Iju Tony Nwabunike is an astute, sterling and passionate professional who has vast experience in the Freight and Forwarding. He is presently the National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents and Managing Director of Mactonnel Nigeria Limited.
In this interview with Daily Sun, he spoke on how to tackle corruption and reposition the maritime sector and maximally exploit its potential for development among other issues in the sector.
Maritime Vs COVID-19
First of all, COVID-19 pandemic came and took the world by storm. The pandemic has actually made us understand many things in our industry. It has actually dealt with our economy. Globally, it has actually made us to understand that the whole system must be online. It has actually made us to know that in a twinkle of an eye, all the revenue generation of maritime industry can be dilapidated and it has actually made us to know the essence of having very hygienic environment and having a very clean behaviour and sanitising our area of work. Above all, it has given us an insight into what the globe can be if we actually want to have networking relationship vis-a-vis network of businesses. It has actually shown us that we can do a business even without contact or relationship, using your ICT to do that. It has actually made us to know that economy can equally be crippled without giving a date or time of happening. So it has given us things to worry about and it has given us much to be concerned about. But the good news is that it has shown us another way of doing business, another way of interacting with people without getting closer, another way of using our ICT to do meetings, to have relationship businesswise and even to do freight forwarding businesses through online documentations.
First of all, Nigeria is an importing nation. So the revenue generation should be on sincerity, based on our customers who are the importers; genuine declaration, non-falsification of documentation, paying the actual duties and most importantly, removing corruption at the ports because if the givers and takers are compromising, government revenue will be shortened. Also, increase export and possibly reduce the number of tariff so that the turnaround of goods and services will be picking. Then remove the bottlenecks in the ports where government agencies are holding people to ransom and at the end of the day discouraging importers from importing. So most times, they actually discourage importers. Again, Federal Government should reduce the level of banning some consignments they don’t produce. Most times, they always ban consignments they don’t produce. At the end of the day, those consignments find their ways to the market. So if that is the case. it encourages smuggling and smugglers do not pay duties. So Federal Government, as a matter of emergency, should reduce tariff freight, tariff charges of every goods and remove many of the contraband they don’t produce.
Not just export, even import. There are too many bottlenecks at the ports. One, there are not good roads; two, too many government agencies are in the port; three, every single Nigerian believes that port is a place where they can generate their personal businesses and money thereby encouraging corruption at the highest level. So Federal Government must go back to their system of ease of doing business where the principle of ease of doing business must adhere to the letter. Remember last two years, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osibanjo, actually headed that particular committee and said so many things online. So we should go back to the ease of doing business order. That is the only way we can reduce those bottlenecks because there are so much bottlenecks, so many government agencies have divided themselves into units to make things impossible in the ports to move around the goods and services. So important that the principles of ease of doing business, that Federal Government has actually stated, must be applied to the letter. That will ease most of these things we are talking about.
Like I told you, if the Federal Government knows that this maritime industry is going to be a cushion of what oil supposed to be: generating revenue for us, then maritime industry is actually having a role to play. What it means is that the Federal Government should take this industry very seriously and reduce the level of impunity of the government agencies in the ports like I told you. And adhere strictly on the principles of ease of doing business at the ports. Most importantly putting a stringent measure of tackling corruption. Corruption has eaten so deep into the Nigerian ports. Federal Government as a matter of urgency must look into it. All the Federal Government agencies are just on their own, they believe they are the government and they are untouchable. So it is high time, Federal Government should invite some underground security agencies that will catch these people on ground. Both the givers and the takers must be punished.
