CRFFN amendment bill and the freight forwarders dilemma

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The Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) came into being by Act No. 16 of 2007 to among other things regulate and control the practice as well as organize and structure the activities of persons, organizations and associations operating the freight forwarding business in Nigeria.

But how much of these mandates the Council has achieved is in doubt as the Council since inception has been bedeviled by crisis. First, it was alleged that on the verge of enacting that law, some associations namely; the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) under the leadership of the then National President, Sir Ernest Elochukwu and the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA) under the leadership of Mr. Lucky Amiwero opposed the enactment of the bill. Expectedly, the bill defied every opposition, thanks to the House and Senate Committee Chairmen then who insisted that National Assembly don’t kill bills but encourage bills to be fine-tuned and passed into law, thereby passing the bill and consequently getting the Presidential nod which made it became an Act of the National Assembly.

Then came the first test for the Act as the Council organized its first election to elect the Governing Council members as provided in the Act. The outcome was that Mr. Lucky Amiwero who was dissatisfied with the outcome of the election which he contested and lost, headed to court to contest the composition of the Council. Later on, following some actions undertaken by members of the Governing Council namely; engraving the Coat of Arm on their complimentary cards and driving vehicles with the Federal Government of Nigeria Plate Number thereby carrying the Council on as an agency of the Federal Government, the Incorporated Trustees of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) went to court to contest the status of CRFFN which it claimed was a private council just like the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and the Council for the Regulations of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), an action it lost since the Federal High Court in its judgment ruled that CRFFN is a government agency. However, NAGAFF claimed it appealed the judgment.

Meanwhile, the tenure of the elected members of the Governing Council had since expired in 2012 and all efforts to conduct elections into the Governing Council have failed as the federal government who is to coordinate and supervise the elections and made necessary appointments to constitute the Governing Council seemed not to have the political will to do so and the Council continued to wobble until now. Ten years down the line, nothing tangible could be said to have been achieved by CRFFN both in regulating and controlling the profession and in providing the requisite training for the practitioners as was mandated it by the Act establishing it. Most time, one tends to forget that an agency such as CRFFN still exists.

That was the case until recently, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Ports, Harbours and Waterways; Hon. Patrick Asadu proposed some areas of amendment in the Act thereby coming up with what is known as CRFFN Amendment Bill 2017. Whereas the Act provided that the Chairman of the Governing Council should be elected from the elected freight forwarding members of the Council, the amendment bill seeks to have the Chairman of the Governing Council appointed by the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces on the recommendation of the Minister of Transportation while the Vice Chairman of the Council will be elected from the elected freight forwarding members of the Governing Council. Also, whereas the Act gave the Governing Council members powers to appoint a Registrar who must be a practicing freight forwarder and from the register of Freight forwarders, the bill proposed that the Registrar which now transmutes to Executive Secretary by the amendment will now be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Minister of Transportation and will now have a tenure of four years which will be renewable for another term of four years as against unlimited tenure provided the Registrar by the Act.

Other areas of amendment include the transmutation of the Governing Council to Governing Board, reduction of elected freight forwarding members of the Governing Council from fifteen to ten among other areas of amendment. These move by Hon. Asadu rather than bringing the expected respite to the Council further deteriorated the situation as that provoked another round of disagreement and misunderstanding among the five registered freight forwarding associations which the Act was meant for as they now sing in discordant tunes. While the Registrar of CRFFN, Sir Mike Jukwe, the President, Nigerian Institute of Freight Forwarders and Customs Brokers, Dr. Zeb Ikokide, the Association of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (AREFFN) and the National Association of Air Freight Forwarders and Consolidators (NAFFAC) were in support of the proposed amendment, the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), the National Association of Government approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) and the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA) were opposed to it.

Whereas NAGAFF, ANLCA and National Council of Managing Directors were of the opinion that the Act had not been properly practiced as only four years out of the ten years existence of the Act were administered by the freight forwarders themselves, thereby leaving the other six years unadministered, the duo of AREFFN and NAFFAC argued that since the Act had been in existence for more than five years, it was ripe for amendment as provided by law. The issue of who should propose the amendment and areas of amendment were also in contention.

