Why we support CRFFN Amendment Bill: A Rejoinder

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By Frank Ukor

That the public hearing on the CRFFN amendment bill has come and gone is an undisputable fact. What is going on now is the politics of the amendment.

We had looked forward to a day like this when the CRFFN Act 16 of 2007 would be amended so that the flaws in the Act would be corrected to make it manageable. It is not to say however that the first and second Councils did not achieve anything. Rather on the contrary, they achieved much, going by the number of regulations they made, the number of freight forwarders and companies they registered, the number of associations they accredited and other achievements including registering with FIATA and appointing Institutes of education to train and professionalize members which are still ongoing. Redeemers University lectures are still ongoing and very soon the International Higher Diploma course will be concluded.

One of the regulations the board made was making the Registrar the CEO of CRFFN and by so doing, it empowered the Registrar to assume full control of Council in the absence of the board. This responsibility the Registrar has discharged to the best of his abilities.

Act 16 of 2007, having been signed into law in 2007, was to be amended five (5) years after going into operations. It was not done because the board was dissolved before it became due. To do all necessary things to amend the bill fell squarely on the shoulders of the CEO. He discharged that responsibility creditably, whether he did it himself or by proxy, through the Chairman of Ports and Harbour Committee of the House of Representatives.

Why some people do not want the bill amended

President Emeritus of NAGAFF, Dr. Eugene Nweke in a recent interview granted to Primetime Reporters online and published on some social media outlets outlined some of the reasons as to why they are against amendment.

Please recall that at the public hearing on 22nd May at the National Assembly complex, the founder of NAGAFF, leading ANLCA, told the committee that they are very much against the amendment and as a matter of fact, they would prefer to be moved out of the Ministry of Transportation to Commerce and Investments among other reasons, which Dr. Nweke explained further. National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents led by its Acting President, Comr. Ben U. Ndee supported the founder of NAGAFF.

The other two associations, NAFFAC and AREFFN supported the amendment. I will now look at the reasons adduced by the other three for not supporting the bill amendment as well as our reasons for supporting it.

  1. Lack of consultation with critical stakeholders in the areas of the amendment.

The areas that were marked for amendment were sent to the five accredited associations to study, agree or disagree and to make their own input at least two weeks before the public hearing. A meeting of the five associations with CRFFN staff was convened for that purpose on two separate occasions. On the first day, ANLCA did not show up probably having decided not to sit in any meeting with the other associations. Secondly, they had also earlier taken CRFFN and other associations to court over POF. We shall discuss that later.

At that first meeting, the Registrar was not in attendance because he was outside the country, but he was represented by the Director of Training of CRFFN. NAGAFF and Council of Managing directors walked out in protest after insulting the man that suggested we should go ahead and discuss the proposal, reject the ones that were not acceptable to us and reach an agreement. He told the gathering that they might be shooting themselves in the foot if they boycott the meeting and moreover, they cannot stop the Government from doing what it planned to do. For this his pains, he received a bullet of abuses.

On the second sitting, Mr Jukwe, the Registrar was in attendance. CRFFN, NAFFAC, AREFFN and the Nigerian Institute of Freight Forwarders  and Customs Brokers were at the review sitting but the other three did not show up; though towards the end of the meeting, the founder of NAGAFF came in probably to see the Registrar since he never commented on our discussion. At that meeting, we highlighted areas we were not in agreement with and suggested our own amendment which was what we each presented.

Recall that since the provisional accreditation of the associations in 2010 and the final accreditation of the other three in 2012, that associations have been the medium of communication between the CRFFN and other stakeholders. Every association would take decisions reached at the meetings to their members. So it is wrong to say that there was no consultation with stakeholders. I stand to oppose that view because we told our members and deliberated on it. If the other associations did not discuss with their members, it is most unfortunate.  It is however obvious that they discussed on why the amendment should not hold.

  1. Only four years out of ten, since the Act 16 became a law, was spent in a learning process:

Every bill passed into law is amendable after five years. The blame for its non-amendment is entirely ours. Let us go through memory lane. In 2008, an election was conducted for those interested in the Board of the Council for the eight available positions. ANLCA won seven of the seats while NAFFAC got one position. Others from NAGAFF, Council of Managing Directors, AREFFN did not win any seat, but we all contested.

Lucky Amiwero who was the President of the National Council then accused ANLCA of rigging the election through one Mr. Sanusi, a staff of Nigeria Shippers Council, which midwifed the election, and subsequently sued CRFFN. That action delayed the takeoff of CRFFN, but when Lucky was defeated in court, CRFFN went into action in full gear and things started happening; employment of the Registrar and others, regulations and registrations. Then only ANLCA was given full accreditation. Six others that were appointed by the Minister from the six geo-political zones were from ANLCA leaving out the others. NAGAFF made so much trouble because of this and took CRFFN and Government to court over the status of CRFFN. The Court gave judgment to CRFFN and Government, declaring that CRFFN is an agency of Government to regulate freight forwarding practice in Nigeria amongst other functions.

