Dr. Fred Ajuzie is the Chairman, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Apapa Chapter. In this interview with our correspondent, he bares his mind on the efforts of the various government agencies in the nation’s ports to check the incursion of the deadly Ebola Virus into the country through the Nation’s seaports, the recent blasts that rocked Apapa, his association and many more. Excerpt.
Going by the growing concern over the Ebola scourge in the West African sub-region and the ports being potential entry points for the carriers of this dreaded virus, do you see the authorities at the nation’s seaports as prepared to intercept and prevent the entry into the country any index case of this Ebola virus?
Ebola virus is a new scourge that is dealing a deadly blow on humanity and the health workers are not playing about it. They have taken cognizance of all these and they make sure all the entry points to the country are secured. Ships will come but they will be properly scrutinized as soon as they berthed. Everybody is concerned.
In the recent past, we heard of explosions in Apapa. Should there be any security threat to Apapa, what proactive measures would you want the government to put in place to forestall any future occurrence?
The blasts that happened could have been more devastating if not for the proactiveness of the security agencies because if you look at the time it happened, you discover that it could have been more dangerous but the prompt response from the security agencies prevented more harm that would have been done if not checkmated.
I think after that bomb blasts or whatever the blasts were, the security was tightened up within those areas and the Apapa environment and indeed all the port environment. Everybody is now conscious, even those who are not security agents because nobody wants to die. Everybody is now at alert.
Do you think that the kind of crowd that one sees in the port environment is not a fertile ground for the insurgents to thrive since it seems they find pleasure in carrying out their heinous crime in the midst of the crowd?
That is why the security agencies in the ports now are having serious meetings with us almost on a weekly basis on how to checkmate the crowd especially because this ISPS code that has been introduced.
You know the Boko Haram insurgents which are now a menace within the Nigerian nation and the port is being targeted and the security agencies in the port are not sleeping. We had a serious meeting with the CP Ports and he himself is a security man and he is also a no nonsense person in terms of security issues.
Last few weeks, there was a seminar at the Rockview Hotels which was bothered on the security issues organized by the police. So, all those things were the measures adopted to make sure that everybody is at alert and help the police to do their job. There are serious checks in terms of policing and security issues within the ports.
Port is an environment that Nigerians do their businesses, definitely, if you are talking about crowd, there will be crowd but those crowds are the necessary crowds not crowds that is not checkmated. I feel that it cannot be finished in one day.
We at the Freight Forwarders side are also checkmating crowds within our ranks. We have alerted them and they are complying. Anybody that does not have any business doing in the port should not be in the port. After your business, you go back to your office. It is everybody’s business; it is not only for the security agents.
It does not matter whether you are a security agent or not, as far as you have a business to do in the port, security should be your issue.
Looking at the tank farms that are located within the port environment, are you not seeing them as a right avenue to aid the operations of the insurgents considering its inflammability?
Yes I agreed with you on the tank farms seen within the port. Government knows their reasons for siting the tank farms within the port environment. But with what is going on now, I heard, I was not in the meeting when it was discussed but from the papers that I read and people complaining that the tank farms should be relocated. It is a welcomed development because if they are within the port and the port is where a lot of people come to do their businesses.
So, if tank farms are to be relocated, it don’t have to be automatic because they have to get a place, develop the place and start relocating. So, it has been said and it has entered their ears that these tank farms, even those who are the operators of those tank farms don’t want to die too.
Everybody should look at it, government policies are very good policies for the citizenry, so whatever affects anybody affects the government invariably. In my own opinion as a citizen of this country, tank farms should be relocated to the places that are safer for every one of us.
Still on the relocation of the tank farms, I learnt that the Petroleum Tanker Drivers and some oil workers were threatening fire and brimstone should there be any move to relocate the tank farms from their present locations. In your own opinion, do you think that they are doing this nation a service by insisting that those tank farms should not be relocated?
Well, anybody that is objecting to an issue that concerns life is not being fair. If tank farms have become an issue that pose a threat to the Nigerian ports, the government has a duty no matter your strikes. What are you striking for? Port is a border post for the nation and attracts security risks to you as a person and you are saying that you are going on strike. Are they stopping you from doing your business? Wherever the thing is located, won’t you go there and do your business? So, why should you say that you are going on strike? I don’t see any sense in it.