According to the founder of NAGAFF, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, “Who is amending our Act? The Act affects us and we are the ones that will come up with the areas we think that should be looked into and of course the National Assembly is there to make good law for the good governance of our country, in other words, it becomes very obvious that those who are sponsoring the Act don’t have the support of those that were affected by the Act”.

On his part, the National President of AREFFN, Dr. Frank Ukor posited that,” anybody can propose an amendment, the Act is already there and amendment supposed to come five years after it was enacted. We have practiced this Act for four years and of course you know why we have all these problems, court case today, court case tomorrow. If NAGAFF does not go to court, Lucky Amiwero will take CRFFN to court or AREFFN will take CRFFN to court or ANLCA will take CRFFN to court and I understand that NAGAFF is now in court again to stop this amendment. So, with all these distractions, how do we move forward? Who is going to come up with these amendments? The Chairman of the House Committee, Hon. Pat Asadu came up with the areas that he thought will be meaningful and sent to CRFFN and CRFFN sent to all of us and said we should look at them and come together to discuss the issues contained therein”.

Also speaking, the President General of NAFFAC, Mr. Chukwuka Ani Thomas Agubamah opined,” The amendment can go on irrespective of who is proposing it because the Act itself is more than five years old and from our understanding, any Act that is more than five years old can be amended. Bearing this in mind, we made our own suggestions towards the amendment.

Recalling that the actual status of CRFFN is still an object of contention in the Appeal court, Aniebonam again said,” It is surprising now that those things that are pending in court are the things before the National Assembly for amendment. It is like they are using the National Assembly to get what they may not get from the court, in other words, lying ambush. You now begin to appreciate the presence of NAGAFF at the National Assembly during the public hearing on the CRFFN amendment bill. So, we are opposed to it. That the Council first of all is not an agency of the Transport Ministry and if today one of the object clause that should be amended is to say that the President will now appoint who is the Chairman of the Council, then remember, there is a case in court and this is wrong”.

Refuting the claims in some quarters that NAGAFF’s appeal on the judgment of the lower court had been overtaken by events, he said,” We are on time and we are already in court long time ago, as soon as that judgment came, we went on appeal. When we went to Appeal Court, the Registrar approached us, don’t forget that NAGAFF is behind the CRFFN Act and we cannot kill a baby that we will attend the burial ceremony. We are looking forwarding to seeing the Council work and we decided to lie low and see how we can manage to get the Council work, but five years after the first Council became dissolve, nothing happened, only for us to now see that there is an amendment bill coming forward and those things that are before the Appeal Court are the things you want to amend right now. So, that was why I used the word lying ambush, in other words, somebody somewhere is deceiving somebody but good enough, the case has been resuscitated and penalty therein paid. It is already a matter that is on appeal”.

Also speaking, the Acting National President of NCMDLCA, Comrade Benneth Uche Ndee called for the withdrawal of the bill seeking to amend the CRFFN Act on the ground that it had not been properly practiced and also, the stakeholders in the Act were not consulted before the areas for amendment were proposed.

He opined that ANLCA and NAGAFF having pending cases in courts was enough reason why the amendment process should be discontinued adding that his association stood together with NAGAFF and ANLCA as far as issue of CRFFN amendment bill was concerned.

He berated the Registrar of CRFFN, Sir Mike Jukwe for subtly trying to institutionalize himself in the office by trying to transmute from Registrar to Executive Secretary with a fresh mandate of four years in office and renewable for another four years thereby making himself the longest serving Registrar when he should have gone with those who appointed him to that position whose tenure had since ended.

However, pointing out their areas of interest in the bill, Dr. Frank Ukor of AREFFN said,” Where they said that the President should appoint the Chairman on the recommendation of the Minister, we looked at the progress we have made so far, the problems we have had so far in trying to elect a Chairman from amongst us, the other ones that were elected, how far did they go? If we want government to be involved in this thing and make it strong, let it appoint the Chairman because if government is not involved in this thing, it will not be strong. All the noise about CRFFN being a private Council is rubbish. Let us ask ourselves, can we regulate ourselves? Can the associations regulate the industry? It is the government that will regulate and if the government will regulate, let them appoint a Chairman so that they can bring funds and support this thing and make it work. So, we supported, let the government appoint the Chairman, the Vice Chairman will come from among the elected members”.

