*Present leadership of ANLCA should set its Priorities and Run with them
*Assessment of Customs should not be based on Revenue Targets
Former National President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Chief Ernest Elochukwu is not an ordinary licensed customs agent. Among several other positions, roles and responsibilities, he is the Group Manging Director and Chief Executive (CEO) of Nestello Gateways Group with offices in Nigeria and overseas. He is cerebral in his presentations just as his intellectual bent is not in doubt whenever he speaks on issues in the maritime industry and beyond. In an exclusive interview with Maritime Bits he bares his mind on key critical issues in the polity. He spoke to Maritime Bits Editor-in-Chief, John Iwori. Excerpts.
As a former National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), what do you think should be the focus of the new leadership of the association led by Mr. Anthony Iju Nwabunike?
You know that every administration or government should come in with a mind set to contribute its own quota towards attaining the various overall ideals of the association. That is to say that at every point in time, there must be something that would be of the priority need to the association and it behoves such administration to pursue it for the overall benefit of its members. For instance, time was when the association relevance was the biggest problem and that was the situation when I came on board in 2004. This was why I proceeded to make the association relevant in trade a priority. That was one of the reasons why my administration moved vigorously to the point of bringing the association to have an audience with the then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo at the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock, Abuja. My administration felt that was the best way to highlight what the association wants, especially in the presentation of ANLCA as a partner with government on the issue of building a national economy.
In the same vein, the immediate past administration of Prince Olayiwola Shittu came in by focusing on certain areas it considered was a priority at the time it came in. For instance, it pursued to an extent on areas of international co-operation. It also achieved in the area of providing infrastructure in form of building a permanent national secretariat for the association. Therefore, this present administration should also look at what are the other needs that are actually urgent or a priority and pursue them vigorously.
It can also look at the area of operations in the nation’s seaports, airports and international land borders. It appears that, over the years, for instance, the voice of the licensed customs agents or customs brokers in the scheme of things have been stifled. The present administration of ANLCA can focus on how the customs broker will have a say both in the policy formulation and execution as it affect members of the association.
Another priority area it can focus on in the long run is the issue of freight forwarders body. We all acknowledged that during my regime there was a need to support the setting up of a professional body that would cater for freight forwarders which in Nigeria is co-terminus with cargo clearing and forwarding.
Other areas, for instance is the need to encourage training and re-training. This is very vital because every professional should get updated periodically on how to remain relevant in that trade. This is due to the fact that once people stop learning or getting new skills, they actually start declining. To that extent, there is a need for the present administration in the association to pursue training and re-training programmes with vigour. It also needs to pursue one very long standing problem in the association and that is the issue of alienating dedicated members from ANLCA. Yes, there are many members of ANLCA but the level at which many of them operate after election is very dismal. This is not unconnected with the fact when you go to the chapters, it will seem that the time that they do have members are only during the time of elections. It is on record that once elections are in the offing, so many people develop interest in the affairs of the association. Most, often the chapter association become a beehive of activities with massive registration of members and electioneering campaign for the candidates aspiring for various positions taking the centre stage. However, as soon as the elections are concluded, the participation of members in the business of ANLCA in terms of chapter meetings, in terms of assessing how members are doing and other areas are usually neglected and relegated to the background. This should not be the case if we actually want to make a head way as the oldest and foremost umbrella body of licensed customs agents in the country.
Once this is achieved, that is the time people would be proud to say that they are members of ANLCA. That is when somebody can proudly say I am ready to work towards actualising the goals and aspiration of the association. I must say that overtime, strange things have occurred in the maritime industry. It was like
ANLCA gave so much latitude that lead to the proliferation of splitter groups and mushroom associations. The establishment of associations became fashionable. It was like a business for some individuals both in the core and in the fringe of the practice. Again, the execution of certain operations in the CRFFN also fuelled this because some people saw that having association has a guaranteed way of getting handout or stipend from CRFFN and of course when you look at a scenario when somebody who may not be doing anything and he could get a share of the commonwealth for forming an association, you can imagine that a lot of people will be interested in forming their own associations. For me, these are some of the basic issues that this present leadership in ANLCA should address.
With the way the present leadership has started and against the backdrop of the aphorism that says that the morning tells the day, do you think it has started well?
