a personal court case), they are going to settle with CRFFN. What is my business? But as far as I am doing my business, for POF, what do you need it for is the question you will ask. Is your budget adequate? Can you talk to government and see whether they can increase your budget to accommodate your needs not your excesses because the number of staff they have today are excesses, salaries, allowances and all those things they are taking are at par with bigger government agencies, like salaries in NNPC. But if they decide, let it go through the Govt means of collection. All the SON, they have the way you pay their money, it goes into government purses. Why can’t they do that? If they do that, people will say,” fine”, because they have become government collection. But they are now saying if it is government collection, it will add more to the cost of doing business, because Government is collecting it now, but if you are collecting it yourself, does it not add to the cost of doing business?
When POF agitation started, there was a lot of interest involved, do you see backers of CRFFN/stakeholders who are expected to benefit from the POF accept the option of CRFFN going through budget processes for its funding for obvious reasons?
That is what we are saying on what excuse, is it government money? If the CRFFN as it is known now is a government department, why should government collect money for you to share, So government should find a way of collecting money, because they are not happy. Whoever will do the money will not give.
What is the best way to solve the problem of arbitrary charges being imposed on importers by shipping companies and terminal operators?
As you know I told you that whatever is happening in the port is a reflection of the larger society. Those companies have big men behind them even with power. I bet you if Hassan Bello was not a gifted human being they would have sent him parking, gifted in the sense that he was taking it slow, slow, persuasion meetings. In fact Nigerian Shippers Council has more meetings in a month more than all the parantatals in a year, talking to the stakeholders, telling you their problem, talking to this one, calling shipping companies, terminal operators for them to see reasons why Nigeria should not suffer what other small countries are not suffering. Arbitrary charges are not allowed anywhere. Ghana system for import charges is that stakeholders must meet and agree before any increase. That is the same thing we have in Nigeria through the Nigeria Port Act, increase must be negotiated with stakeholders. But do they do it here, you just get your debit note that they have introduced another figure. And another thing that is worrying us in this country unlike elsewhere is that we don’t have consumer protection. There is the Consumer Protection of government where the President appoints a head, but it is Just head, they are not working .
They cannot do this thing abroad and most of these shipping companies, they are originally owned by foreigners who use Nigerian fronts to meet with certain exigencies, and those things and with those fronts, they say it is a Nigerian company. That is what you hear, because before you do business in Nigeria, you must be registered with Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). With Nigerians on the list, they say, ooh, it is owned by Nigerian. The powerful ones among them are the ones pressing buttons. it is very difficult thing for us to surmount maybe when we know the modernisation thing, it could address it. It can address it, because if they are to determine the cost of landing a 20-40ft container of homogenous goods and they look at what charges are obtained in Ghana, it is not supposed to be like that, Nigeria is higher than Ghana, they can press button internationally to call those shipping companies to order. Do you know if you report shipping companies abroad now, like the one Kayode Farinto threatened to do with some shipping companies, they will be begging, because it will affect them. Even if you complain online now and you post to Google, when they read it abroad, query is coming. But you know in Nigeria, we don’t care whatever happens. One thing that scares me, I was going to tell you, one of the easy things government would have done now to show sincerity of purpose, for 12 years I argued it with custom, Alhaji Dikko Inde (former Custom CG) could not do it, he refused to do it, I know that it is people around him that were pushing it ……
You are abroad now and you have a car you want to bring to Nigeria, (all of us depend on cars to buy in Nigeria, except people who see cheap money who can buy new ones or go abroad themselves). You should be able to with the V-number of the vehicle know how much money you are going to spend in Nigeria, you should be able to… it is happening in Ghana, we thought them. All you do, as you are looking at the car, maybe this one is 2010, 2015, you put the V-number on the platform created by Custom that will calculate the duty of that 2010 and flash it back to you. It will be online calculation for customs, shipping company will be on one side, terminal will be on one side. So, this idea of under-payment will be a thing of the past. So if your money is not enough for 2015, buy 2010, if not enough buy 2005. But they refused to do it in customs for whatever reason – if you tell them, they will tell you, we need to see it first, then somebody will calculate it for you and value it for you, to pay or you negotiate it. How will corruption go?
