National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu told John Iwori in an interview in Lagos the way forward for the association and the maritime sector of the economy
Against the backdrop of the success of your annual general meeting (AGM) in Warri, Delta State, what do you think is responsible for the progress you have made so far?
Administrations come and go but I think the issue was that we were prepared from the word go. If you check our manifesto, it was very clear. There was a 10-point agenda in our manifesto and by the time we were barely two years in office, we had already achieved all that we need to. But regular meetings and democratic principles that had been entrenched in ANLCA and which we inherited, we needed to make sure that the tempo is sustained and that is why nobody can be an official of this association if he is not elected.
This is because this is what the constitution says. So be as it may, we are just practicing what the association stands for which you have also agreed with me is many ways ahead of other associations that are based on appointments, ownerships and what not. So ANLCA is a revolving institution.
It is an institution that has come to stay being the oldest. It was established by an Act of Parliament in 1954. It is the most active and the most professional because we are licensed customs agents and as customs brokers. So far, so good. In fact, what we have done in the last four years have been tremendous and very rewarding.
These strides have added to our quality of life and knowledge of our members. We now know that every human being can serve this nation from whatever little angle of responsibility that is given to him or her. And that is why Sir Bernard Shaw said honour and shame from no condition, arise act well your part therein the honour lies.
I will seize this opportunity to really commend our members at that day I saw myself glowing with pride that more than 400 members of our association will gather in one place and faithfully, fairly and peacefully elect 9 persons that would form the Board of Trustees (BOT) of the association. We all went there safely and returned safely and the euphoria of that election is still tingling in all of us up till today. That is something to be proud of as far as this our association is concerned and I thank you for being there.
What do you think is responsible for the comportment and conduct of the contenders and their supporters even when they lost the elections into BOT?
Do not be surprised. This is because every one of those contenders, 13 altogether are all masters of their lives. They are not only mature, they are a success in their respective businesses. In fact, they are the topmost ranked individuals in our association namely, terminal operators, that is terminal owners, government bonded owners, and bonded warehouse owners.
You cannot compare them with young boys and girls who are struggling to get offices. Some of them came to me and said, â€œIf I am not wanted this time Iâ€™m waiting for next timeâ€. Some of them might say why do I need to go to the board? I can also serve at the national level. Let me go and take an office there. That shows the level of maturity that we have and I am very proud of them. And up till today, they have been attending meetings.
It is not as if because they lost, irrespective of the amount of energy, time and money they must have put in place, they did not say no that they are no longer interested in the association. They are very interested. This is happening because in ANLCA we have had a tradition that you can serve anywhere. An example is Chief Ernest Elochukwu, the immediate past National President. Now he is a member of the board. A member of the board might also become the National President. That is what our constitution says and that is why we are proud to be unique association and that is why we are ANLCA.
Next month, specifically April 17th 2014 your first tenure of office will elapse what will you consider as your major achievements?
Number one, professionalism. Number two, functional national secretariat as I promised during my campaign for the position national president. Number three, our members now earn the respect of Nigeria Customs Service which is a major one of course. It is a major one in the sense that we used to see ourselves in a different mould in the past. We were often in loggerheads with Customs. We used to look at ourselves with mutual suspicion but now customs regard us as partners, that is, their immediate constituency. This one took us a lot of efforts to achieve but we have achieved it.
Today the customs command consult with us before certain policy changes are made. Customs Area Controllers (CACs) now see us as partners and we discus with them and rub minds on the way forward. This is happening because we have succeeded in earning their respect. That is something we had to earn and we have earned it well. And then the most unique thing so far is the permanent secretariat that we have been able to get which means for almost 60 years we did not have a permanent place.
Now that we have it, that is an achievement too. There are several others. Am I not going to talk about the insurance policy we have for our members or the follow up we do with their widows and children they left behind We still follow-up. We assist them. That is one of those good things we have able to do. I may not be the one to even count but I know that before that 17th of April, there will be a statement from our office listing what we have done, some of the ones we are yet to do and asking just as I did penultimate week; I was asking that one good term deserves another.
I am talking about those who have stood by me in the national secretariat. They resume here everyday, not that they do not have jobs but they sacrifice their time. They should be compensated with a return for another term of office. That is my suggestion and appeal. It is good for the association rather than bring a green horn that will now spend the first two years to learn the ropes and all that. But these people can just tidy up deliver the goods and thereafter look for changes. That is what I expect but then in ANLCA it is the voice of the people that is the voice of God.
How many people did you succeeded in weeding out of the system as a result of the biometric project that your administration handled in ANLCA?
The difference between ANLCA and all other associations is that ANLCA is not individualistic. ANLCA is an association of Customs agencies, corporate bodies that are licensed by customs, by Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) registered by shipping companies, registered by terminal operators and maybe very soon by Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) because without those instruments you cannot be an operator.
So the biometrics was meant for those who are working in those individual corporate companies. Some companies would bring 5, some people would have 6, some 10. And then as a company grows and there is need to expand their staff base, there are more people coming in. That is why we identified that these individuals belong to their respective companies.
Apart from the biometrics card issued by ANLCA, they also have their companyâ€™s identity card. And because our members by virtue of the regulation that put them in place, they all own offices so as long as you do not have jobs in the ports, you and your staff stay in the offices. That is why you do not see our people roaming in the ports which are quite different from members of other associations who do not have license to operate. I wont be able to give you figures because the CRFFN that is supposed to enforce.