Nigeria has a way of going one step forward and several steps backward. I remember when COCTENA, SW Global and other ones were at the ports, They had all their scanners and those scanners were working very effectively and efficiently well. But today, Federal Government said we should support the Nigerian Customs Service to do what is called Pre-arrival Assessment Report (PAAR). Today, they assess the consignments and the documents, they do the examination and give the appropriate duty for you to pay but they are doing manual examinations because there is no scanner. We are asking Federal Government to do one thing, the scanner needs to be given as a contract, giving to a particular or seasoned company that will bring in the scanners, manage the scanners for five years without cost to the government; they should have their percentage on every little container they actually examined. They will have their cuts. And changing of the scanner should not be more than five years lifespan. So that should be independent on Customs who are not well detailed of using the scanner so that the scanner will be mounted in the whole Nigerian ports. Hire a particular company who is going to be in charge of these scanners and bring in experts who are going to work on that. All they need to do is to scan the consignment, bring the result and give the Customs for assessment. So the scanner is very important. If we have scanners at the ports, they will eliminate time factor, eliminate the troubles of bringing down the containers. Look at today, it is all raining all through. How can one bring down the containers of perishable goods and do examination on this weather? It is not going to be possible. If you have a scanner, the container will run through the scanner and everything will be very glaring. At this particular point in time in the global village, we are in the whole world, Nigeria supposed to be operating at the optimal level of scanners.
Clamour for CG sack
What you are saying makes so much sense to me. But I’ll tell you we are not in the right sense to say sack the CG of Customs. The President of this country, in his high level of his intelligence; remember he was a former military officer, and he must have known why he put the man there. But what we are saying is that they should do things in accordance with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) programme. They shouldn’t do things as if Nigeria is running a different organisation outside WCO. This excessive of Customs units is becoming worrisome. Where Customs will organise, Customs will raise PAAR, Customs will say the PAAR is not even enough, and additionally putting a PAAR another value. Customs will release the PAAR, another Customs will say no, the valuation is not good enough on the PAAR, another Customs will say no, giving the valuation that value this PAAR is not good enough that physical examination should be done. Another Customs will ask the officer who did the physical examination is not worthy to release this consignment, another Customs at the gate will say I cannot access this, when even the whole thing should have gone all through these things, got on the road, another Customs unit will hold it as a Federal Operation Unit or as a CG Strike Force or Customs police even when it gets to your warehouse, the Customs police will now close your warehouse and say every thing all other Customs units have done is not necessary because all those things you brought into your warehouse must be examined. I call it multiplicity of units, which is not supposed to be. It is not in our favour that you remove the CG of Customs, it is not in our advantage or disadvantage but what we are saying is that Nigeria Customs must not go against the code of conduct of the WCO and work according to the rules.
Cost of doing business
All these things you are talking about, I keep the blames on the doorsteps of Federal Republic of Nigeria. In a situation Federal Government of Nigeria has left all the regulatory agencies to become revenue agencies. NIMASA is a revenue agency now with a target, they must be given target while Customs is given target, SON is given target even every single parastatal that is working is given target and all those money is going into Federal Government purse. The question is, have they left what they are supposed to be doing in the ports, safety, operation and life and security of Nigerian territorial waterways to become revenue generation companies? Become Inland Revenue companies or have they become just exactly what they have done to the Customs? Giving Customs target to generate a particular amount. So what happens is that the moment you generate the target, you have achieved what you hre sent them for. I think all these things should be heaped at the doorstep of SGF and the Federal Government of Nigeria. There must be a standard code of conduct… What is the standard? What is the code? I remember when the Customs work with the code. I don’t blame any parastatal that is looking for revenue because all the money goes to special account of the Federal Government of Nigeria. It is purely Federal Government that will take the decision what we want these parastatal to be. If they want them to become revenue generation parastatal, they should. Then again, if you are talking about NIMASA, they must have provided some high level of security guarded to those vessels coming into Nigeria because of the piracy. Apparently, secure anchorage, what has happened last time the Naval command gave them coverage. These are the little payment they can, otherwise, I cannot tell you NIMASA is there making money for themselves, no, I don’t think so. It is purely government’s principles and guidelines. So that system must be discussed at the high level of government.
