Mr. Chidi Anthony Opara was the interim National Secretary of the Association of Registered Freight Forwarders Nigeria (AREFFN). The association recently conducted election to elect its national officers which saw him (Opara) emerge as a substantive National Secretary. In this interview, he speaks on what the new executives intend to achieve in its five year lifespan, how they intend to expand the Board of Trustees of the association, their relationship with sister associations and government agencies and so much more. Excerpts;
Congratulations on the successful election of your national officers which held recently in Lagos.
Can you tell us how you feel having conducted a successful election having piloted the affairs of the association on interim status for more than one year now?
I feel happy and I feel it is a worthwhile achievement. Personally, I never believe that it could be possible logistically because a lot of impediments both man made and otherwise were against the election but eventually, we have made it fool proof and I feel great.
Before now, you told us that for you to have a credible national election, that you needed up N5 million or thereabout. Tell us, how did you go about the funding, what magic did you do to enable you have the election within shortest possible time?
In my estimation, I felt it would gulp up to N5 million but the election didn’t cost up to that. It was just what I felt, a rough estimate I made within myself. Yes! It took some money but it wasn’t really up to that. The funding came from several sources; individual donations and we had to cut a whole lot of things like you can see that we did the election in our new secretariat, even the swearing in. We wanted to do it outside Lagos to also give a sense of belonging to members in other areas like Port-Harcourt or Kano but the financial outlay of moving people from the secretariat to Kano or Port-Harcourt or Calabar would have involve a lot of money. So, we decided it will be in Lagos, so that at least people who can come can come from other areas.
Come to think of it, majority of our members are resident in Lagos. Even the Swearing in, we are supposed to have it in another venue and make it an elaborate swearing in ceremony, maybe gala nite or something like that but we didn’t do that, we just did the swearing in at our secretariat same day, the lawyer came there, the CRFFN people were already and the officers were sworn in that very day and there was no gala nite and all that ceremony.
Basically, we cut off a whole lot of things, a whole lot of ceremonies that would have cost us some money, that is exactly what I am saying and at the end of the day, we did all the ones that were very necessary and then we cut the cost.
In the last one year, you were brought on the saddle as the interim national executives, to the glory of God; you have been given a mandate of five years to run the association. What are we to expect from the new administration in this five years?
The first thing to be done would be for us to reposition AREFFN in a way that we will start by amending the constitution. You know constitutions are supposed to be dynamic; the provisions that would have worked five years ago may not be very good this time around because the society is dynamic. So, we want to look at the constitution and bring it up to a point where the provisions will be aligned with the current practices all over the world and when we have done that, it means we have laid down the ground norm on which the operations of the association revolves.
We will also re-energize our membership drive, we have already rejigged our membership list, we issued the necessary instructions, people will have to register with CRFFN to be members. At the end of the day, if we are able to make AREFFN strong by amending our constitution to bring it up to standard and then set out for membership drive and set up our administration in the various chapters and zones and strengthen our Board of Trustees, we would have been able to put AREFFN on a very solid ground and by so doing, AREFFN will now be ready to play a role that is expected of it in the freight forwarding subsector.
You talked about amending the constitution to allow it take care of current realities. I understand that amendment of constitution was part of the mandate given to you during your interim administration. What made it impossible for this to be achieved that time and what do you think you can do to achieve that now?
The point was that we were amending the constitution and we have already amended the constitution, we have a draft amended copy but the filing is a different thing altogether. We were not able to file before this election, you know it has its own protocol and I am now telling you the year is almost up. By next year, we won’t just pick the constitution and go and file it, we will also look at certain dynamics that have come up. There is no point going to file it and may be in the next few months we will start amending again.
Instead of picking it up, as a Secretary, I am supposed to be the person to file it, I will also raise a memo which will delay the filing, maybe look at certain dynamics and see if there are things that have changed that need to be incorporated or things that are supposed to be removed and all that. Definitely, when we do all those addition and subtraction of some items from the constitution, remember we are also going to call an annual general meeting where the new constitution will now be ratified because even if we finish it, we can’t just go and file it. We would have put in some certain things based on current dynamics or remove one or two things based on current dynamics.
If we do that, we still have to present what we have added or subtracted to the annual general meeting for ratification, if they ratify it, then the next thing is filing. That definitely, I think will be done in the next few months which will take us to next year.
You also talked about rejigging of the Board of Trustees membership; I realized that after the issue that had to do with who was the Chairman and who was not between Dr. Frank Ukor and Ejike Metu, what area are you going to be focusing in the said rejigging? Is it conducting election for the BoT or expanding or removing some members? How do you want to go about it?