There were other distractions.  IFFA took CRFFN to court over suspension of Chief Peter Obi and others for offence I do not know. AREFFN went to court to compel CRFFN to accredit it, having accredited NAGAFF. These were minor distractions.

The main distraction came when the Minister approved collection of practitioners’ fee. Sharing formula became a contentious issue and lingered until about November 2012 when stakeholders contented that the tenure of the 2nd Council had expired and so the Minister dissolved the Board leaving the Registrar in charge. The Registrar managed the Council well until CRFFN staff were attacked at Seme over POF by people suspected to be ANCLA’s recruited members. This made matters worse.

ANLCA took everybody to Court seeking an injunction to restrain a lot of government functionaries, CRFFN and others from interfering in the collection since according to them, ‘it is their own’ until a Board is formed after due election. Because of flaws discovered in the Act, if any election was conducted then, the Board would be dominated by one association which may spell doom to CRFFN as the greatest opposition to CRFFN had always come from ANLCA and NAGAFF. If not because of these distractions, agreeable arrangement would have been made to fill membership of the Board as proposed under Concerned Accredited Freight Forwarding, Associations (CAFFA).

There is need therefore that the bill be amended to make filling in members of the Board of Council rancor free, after which all pending court cases would be withdrawn. All accredited associations will be represented in the Board and so nobody will go to court because the associations will call any of their members that try to go to court to order.

  1. Tenure of the Registrar:

The first Council, by omission or commission, failed to address the tenure of  the Registrar in his appointment. If the issue is not addressed in the proposed amendment, the Registrar will continue to be there until he wishes to resign. That is one of the reasons we desire the bill to be amended.

In the proposed amendment, whereas the bill sought that the Registrar be appointed by the President at the recommendation of the Minister of Transportation, we reasoned that it will be better that the Registrar be appointed by the Board so that he would be submissive to the Board and for a four year tenure, since the constitution provided a four year tenure for elected government officers. If however within the first tenure, he is found wanting, he would be asked to resign or shown the way out. If he performs well, he can enjoy a second tenure.

  1. Another reason they advanced, is the proposal that the Chairman of the Board be appointed by the President of the Federation at the advice of the Minister of Transportation.

We looked at it critically and agreed with that proposal. The Court had already ruled that CRFFN is an agency of Government, if the president appoints the Chairman of the Board, his interest will be in the Board and he will provide enough funds to run CRFFN. The President could appoint me, Dr. Frank Ukor or Dr. Eugene Nweke or Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, who are professionals in the maritime domain to be the Chairman, at the recommendation of the Minister of Transportation and not necessarily a carpenter or horticulturist politician. But even if he appoints any person that is not a maritime professional, the members of the Board will advise him on issues; after all Ministers are appointed into Ministries that have no bearing with the subjects they studied in the university.

  1. We disagreed with the recommendation that the appointment of six people from each of the six geo-political zones be scrapped and recommended that it be still retained; reason being that such members can always advice on the resources from such areas, so that the Board can advise on how to harness such resources.
  2. On zoning, we agreed that the zones be divided into four as against former three. Airport and Land border zone should be broken into airport zone and Land Border Zone, because operations at these zones are distinct and different from each zone.

On representation of these zones in the Board, we agreed that since the Council is for freight forwarders, we should have a dominant presence at the Board. So whereas the Act 16 provided that fifteen persons should be elected from among registered freight forwarders into the Council and whereas the proposed amendment suggested ten members, we suggested five members from each of the four proposed zones making it twenty. These positions should be shared amongst the five accredited associations and a member from each of the zones from each of the associations. Remember that all associations are equal before the law not minding differences in numerical strength and wealth. When more associations are accredited, we would work out an agreeable representation. Board membership has been a contentious issue in the Council. During the registration exercise, we noted that many people who were not in any way connected to the industry were brought in to register with the Council, with election in mind. If the next election is organized like the last one, what happened at the first election will repeat itself, because members of the first Council have positioned themselves for the next contest. We strongly believe that if our proposal is adopted and made the modus operandi for next election into the board, we would have forever said goodbye to bickering at the election into the Board of the Council.

  1.    Another contentious issue is the Practitioners Operating Fee (POF).

It was just mentioned but not elaborated upon. I will now shed some light on it.

In November 2010, all the associations held a town hall meeting at Villa Park hotel, Amuwo Odofin,  Lagos under JACOFF to discuss a way of raising funds to run the associations since it was becoming increasingly difficult to meet the financial needs of the associations. At that meeting, it was agreed that we start paying a little of the profit we make when we clear consignments. We tagged it Practicing Fee. Every person will pay two thousand naira for every 1×40′ container and one thousand for every 1×20′ container.  Cars and buses would be five hundred naira while Jeeps, trailers and other special vehicles will pay one thousand naira only. Land borders were to pay seven Thousand Naira per trailer while airports will pay Two naira per kilo of consignment cleared. The decision was unanimous. Every person that attended the meeting was happy. We dispersed from the meeting full of anticipation that things would soon be better. Modus operandi for the collection was to be worked out.