Ukor however informed that his association was opposed to the appointment of the Executive Secretary which he said had been reverted to Registrar, by the President on the recommendation of the Minister of Transportation adding that if the President appoints the Registrar, he will not be answerable to the Governing Council insinuating that “If he does anything, you cannot query him, if you do, he will tell you that he is not answerable to you. So, we need to get somebody that will be answerable to the Board and that is our stand’.

He further said that they okayed the change from Governing Council to Governing Board and that they opted for the separation of Airport and land Borders zone into two separate zones and an upward review of zones from three to four and five members elected from each associations that make up the zones to make up twenty elected freight forwarding members.

Going further, Mr. Agubamah of NAFFAC maintained that,” people tend to forget history, now remember, they are now changing from Governing Council to Governing Board and Governing Board means it is a government agency, it doesn’t wear the kind of cloak it was wearing. If you go back to history, you will find out that NAGAFF went to Court to agitate that it is a private agency and they lost. So, bearing that in mind, unless there is a Court of Appeal judgment or a Supreme Court Judgment countering it, we have to play along that it is a public agency. Since NAGAFF lost the case, it is now within the CRFFN or the Ministry of Transport or the House of Reps or the Senate to play along the decision of that court.

“So, we agreed as a consequence that the President should appoint the Chairman but then I remember something in the bill that the president should also appoint the Registrar, NAFFAC is opposed to that. If the President is to appoint the Registrar by extension, it means the President will also appoint all the personnel of the Council. So, NAFFAC does not agree with that, NAFFAC is of the opinion that members of the Governing Board should appoint the Registrar when there is vacant for appointment of Registrar.

On the proposed change of Registrar to Executive Secretary, the NAFFAC boss posited that he was not vast on the implications of Registrar or Chief Executive officer (CEO) or Executive Secretary adding that he would not want to comment in that area.

“But from all intents and purposes, it means that in whatever way you looked at it, the management of the Council will be under the Registrar or do you call him Executive Secretary or do you call him CEO. So, I don’t know the legal intricacies that are involved and I wouldn’t want to comment on that”, he said, adding that NAFFAC had no issue with the tenure of the Registrar as proposed in the new bill even as he said that since it was now coming as government agency, it would be better for government to apply the normal standards as obtained in all their agencies.

On the argument that stakeholders were not consulted before the proposed amendment, he said,” If the argument was that they were not consulted, you start listening to it but it is still going to the House of Reps for a Public hearing, whether we were consulted or not, any association is free even at the last minute to rush in to the House of Reps with their own views. If you fail at the House of Reps, you go on to the Senate. So, I don’t find these excuses strong enough but fact is, there was information to the associations to meet and make an input”.

On the implications of the discordant tunes emanating from the freight forwarding associations and whether or not the House Committee should go on with the amendment Agubamah opined,” My son, Saint Augustine, let me take you back to what happened in 2006, ANLCA, led by my brother, Chief Elochukwu opposed the creation of CRFFN, National Council of Managing Directors, led by Lucky Amiwero opposed the bill. Only NAGAFF, NAFFAC, the freight forwarding trade group of Chamber of Commerce, the Nigerian Institute of Freight Forwarders led by Dr. Ikokide, four us spoke in favour of the bill. So, you see that at the original time, we were not singing the same song. So, it doesn’t make any difference that now we are also singing different songs, at the end of the day, it is the House of Reps and the Senate that will produce an amendment. So, it does not matter”.

From the foregoing, it is obvious that the end is not yet in sight for the CRFFN which many had described as a child of circumstance. With indications that there are pending cases in court against CRFFN one of which had to do with the status of CRFFN as it were and having furnished the House Committee with this information, whether or not the Committee will go on with the proposed amendment will be seen in a matter of days. Indeed, the CRFFN’s ordeal in the hands of those it came to regulate is one too many and only the stakeholders and the government can determine way forward for this tottering giant, CRFFN.

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