It has to do with expansion, for now, three people made up the BoT. So, there will be need to bring in some more hands so that when they will be meeting as Board of Trustees, there will be more cross fertilization of ideas. You can agree with me that an association that is growing cannot just be having a three man Board members. We can bring it up to seven or nine members so that more members will come in but that will be in a memo I will send out from the Secretariat and I hope it will be accepted.
It is not about the people there, it is not about anything personal, it is just that me as a person, as a National Secretary, I want to raise a memo to the annual general meeting whenever it holds so that membership of the Board of Trustees should be brought up to nine, so that at least we have more people spread across the geopolitical zones, probably we have people from the Northern zone, from the Western zone and from the Eastern zone. Remember that AREFFN is a professional body, we are not talking about the Igbos or Yorubas or the Hausas, we simply means people from the north. So, even if the person is an Igbo man but he is a freight forwarder based in Kano, we will treat him as a freight forwarder from the Northern zone. That is what we intend to do.
And then if it is about Board of Trustees Chairmanship position and all the rest of them, what I will I say about that is that I am not a member of the Board but at a point in time, I have documents that said that the Board had election and in that election, Innocent Elum re-contested as Secretary and won and then Ejike and Ukor fought for Chairmanship and Ejike won and in our annual general meeting of 21st October, 2017, that position was brought up and it was ratified. I don’t know if they have had another election but to the best of my knowledge, they have not held another election but I know Chief Ukor used to be the Chairman Board of Trustees before that event, I have the original document written by the Secretary and then what I will also tell you is that the Chairmanship of the Board is even ceremonial. It is not even captured in our constitution, it is just that members of the Board of Trustees should have somebody to direct its affairs otherwise; the Chief Executive of the association is the President.
Going by what you told me now, I recall there was a time Innocent Elum backtracked on his earlier position that they elected Ejike Metu as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, saying that such never happened. That they only used that development to get Dr. Frank Ukor to succumb to their position at that moment, and then swore to me that there was never any Board election anywhere. I don’t know if you are aware of that development sir?
Look, let me tell you something, I don’t deal on subjective matters. I talk about something I can prove and I am telling that there is also a document where as late as early November, in a meeting between then interim executives and Board members where Ejike wrote his name in the attendance register as the Board of Trustees Chairman and Elum wrote as Board of Trustees Secretary. Now, let me also tell you this thing, if Elum will write a document and sign as Board of Trustees Secretary and Ejike will sign as Board Chairman and I have that documentation, I want to believe that documentation because as the time Elum did that signing, he wasn’t under any duress and he was of sound mind. If now he begins to swear in the name of God or in the name of morality, that is morality and morality has no basis in law.
So, Elum recognizes Ejike as Board of Trustees Chairman and Ukor invariably recognizes Ejike too as Board of Trustees Chairman without even saying it because if he says Ejike was never Board of Trustees Chairman, Bala was never interim President, I was never interim Secretary, that is how it should be. If I was ever interim Secretary and Bala was ever interim president, then there was Board of Trustees Chairman in the person of Ejike because my letter of appointment and Bala’s letter of appointment was signed by Elum as Board Secretary and Ejike as Board Chairman but you also know that Ukor handed over to Bala as interim National President.
So, you can’t agree that Bala was interim President by handing over to him and deny the fact that the man that appointed him was never Board of Trustees Chairman, it can never happen. There was an interim administration at a point in the life of AREFFN and let me tell you this, in 2018 CRFFN Council election, one of the conditions was that, if you are a contestant, the president of your association will sign a column for you otherwise, you are disqualified. But then there is a rider in that guideline that if you are contesting and you are the association’s President, it is the National Secretary of your association that will sign for you to be qualified. So, in that vein, Bala who is the interim President of AREFFN was contesting, so, he couldn’t have signed for himself. So, I was the one who signed for Bala and the CRFFN was the one regulating, I signed for Bala and they accepted it.
So, invariably, what we are saying is that there was time in the history of AREFFN that there was interim National Executive Committee and who gave birth to that interim National Executive Committee? It was the Board of Trustees. And who signed the letters of appointment for that administration? It was Innocent Elum as the Secretary of the Board and Ejike Metu as the Chairman of the Board. So, there is no way Ukor, even Elum can be disputing that. Elum signed as the Secretary, Ejike metu signed as Chairman and Elum up till today recognizes the fact that Bala was interim National President and Ukor recognizes also the fact hence he handed over to him.