On arbitrary charges, what is your advice to the government on the kind of political will to adopt to stamp it out of our system completely?
Do you have faith in Nigeria political will? Just like this government of Buhari gave us hope, do you know that some did not want him to come, but some said let us give him chance, you remember the last time he came, he was hard on people. Everybody said corruption will be fought, we know what corruption is doing to everybody, but are you satisfied, is the political will there? Asu Beks was just talking on platform now that all the DCGS and ACGS in Nigeria Customs promoted recently were all Northerners, where is the political will? So if you are now telling people not to do corner corner in this business, they will tell you that in their own advantage. Because no Northerner will come and help him, he will help himself. So that political will is not something you can put faith on. No matter the promise of government these days, you need to wait until it works. Even this modernisation now, I want you guys in the media to impress on government that stakeholders need to know what it entails, not the money they want to share, but what are the processes? There is no reason why shipping company in Nigeria will just wake up one day and increase charges without relying on powers behind. Is it possible, they have not withdrawn the licences of any of them.
The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) has suffered one crisis after another which is yet to abate, many believe that the elders in the association have not done enough in addressing this problem, what is your view on this? What do you think is the way forward for the association to achieve a lasting peace?
I don’t know why everybody is asking me this question.
It is because of your position as one of the elders in ANLCA.
But I am not the only elder in ANLCA. The fact that I was the former President, I was not the only former President. You need to be asking yourself why are the other former Presidents not talking. I am just letting you know, because Rafiu Ladipo, went to the secretariat, made some promises about resolving the issue and the thing fizzled out, there must be a reason. So why are they trying to use my own head to break coconut? Would you believe that I am in talking terms with the president, we are meeting, would you believe?
Yes now, I know there was a time I met two of you at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja and nothing to show there is any issue.
Not even the Abuja own. That is Abuja own now … if that function did not hold, somebody would say maybe they would not have met.
I am talking about me and him meeting one on one. He gave me dinner. He sat on the chair twice (points to a chair in front of him in his office). We met in the board room. Were we just looking at each other’s face?
In other words you are saying that two of you are doing something to resolve the problem in ANLCA?
No, I give my own advice free will, that if I were in your shoe (referring to Nwabunike), this is what I would do. And if I suggest it is not done, it is not compulsory you must take my advice. You know that am looking at it from my own point of view, he may have his own reason or some other considerations, some he did and I know it played out for him. But now turning round that I am the one not doing what I am supposed to do. I have done what I am supposed to do. I don’t know what I am supposed to do, I don’t have to carry the chair and sit down in the Secretariat and say I am now here, is that what Jonathan is doing with Buhari. Is not the advice, and I have told him I will criticise him outside, I don’t do that.
There was a peace committee set up by ANLCA early this year.