You said that you advised your members who don’t have any business being in the port to stay away from the ports. I saw a release issued by your association recently where they were advising people who are not representative of any corporate licensed customs agency that they should come and register with NAGAFF in order that the association would intervene in case of any issue with the security agencies within the port environment. Many saw that release as a subtle way of canvassing for membership by your association at the national level. What is your take on this?
(Laughs) You know NAGAFF is a National Association for freight forwarders, the first in the whole country. We don’t canvass for membership and there is nothing also wrong in canvassing for membership. If you look, you discover that an association is a free will thing, if you want to belong, you come in, if you don’t want to belong, nobody forces you against your will.
We have many other associations, ANLCA is there, National Council, AREFFN, all of them are there, if NAGAFF still want other freight forwarders to come and join the association, there is nothing wrong in sourcing for new members.
But what we are saying is freight forwarders who has no business at a time at the port should remain in their offices. When you have a business to do in the port, you get to the port, do your business and leave. That is NAGAFF’s own contribution towards the security of lives and properties at the port.
Canvassing for membership is a different thing, asking for security check is also a different thing. If my association canvasses for membership, good and fine but mind you that the association has a way of checking security issues in the port in order to comply with the ISPS Code and that is why we are sensitizing our members to make sure they go there when they have businesses to do.
You know, Freight Forwarding is the easiest profession you can impersonate, so, that is why we have that check, if you don’t have any business to do in the port, return to your office and we at the position of leadership also control that because we know our members and also know what they are doing but we cannot vouch for everybody who is in the port and those of them that are not my members.
By January 2015, the levy component of the auto policy will come into effect and the auto policy would have taken off fully in the country. What are the likely effects of this policy on your profession as a freight forwarder?
Auto policy is for everybody, we want to go indigenous, government wants her citizens to buy and use made in Nigeria Cars and we understand what that auto policy would mean. It will encourage mass production of vehicles in Nigeria, those that are supposed to be used in Nigeria and those that are supposed to be exported to other countries.
If you are talking of manufacturing vehicles in Nigeria, we know that there is no infrastructure on ground to encourage manufacturing of vehicles here but if you talk of assembling, yes, I know that things are on ground to encourage that.
It is a government policy, the people formulating the policy; well at times they miss it because they don’t consult very well. If they consult widely, like we the freight forwarders who are representing government as long as the port is concerned, they should ask us to make our input.
You just wake up overnight and make a policy, some people have already imported, they might have told them, and these are the areas the freight forwarders are looking at it. But when you are making an auto policy and give it a five year plan, say, from now till in five years time, this policy is coming up, everybody will adjust, prepare his mind for what is going to happen in the next five years.
But you just come overnight and put it on ground and ask the government to implement it, it will affect a lot of people. You see, government should understand that we have unemployment problem in this country. Most of the people you see in this area, freight forwarders, there are people who you don’t know who want to be a freight forwarder because of the mere fact that there is no employment. It will affect people based on employment because some people are being employed by the importers either by association or by relation.
So, that is where people frowned at, not that the policy is not good but the policy should be given a time lag to thrive. This is 2014; we are talking about 2015 which is less than five months away from now. It is not enough time. Bur I agree with the policy but I don’t agree with the timing, it is too short.
It seems that the freight forwarders in Nigeria are more concerned with the import business that the export business. In your opinion, what would you say is responsible for this trend?
There was a time export was discouraged and mind you, before you enter into export, you must have a principal out there. How do you get a principal over there? It is an issue and most people started the practice of freight forwarding from the importation angle and not exportation.
Government should make a policy that will make it liberal for export so that people can use the opportunity to go more into export than import. You know that this nation is an importing nation, we depend wholly on importation, that is why more of the jobs of freight forwarders import than they export.
In exporting, you are going to use your capital whereas in import, you get your capital from the importers because when you want to export, most people that are into freight forwarding business today are school leavers who have no job, who have no money to start up. You can’t start up something without capital and the banks are not helping issues here.
If you approach banks now that you want to go into export, they will begin to ask you of collateral, as a young school leaver, from where do you get collateral to give to the bank? And you know that you must have contacts out there. So, you must do something.