The next thing we heard from the Council was that they did not recognize ( JACOFF)- Joint Action of Freight Forwarders and so everything we did at the town hall meeting was illegal, null and void. A few months later we were told that the Minister had approved the same collection, under a different nomenclature- Practitioners’ Operating Fee (POF) and the Board was in charge. It was at this juncture that trouble started on how to share proceeds of the collection, ‘Sharing formula’. While the arguments were ongoing on how to share the money between CRFFN and the associations, a bomb shell landed.

The Customs under Dikko wrote to the Minister of Transport that his approval for collection of POF would add to the cost of doing business in Nigeria. The Minister therefore suspended the approval for the collection. Arguments went to and fro on why the Customs under a different Ministry of finance should write and influence the suspension from another body under Ministry of Transport. Speculations were rife then that Customs felt threatened that once associations get this money, they would be empowered and the Customs would not have much control over their agents.

Another opinion said that one retired Customs officer whose Institute was approved for training freight forwarders having gone through the Act 16 of 2007, advised the Customs to kill CRFFN, if not, Section 19(2) of the Act would expose them. The Customs thereafter went into action.

Having written to the Minister, they sought collaboration with a member of the Board to work as an insider for them, to facilitate killing CRFFN. They used one of the Presidents of the five accredited associations. At this time, four of the five presidents of the accredited associations were members of the Board of Council. Yours truly was the only president that was not a member of the Board. Politicking went up and down, front and back, culminating in the present position of things.

In 2015, the outgoing Minister withdrew the suspension of the collection of POF as a parting gift.  The five presidents and their national secretaries had series of meetings perfecting plans on how to collect their thirty percent (30%), while CRFFN will collect the sixty percent (60%) and administer the ten percent that will go to the person that paid the fee. Just as we were to sign an agreement with our consultant, ANLCA president did not show up. The next thing we heard was that it was their money and they will no longer be part of the arrangement for the collection. Before we could say Jack Robinson, they attacked CRFFN staff that went to the border to test run the collection. Activities came to an abrupt end with this attack and ANLCA issuing press announcement of their withdrawal from any arrangement about the POF. To make matters worse, ANLCA took everybody it thought could facilitate the collection to court from Attorney General of the Federation to Minister of Transport to Inspector General of Police, CRFFN, NAHCO, SAHCOL, WACT and all the other four associations. The matter is still in Court, where ANLCA has been trying to get an injunction against all the people sued without success. When the current Minister of Transportation was appointed, he made frantic efforts to revive the POF and resolve the lingering crisis. In one of the meetings with the Minister, it was revealed why ANLCA who was the stumbling block at the initial collection arrangement will now be the shining light in the current arrangement. Members of the Board of ANLCA who were in the Council then  swore that as their current President was an impediment to the collection then, when they were in charge of arrangement for the collection, they will not allow him to shine this time around. That is why the POF collection is stalled. In our last meeting with the Minister in his conference room, a recommendation by a committee he set up to address the issue of POF came up with the following sharing formula 25% to government, 35% to CRFFN, 35% to associations and 5% to the declarant. There was a division amongst the associations as to who was the declarant. This is our current page and we need to move to the next page.

The solution to the lingering crisis is the amendment of the Act. Let the sharing formula be embedded in the Act so it becomes law once signed by the President. We, on the other hand suggested 20% to government, 30% to CRFFN and 10% to each of the associations. When new associations are accredited, they will get a share from the associations’. This will be the solution to the POF crisis.       Nothing is permanent in this life, only change. Let the big associations be open to this change and embrace it, come down from their high horse and embrace reality. A good number of those who will pay POF are not members of any association. The big associations will enjoy much income from subscription fees paid by their members. The money from POF will be spent in administering the associations, doing the needful and attending meetings.

All the cases in court should be withdrawn and no further court action should be taken against CRFFN and POF. Let us allow CRFFN to work; something that can only happen if we stakeholders allow it to do so. Let us also understand that we the associations cannot regulate ourselves as that is a job for the government. Let us submit ourselves to regulation by the Council.

  1. We equally submit that since CRFFN has many sources of income, the charge they levied on associations as annual subscription should be scrapped. It is CRFFN that should give subventions to the associations and not the other way around.
  2. Penalties for offences should be reduced from #250,000 to #200,000 and from #300,000 to #250,000.

The tenure of the membership of the Board should remain two years each.

 

Dr. Frank C. Ukor, is the President Association of Registered Freight Forwarders, Nigeria.

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