(Cuts in) That is part of my advice, they came here, we sat down in that board room (his office) headed by Aliyu. I don’t have any candidate here. But it was one of the things I told him. Let me even step back a little. When the crisis of the board was going on, I told him, you know you are the President, don’t let them squeeze you in, the issue of board is very simple, the constitution can take care of the board. Don’t get involved. Out of his own, he just announced one day through his SA that it in Henry Njoku’s group he recognises. You know with that you have taken side. Having declared that one, it will be difficult for you to call any of the other people to come, they will say, we know your mind. This is part of the words we speak to ourselves. I said okay, Peace Committee is good, you can set it up. He suggested Aliyu from the North, I said that man is a gentleman, he is ready to do the work, it is okay. So, they were talking about what do we do. I can tell you honestly, I thought on that. I made a suggestion to them, you know the NECOM went to Abuja for a NECO meeting, where it was decided that some chapter executives that were not at the meeting because they said they will not come must be sacked. After that meeting, you told the chairman, you are no longer sacked, go to work. Do you know the step you can take, have a meeting with those chairmen. I said Tony, you need to coffer out some money because that is what I used to do, give them dinner or lunch, tell them you want to work together. Your position is not threatened, because they were elected and along the line some other elections were due for them In the West and people paid for form and that election could not hold. I am just telling you, because if I pretend that l don’t know, I will not be doing you good. I said when you call these people and say genetlement, I want you to be part of the Transition Committee, let us conduct election together, but I give you six months, as at the time I gave that advice six months is gone. He refused to because there is no sign that such a meeting took place. I just gave them that idea here and the Committee said that is a very good one, we need to go and see the President if we can do that one. Once they are part of it, they will accept it and that in the end of the matter. The new story I now heard was that after I gave that advice, beautiful, that I am the one who went behind to tell the chairmen not to agree. What is my relationship with the chairmen.
Am not in the office. People don’t understand that when you are no longer in office, you are not relevant, you call any of the chairmen, he will not come. If he respects me, he will say when I find time, I will come. So, why are you using that as stories to tell people that if Shittu is ready to solve that problem, he will solve it. Whichproblem, created by me?. It is not fair, If you have goodwill, you have clean heart, you know what you are doing is the right thing… let me tell you, what do they want me to do, because I was former President of ANLCA, does that mean I can instruct elders of Yoruba land. You know in Yoruba land, no matter your word, nobody cares. So there is no way I can call them and say come here, if l call Taiye Oyeniyi, and say Taiye, I want to talk to you on behalf of Tony, the first thing he will say, are you tony? And I mentioned to Tony, you are at a cross road as President, both the people who voted for you and those who voted for you, you are the President of everybody oo! Tell your people who voted for you to give you chance. When you bring the other people in, those people you already have, you don’t have problem.
All these court cases, when I came into office, we met seven and there was no money to pay. We did not have money to pay for filing. I was paying it, ask Barr Osama because I made our him legal adviser. They even quarreled with me why should I use a serving agent as a legal adviser. This was even when the man was 25 years at the Bar. Why should I go and pay money to outsider. Even if l had to pay money, our constitution says that when a member does official job for you, you should pay him. So do you understand my point now. So, God Almighty is my witness. (picks up Koran, a raises up, put it on his head), and said, “I have never told anybody to do anything against Tony Iju. Yes! People told me then, who do I think will do the work after I have left, I looked at Tony when he was National Secretary and my Vice President, Emenike, two of them are Igbos, not that one is Yoruba and one is Igbo. Because Tony has been away from the Association too. That is why I queued up behind Emenike. As election was conducted, and when, Emenike got up and hugged Tony, for me it is all over. So even if Emenike is not showing up, because people think I can perform magic, I can’t order Emenike. One day when me and Tony were together because we talk a lot, until now, that I think it is for my own peace of mind too… One day, that was 8 months after the election, I said Tony, have you called Emenike, you know you defeated him, he said no, I said why, I said but you defeated some people during the primary of your political aspiration, didn’t you go to the man, your opponent, he said even refunding the money the man spent that he did. I said in an association, if you defeat an opponent, find a way to call him, that is what happened to me, so that you can have peace. I think they got talking then – what transpired between them, God Almighty I don’t know.
That is how I felt I need to make peace. Francis, (calling the interviewer), I have tried to make the peace, it is gone beyond me. I did not go to court, I can’t. Njoku was saying, if I call Mustapha now, …me? You think I don’t know how they think it is easy for me to say, oya you people, don’t go away. What authority do I have. I can only appeal, talk to them. When I came into the office, Taiye Oyeniyi was one of the warriors, even Farinto was one of my warriors. But I found way around them. I was in Taiye Oyeniyi’s house 5am in the morning to go and meet him so that I can have peace.