NPA has lost it. When they were concessioning the ports, they didn’t leave some bays and spaces for themselves because they concessionalised all the ports unlike Ghana. If you go to Ghana, Ghana Port Authority has a space and before you now give a concession or an agreement, there must be a statutory agreement on issues and how to do things right. Now, let me ask a question, why should a vessel of Maersk Line coming into this country, for example, with 350 containers and leave empty without taking a single empty container? And the following morning, another vessel will come, putting another 400 containers and leave empty. And they now go to neigbouring countries like Ghana, Cameroun and all the rest of them and carry their empty containers back to their countries and using Nigeria as a dumping ground of empty containers. Two, they don’t even want to have a holding bay. They don’t even want to put any single money on ground to have a place where they can put in the containers and take them back after because they know that nobody supervises their activities. Because they are not answerable to any government agencies any further.
I remember when NPA was NPA; they will never dare to take containers to this place and not taking the same number of containers out of the country. Why not give them that mandatory idea that the moment you are coming into this country, you take the same number of containers out of this country. And you know the funniest thing; most of those countries’ shipping companies have gotten very top and big Nigerians as their chairmen. So what it means is that if you take them to the National Assembly, they will go there, sort themselves out and come back and continue doing what they want to do. So they are becoming bigger than the government. The terminal operators take law into their hands because the concession agreement they wrote, nobody knows about it; nobody has even seen it, even the Nigerian Shippers Council has never been part of the agreement membership. They brought them in only as an observer of that meeting. So who is in charge? So who tells them what they hear? Why is it that the Federal Government has not taken the bull by the horn to sanction all the shipping companies and the terminal operators? Why are they scared of them? What is the problem? Who actually made them so bogus that no government wants to touch them? Who made them untouchable? Today, everywhere is littered with empty containers, you can’t even move. Lagos State government is equally tired. The roads are dead. They build roads today; tomorrow the trucks have messed up the whole roads. The calling system has collapsed. NPA does not even know what to do anymore. The rail system is not working to take these things by rail. The barges are not even enough and the ones they have there, how many can it carry? Since how many years they have been building the road? Only two roads, in and outside Apapa, one going to Berger and another one going to stadium. The two roads nobody wants to work on them. My brother it is a serious one. The more you talk the truth, the more they hate you because nobody wants to hear the truth.
Customs brokerage companies
You are asking me about the Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers Council who I considered as a brother, I must tell you it is always to answer in opposite direction for what need to be answered. But let me tell you, he may be saying consolidation of Customs brokers who are licensed by Customs. If he is saying that, I agree with him that we need to be consolidated. But if he’s saying they are not more than 10, supposedly, what he’s trying to tell us that we should eliminate all Nigerian Freight Forwarders and Customs brokers. Let me give you an example, most of those people who are supposed to be under his own supervision, that is, shipping companies, they are having licences. What it means it that those Mearsk line who are given time to have licences will now do shipping, freight, warehousing, bonding and even do Customs brokerages, I don’t think that is exactly what he meant. I think what he wants to say in effect is that we need to reduce to the barest minimum the number of Customs brokers who are working in the country. But reduction is not the issue, the issue is that making sure those people who are accessing the port are actually Customs brokers that have licenses or putting four or five people together to have a consortium of a big licensees that will be working as a big Customs brokerage in the country, not just having 10. Ten is just a number not enough for this country, if I may say.
COVID-19 is going to open up so many things. Government will now know that to put things in order, like interfacing, freight forwarders, putting all the government agencies together. COVID will show us that government should seriously reduce the level of physical manpower in the ports. COVID 19 will let government know that we must generate our revenue through online payment. COVID 19 must have shown government that we need to do our transportation system to be on the highest level so that we reduce the level of people moving around with containers vis-a-vis using intermodal transportation like train and post- COVID 19 is going to give us an avenue of knowing we can interact and relate with international best practice without getting together. Like yesterday, we have Federation of International Association of Freight Forwarders (FIATA) meeting online all over the world. Most of the presidents of the association held a meeting online without physical presence and without traveling to Geneva or America to have the meeting like we used to do before. So COVID 19 has shown us that we can do some serious businesses online like I said. So post COVID-19 is going to show us the expertise in ICT.
COVID 19 is definitely going to reduce the number of employment. That is another disadvantage I’m going to talk about because too many things will be done seamlessly without physical interaction of people and services.