It seems that the traffic situation in Apapa has improved in recent times as against what was obtained few months back. Tell me, in your own assessment, what is the traffic situation in Apapa as we speak?
Compared to what obtained in the past, you find that the traffic situation is no longer as heavy as it used to be. It is now lighter for about three weeks to one month now.
One of the causes is the bad roads. Then the roads were being managed but now, they are completely bad. Even in Apapa itself, the outlets in Apapa are under construction, so it is now only one major road. Formerly, some of the roads have outlets that one can take and burst out to the other end of the road. When the outlets are no longer there and constructions are going on here and there, everybody now depend on a particular road, how can there be no traffic jam?
And the number of vehicles is not decreasing instead, they are increasing by the day, so, what do you expect? The roads are dilapidated, the federal government should look into these things and since the creation of Apapa, there has not been any major upgrade of facilities in the area.
The traffic officers that were employed to control and direct traffic in the area, they are also not helping matters, you can understand what I mean by that. Every Nigerian is a very selfish person, they are not doing what they are supposed to do to allow the traffic to flow. Only one person may flout the traffic rule, instead of you to caution him and let him go, you stop him at the middle of the road and vehicles start piling up on the road. This act alone can cause a lot of gridlock.
So, they should sanitize and sensitize the traffic officers. You find out that when the Navy officers take over to control the traffic, there won’t be any traffic, questions should be asked.
They should also set up a task-force on the Apapa gridlock. The federal government should do that; those task-force will be saddled with the responsibility of making sure that there will be no commotion as long as Apapa gridlock is concerned.
In your statement, you agreed that to the fact that the Apapa traffic has improved for the better to a large extent. To what would you attribute this improvement noticeable on the roads?
I cannot agree with you that the traffic situation in Apapa has improved. It is for some hours, closing hours, you come back and you find traffic. It is not lighter, it is just occasional.
NPA is part of it, the Police is part of it, the Road Safety is part of it, the LASTMA is part of it, the Navy, five security agencies working on a gridlock and yet, there is still gridlock, there is an issue. What is the issue? All of them are man made, corruption, that is the truth.
When you bring in the Navy as an ad-hoc task-force, the gridlock offloads. It jams up again from 4.30 pm to around 6pm, everywhere is blocked because the policy makers have gone home, non policy makers will now be holding people to ransom.
They are being accused of collecting #2000 per truck, it is a confirmed story, it is not something anybody can paint around. NPA and Police people at the Apapa port gate collect #15,000 per trucks for them to gain entrance into the port. If you cannot provide #15,000, they will turn back your truck.
Reversing a truck at that point will be difficult because they don’t want to go back. How do you reverse a truck? It will be difficult for it to turn. All these money that the truck drivers pay, are those money receipted? No! It is an issue, it should be addressed.
APMT is another issue in the port. They are part of the gridlock. From 2006 to 2010, we were okay with the activities of APMT but from 2010 till date, APMT become another thing. Can you imagine that APMT, if you are sending your truck with your TDO, they will not be able to find where your container is.
How can they claim that they are the third best in the world in terms of terminal management and you are given an assignment to do and you cannot do it satisfactorily? It is only in this country that it can happen. We are suffering and smiling. Fela said it in those days when he was alive, we are suffering and smiling.
Again Fashola is collecting Wharf landing fee, what is he collecting landing fee for? Because the port is in Lagos state, isn’t it? So, part of it should be for the maintenance of the roads.
Are you collecting money and you don’t want to make use of the money from where you are collecting the money? If it is saddled with maintaining the roads, let him collect more landing fee, if he is collecting #1000, let him increase it to #2000 provided the roads are okay and also employ state security too because he has all the powers to implement that.
#1000 is not enough, #2000 can be enough for me, let me collect #2000 to make sure that the access road s are okay, collect it and make the access roads motorable, afterall, the money the police and NPA officials are collecting, #15,000, what are they putting it to? So, these things should be looked into.
The point is that the federal government is not making the freight forwarders relevant. We have what it takes to tell the government what crime everyone is committing as far as the port is concerned because we are the ones doing the business in the ports.