Hameed Ali has no power to jail anybody –Aniebonam


Dr. Boniface Aniebonam is the founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). In this interview with newsmen, he bares his mind on the visit of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali to Lagos last, his speech, the inter-associations rivalry and many more. Our correspondent was at the parley and filed in this report. Excerpts;

You clamoured for a visit to the Lagos Ports by the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd.) and now he has heed to your call by visiting Lagos Ports. What is your opinion about the just concluded visit of the new Comptroller of customs to various commands and the meeting with stakeholders in the industry?

The CG will be coming to the port for the first time only for invitation to be received that each of the associations should come with five or six representatives to meet with the CG on his familiarization tour. To an extent, I couldn’t understand what that means because as at the time the former CGC left and the new CGC came in, most of the industry stakeholders have been looking forward to meet him to look at issues that have to do with the port relating to various complaints as it were. I do know that NAGAFF has a lot of things to say in that regard and urging him to hit the ground running especially on matters of corruption. Really, I am quite impressed having listened to the CG now based on the tape I have just watched, he is learning very fast and if that is the case, there are good reasons why Mr. President chose him.

Are you satisfied with the speech he made and everything he said in the tape you just watched?

The speech was simply re-emphasizing the relevance of the law. He talked about the matters relating to customs laws, he talked about untrue declaration which has to do with concealment, he talked about compliance, trade facilitation, he was not too strong in that place but for me, nobody talks about trade facilitation when you are not compliant so, the emphasis is on compliance. These are the things he needs to say; it is a kind of re-emphasizing the need to curb corruption in our port system. Like I said, they are not new things to any of us as far as I am concerned. There is nothing he is saying now that is different from what Dikko had said. This is a familiarization tour, I want to believe that he will revisit the port because for me, he still needs to do some few things to hit the ground running.

What exactly do you expect him to do?

To hit the ground running is to begin to look at concrete steps we have to take to curb corruption in the system. A lot of issues have been raised like double alerts and all that, we have heard Dikko tell us that only alert from headquarters should come and the alerts have continued to come from various units of the customs. So, what he said now is not different from what Dikko has been saying. Now, if we want to be concrete about that, what is expected to be the outcome of this is to set up a committee to give him a working template in this regard. Apart from having what we call Customs Consultative Council which for me does not fit into the mantra of change now, I would expect that there should be a public hearing specifically on customs matters and the ports in general. Customs is the lead agency in the port that is why you see other agencies of government like NIMASA, Shippers’ Council, Quarantine and others represented at the meeting.

In his speech, he was silent on freight forwarding but was emphatic about customs brokers, what does this mean to you?

Well, I said he was learning very fast. Don’t forget, whether anybody likes it or not, it is always easier for you to defend your own field. As at the moment before he started coming to this place, this is the first time he is meeting people outside the customs management and so he is speaking the customs language at the moment.

But as he sat, there are certain languages he was hearing; he is a human being and an administrator, he has his own network of getting things done. For instance, means of communication is filtering out by giving his email addresses, making reference to some of the numbers being displayed on the customs programme on television and a lot of people might not have taken time to see that and he is telling you there is change which means he might take his time to monitor the phone lines to see whether messages come in for them to get to him to know what is going on.

Now, back to what we were saying, I will want to believe that for now, he still needs to hear from people like us as freight forwarders because licensing regulations of the customs is quite inimical to revenue functions of the customs to the government as it were; it is quite fraudulent. Of course, building professionals needs to be tied to the relevance or otherwise of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) where individuals will go professional through formal education.

For us to now look at modern port, we need to look at instances of technology, infrastructure, policy framework and personnel management. These are the issues you need to be concrete about and then think about using institutional arrangement to curb these corruptions. The situation on ground is government and stakeholders’ partnership, it is no longer issues of one-way traffic where government says this is what it is and it becomes that. If you watch him, he is beginning to appreciate that he is no longer in the Army, he is being modest, he is beginning to understand that we are in democracy.

The laws are there and people expect that they be enforced but then how to go about it is to look at matters that have to do with trade. Ttrade- related matters is not something you force but then you must look at compliance. What I have just deduced from all these is that there is an urgent need for him to cause an action that will bring about public hearing.
I want to fault some of these things going on, we cannot continue gathering in one small office in Apapa at a Customs Conference hall, the situation on ground requires a bigger place where all stakeholders will be accommodated like Sheraton, Golden Tulip Hotels. Customs must come out this time, you cannot continue to restrict people because this is a mantra of change, the entire country is evolving so you need as much people as you can to buy into the mantra of change that will lead to faster realization of what we need. I know the level of things we have pushed from NAGAFF that eventually necessitated his coming to Apapa port and I can tell you that anything coming out from NAGAFF is hitting the right target. If we continue with the old order, we are really not going anywhere.