What gave Bala legitimacy as the interim President was Elum and Ejike’s signatures as Secretary and Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Ukor handed over to him invariably accepting that appointment. So, you cannot accept Ejike’s appointee and you will not accept him, it is not done.
I also realize that there were some people that were earlier penciled down as Board of Trustees members during Ukor’s regime whose names were yet to be forwarded to the Corporate Affairs Commission for registration as Board members. Are those ones part of the people you are considering to include as expanded Board members or are you thinking of different people entirely?
Let me tell you something, I don’t like dwelling on the unknown like the conspiracy theory and all that, I want to dwell on the known. I have a certified true copy of AREFFN constitution from the Corporate Affairs Commission and the names I am seeing there as Trustees are three people; Ejike Metu, Innocent Elum and Frank Ukor. So, I cannot go into speculation whether there were people whose names were penciled down or not. If there are people whose names were penciled down, they were not submitted and of course, they didn’t become Trustees. So, I will not talk about that one.
But what I am going to say now is that I don’t even know who will be a member of the Trustees but I know that it is also going to be from the membership of AREFFN, may be I have some persons in mind but the people I have in mind will not automatically become Trustees. I can suggest them, I may have my say but I may not have my way. When I suggest their names and they are accepted, they will become Trustees but if I suggest at the annual general meeting and they were rejected by the majority, there is nothing I can do.
Now that both yourself as the National Secretary and the National President are resident in the east and the National Secretariat is in Lagos, how do you intend to run the association effectively from the east so as to ensure that the Secretariat did not suffer in your absence?
I am even a bit surprised that you as online publisher are asking this question. I am in Port-Harcourt and you are in Lagos and this interview is taking place, how is that possible? That explains the whole thing. This is technology age and technology has really made this whole thing possible. There is an email and AREFFN has an official email and there is a Chief of Staff at the Secretariat, the Vice president is based in Lagos, if you need anything physical, you submit a letter today, in the next one hour, I will get a copy of that letter either in the mail, WhatSapp or wherever, I will read it and then the President will also read it and also issue instruction. He can issue instruction through electronic means, the Vice President go and represent me in this meeting, he can talk to the people, we can send email and all the rest of them. All this inviting CRFFN and coordinating the election of the President into the Board of CRFFN, these things were done from Port-Harcourt. For the past one year, we have been operating from Port-Harcourt. That is not an impediment.
However, organizations like NBA, even ANLCA has been doing it, Chief Ernest Elochukwu was National President of ANLCA and he was based in Port-Harcourt and the National Secretariat of ANLCA was based in Lagos and he ran the association successfully. Shittu was National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA, he was based in Port-Harcourt then and the head office was in Lagos, he ran the Publicity department successfully and Nigerian Bar Association does that, sometimes, they will have a Secretary from Kaduna but the National headquarters is still where it is and they still run this thing successfully. So, we have been doing it in AREFFN, for the past one year, I was interim National Secretary and I ran the Secretariat successfully and I don’t see how I cannot still run the Secretariat successfully with the help of modern technology.
What will your relationship with your sister associations be like as you come on saddle?
We started a policy of synergy and that policy remains. We share information that will be beneficial to the subsector with NAGAFF, NAFFAC, Council of Managing Directors and ANLCA. We have a policy of synergizing with our sister associations to achieve common goal and to help the federal government achieve its objectives in the sub sector and that policy remain. We were the initiators of that policy, I don’t know what the situation was like before, before this time, there used to be personal relationship between the President of AREFFN and whatever President of any sister association, we came in and we initiated a policy of synergy with sister associations.
And since we are continuing from interim to substantive, that policy remains, our doors are open; we collaborate and share things together, that is if they are well disposed to us.
What will be your message to your members as we rap it up at the moment?
The message is for them to gird their loin clothes because it is not going to a smooth ride, it is going to be a rough ride and we just have to get it right and there are so many things to be done. We don’t even have time, you are talking of four years or five years, before you know it, if you line up the things that have to be done, you will discover that you don’t even have time.
So, it is not about coming to answer name, I am this, I am that, that is not the point, the point is by the time you are leaving office, what system were you able to erect that can work even without your presence? We have to change our attitude towards associations and all the rest of them.
I have to warn government agencies which believe they are there to exploit and intimidate the people that whenever we spot such people, we pick up battles with them even terminal operators, whoever you are. We will be friendly, we will be tough. We will also be unfriendly when the situation demands. We will step on toes if we have to so as to get it right but all hands should be on deck because it is not going to be smooth ride.
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