You know I have always been very reluctant about commenting on the style of any President of ANLCA. Having being a president myself, I did not know how people perceived what I did. As I often say, posterity is the ultimate judge. Nevertheless, one thing is clear. It is the wish of every member of ANLCA that it succeeds. This is due to the fact that when it succeeds in tackling the problems of the association, every member of ANLCA will benefit. As to the methodology of the national president, I can tell you, my brother, I am yet to comment because I can only do so with informed certainty.
Against the backdrop of the fact that the pioneer Chairman of the Governing Council, Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding of Nigeria (CRFFN) and his successor emanating from ANLCA, do you see the association playing a major role in the council as it did in the past?
Well, I will also tell you by the way that the issue of CRFFN election had come up and was discussed some weeks ago and it was a general agreement that the conditions that were put forward by CRFFN were definitely and certainly schemed against ANLCA. In fact, if these rules are followed, no notable ANLCA member will be in the council. For instance, one of the conditions for qualification includes not having taking CRFFN to court. Of course, you are aware that ANLCA had in the past taken CRFFN to court. My sincere advice to those who are involve in this CRFFN issue is for them to note that yes any council can be formed; government money can disbursed and utilized but there are certain strategic persons that if their quality or their level of exposure and experience are not involved in the board, it will just be a mere exercise in futility. In other words, the CRFFN is to develop the practice of freight forwarding to a professional level and if there is an overt and visible attempt to keep the materials that the council need to develop at this young stage, you can bet that at the end of the day, it may have been that we have been running round in circles and the purpose for the establishment of the CRFFN would have been defeated.
What is your take on the present state of things in the maritime industry?
I can tell you straight away that we have not done very well in the maritime industry just as we have not done well many in areas in this county. We have not done well and I can say that the government has much of the blame. It is unfortunate that everything is politicized. Whenever issues arise, instead of treating them objectively, politics is brought to bear on what to be done, how and when. For instance, in the maritime industry, what is the role of the supervisory ministry as intended in the CRFFN Act 2007? What are the obligations of members and the associations? Are those obligations being achieved? If not, why? If yes, how can we make it better?
What is our development plans in the various sectors of the economy? What are our immediate, medium and long term goals? What are the milestones to be attained in each sector of the economy? Is patriotism the main driving force in the decision making machinery of government at all levels? Is the Nigerian project uppermost in the minds of those saddled with the responsibility of formulating and executing policies and programmes in the country? In fact, there are so many questions begging for answers.
What is your assessment of the performance of Colonel Hameed Ibrahim Ali (retired) as the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service?
Let me start by saying that it is wrong to assess the performance of the Nigeria Customs Service on the basis of revenue generation. It is on record that it is only in Nigeria you will hear about revenue targets for customs. In fact, all over the world in places where we have gone to represent freight forwarding like in California, United States of America (USA) when we mention the case of freight forwarders helping customs in achieving revenue targets, the whole world were looking at us with amazement, asking what is revenue target? Is it the bundle of cargo imported into the country within a year or what? Of course, we hastily walk out from the venue of the retreat. This was due to the fact that we could not explain why a statutory body like customs should be given a target without saying how it can be encouraged to achieve that. In short, we are still operating in the primitive level in many ways.
So to some people, Ali has performed because he has been meeting the targets and surpassing them even in the area of smuggling. In Nigeria, the system is a bit distorted because I was in an occasion once where I was asked the justification for the ban on certain essential items. For many of us, nothing has really changed on the approach to the work by the average customs officer. In the areas where we work for instance, one of the major things that I thought customs will touch is the issue of touting. Funny enough, Customs have always tried to play the game of passing the bulk by asking the associations what they are doing about touting.
There are bodies charged with the control of the system. For instance, if it is Customs or the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) or jointly that will insist that only the people transacting business with the names of the company would have access, then we would have solved some of these problems. Then we look at it that well it does not really matter and we are talking about meeting revenue targets. Everybody is talking about meeting the target in order to meet the budget forecasts. And Customs is now working on meeting the targets as if revenue target is the only consideration. Nobody is talking about trade facilitation. Nobody is talking about developing a template for the free flow of goods. We are always talking about targets as if everything starts and ends in revenue targets.
What is your final word, sir?
Yes, they should focus on their job. Tackle the problems as they come so that they will be able to live an impression that will endure. Like I said earlier on, they should take up the challenge. They should articulate those areas that there are challenges in the association so that at the end of the day, they would have a legacy.