He has threatened to jail anyone culpable of giving or taking bribe; what is your reaction to this?

He cannot threaten to jail anybody, he is not a judge, he is there to do his job and anybody that goes contrary to the law, institutional arrangement would take care of the person. We should not make this thing to be personal; nobody should sit down and say ‘I am going to jail you’. Is he a judge? And I don’t want you to be using this kind of words: the issue is compliance; those who do not comply with law, the due process of the law will be followed. So, don’t misunderstand him, he is trying to let you know what the law is saying and that is what it should be. We are not in banana republic where somebody will say ‘I am going to jail you’.

The rivalry among the various freight forwarding associations still played out at the stakeholders’ meeting. Do you see that as a way to go?

Freight forwarding rivalry; probably let me go straight to it, the rivalry between ANLCA and NAGAFF will not fizzle out as long as the customs do not see the need to understand that Laws are made for man and not man for laws. This is the mantra of change; sections 153, 154, 155 and 156 are talking about licensing regulations, the code is specific on the issue of corporate bodies licensed by customs, individuals and firms even CRFFN recognizes that some individuals, corporate freight forwarders and others but centering on an individual who is the person that can be termed as a professional and if you want to talk about fighting corruption in concrete terms, what we must do now is that it is an individual that can fight against corruption and not corporate body which until it is unveiled by a court of competent jurisdiction.

This is the point we are making, you can hear the complaints of the people, so, customs in that aspect, I am not comfortable with DCG Edewor, he is conversant in international trade and freight business and all that but he is defending his territory but he should not forget that he is going to leave customs someday. Let us build something that is sustainable. Let’s not talk much about this because CRFFN is in conflict with it as far as sections 19 A and B with sections 153 to 156 of the customs law, it is clear and the National Assembly has to harmonize those areas because we must go professional.

I am surprised that somebody will be talking of consolidation, consolidation of what? You don’t consolidate professionals, members of CRFFN are professionals and these are two legislative instruments. So, I want customs to begin to appreciate the fact of harmonizing the existence of these two legislative instruments that have to with moving cargoes across international boundaries.

The new CG is visiting various customs commands and stakeholders. Would you have appreciated that he visits the various freight forwarding associations at their secretariats?

That is not very important now, there may not be any time for that familiarization tour, you can see that people were given opportunity to introduce themselves, what I am saying is that he is not hitting the ground running now by the outcome of this meeting. These are things we are all very familiar with but we need to see something concrete, that is the point I am making and to get a concrete thing, there are issues you must raise.

Training is one of the serious problems, the customs and freight forwarders need to be updated, he needs to do something concrete in that area. On the issue of fighting corruption, there must be a consensus by everybody because these laws are already in existence. So, I am looking forward for him to call a public hearing where all the critical stakeholders will sit down and pass a vote of mantra of change. You heard him say restructuring and reforming of the customs is personal to them, I disagree with him in that area, it is a collective responsibility of Nigerians, what affects a customs officer affects all of us because if you want to rely on the law, CEMA that established customs created an opportunity for the relevance of licensing regulations of the customs. That is why agents is like two sides of a coin because of that law that binds two of them. A customs officer is tied to a licensed freight forwarder and that is why they are very familiar so, when an officer is not doing well, an agent is not doing well. As the CG, how is this corruption being perpetrated? What I know he knows now is that some items are declared wrongly, that is what he knows.

As a green horn with the same set of officers still around him, do you think he can succeed in blocking avenues of revenue leakages and curb corruption?

That is why I advocated the setting up of stakeholders’ committee to give him a blue print. When people were asking him for his phone number, I saw how that was avoided. His number should be a public number, why should he be referring people to numbers on the customs programme on television. If he is ready to come and work, he should give out his number. He is a public servant. I saw how he avoided it, that is wrong. That is what you will not take away from Dikko. Dikko put his number online for everybody because he is the CG of Customs; he needs to know what is going on. In other words, he will be better as information will be getting directly to him on what he is made to hear.

Are you comfortable with the level of interaction with the stakeholders as you have watched today?

Imagine port discussion for only two hours. Look at how uncomfortable people were; you can even see a DCG sweating seriously. I just hope he will do what I expect him to do; to call all the leaders of the various organizations may be 5, 6 or 7 of them to sit with them and come out with a blueprint on how to get the port running. That is the truth of the matter looking at it from a holistic point of view.

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