They need to control that crowd in the port, now to be handled again by NSC. That would have enabled those who do not have business in the port not going there. But definitely, our members have business going to the ports that is why they go to the ports.
For example, if you see any of our members going into the ports, he either has a bill of laden, a shipping company release or telex release to take delivery of cargo. Such a person too can be accosted to find out which company does that person belong in such a way that if the company is not licensed to operate, what are you doing in the port? This is due to the fact that there are portfolio companies. There is no doubt about that.
They go the port, roaming. They take advantage of individuals who are either gullible or ignorant or damn unscrupulous who want to short-change the system. These are the people they make use of. But when you annually have to renew customs license, to renew NPA license, to register all your staff with shipping company, to register with terminals and these are processes that are compulsory for you to operate, you would guard your licenses jealously.
That is the difference between us and other associations. We are just been overwhelmed by those who latch on the porous nature of the port to come there every day just hanging around. They do not have business being there. The port is not supposed to be a discussion room. You do not even need to say I am going to visit my brother in the port. The port is a business area for Godâ€™s sake.
The terminals have been able to control movement but all those common user areas belonging to NPA are still filled up with people who have no business being there. But I can tell you ANLCA members have business to do in the ports because you cannot clear cargo without going through customs processes and the ports is customs ports customs area so only those who are empowered by customs through the license given to the company and then the registration they have done that should be in the ports.
So if the governments collaborate with the efforts we have made in identifying who are the people then that surely will reduce all those problems they have in the ports. I can tell you on biometrics today we have about 1300 and some companies registered with ANLCA with more than 5000 staff spread all over the country. But those 5000 persons do not go and reside in the ports. If you go to my head office in Port Harcourt there are amenities for people to stay back if there is nothing doing in the ports at any particular time. That is when those who going to work have gone to work.
We made the provision because we strongly believe that those who do not have any assignment to execute in the port should relax in the office. They stay back and watch television instead going into the ports to roam doing nothing meaningful. What we did in my office in Port Harcourt was to have an area where we call training room. Unengaged staff goes there and study their terrain, the nomenclature. My company is proud to say we have never had issues with customs because of continuous training. And that is the culture we have imbibed in ANLCA. When we came on board, we realized that if people are not trained, they wonâ€™t know what to do.
And that would have been a big issue especially with the international recognition we have had especially the one that we are the best customs brokers association in Africa and our membership of the International Federation of Customs Brokers Association with headquarter in Canada where the world conference is coming up mid May and I can tell you that I as the President of ANLCA is a member of the Board. That shows you the giant strides we have done within four years.
What informed the numerous trips you and members of the association have been making outside the country since you were elected?
I will tell you. Apart from the arrangement we are doing locally, let me tell you it is the responsibility of customs to train the agents. That is what is done elsewhere in the world. In fact, when we went to India we discovered that the Minister of Finance of India was all praises for the customs brokers because they contribute a large portion of their revenue for the Indian nation. And then you see the relationship between them.
This one of the reasons why we say that we also need to collaborate with customs here in Nigeria. The customs training school should not be made for customs officers alone. The agents that is the staff of the company that they have licensed should also be trained there. Local training is the responsibility of the local customs administration. They have done some but it is not enough but I thank them for the one where they assist us to go to Dubai with more than 30 members of our association.
But what I am trying to say is that international coordination is necessary if you donâ€™t want to be a local champion. Through this our networking interactions with foreign customs brokers and foreign freight forwarders, many of our people have travelled abroad. They have been able to enjoy international partnership and international partnership is the only thing that can make you grow.
It is like my counterpart in India needs to ship something down to Nigeria, he would prefer the person he has met networking in some of these international fora to handle it for him than going on the website with the attendant image Nigeria has got. And one of the advantages about travelling is we are helping to launder Nigeriaâ€™s image because all these accolades we have had even though no government officials have commended us, we commend ourselves because we know it has impacted positively on the image of Nigeria.
They are waiting for us in South Korea in May this year. They said no if it is customs brokers that have been going round it is automatic visa. So we are asking for our members who are ready to go. The fact that we sponsor ourselves there is no funding for ANLCA from anywhere not even from government because we sponsor ourselves, some people can find it difficult to spend their money but the gains are more than the investment that you are putting in there.
Assuming we have an opportunity where customs can say â€œoh you want to go to South Korea lets pay for 6 people, terminal operators say let us pay for 6 people, shipping company say let us pay for 6 peopleâ€ do you know where we are going to go already sponsored. We are going to hold those who sponsor us with respect and we go there to obtain knowledge and do networking and come back. The outlook of the individual who has travelled abroad and has seen how things are done is quite different from that of the man that stays behind here.
The collaborative efforts we are having with customs people thought it is just an idea, they do not know what we see abroad. My counterpart in India for example sits and eats with the Minister of Finance and the customs boss because they are partners in generating revenue.
That was how our orientation changed. ANLCA can look at the average custom officer as if he is going to deny us our daily livelihood we should see him as the one protecting our livelihood and protecting the source of money for Nigeria. Many people do not want to hear that especially those who like compromise jobs.
That is those who want to do things the fast way, they want to make money quickly. They do not want to listen to you but most of the things we are doing today some of the benefits are going to spill over into the years ahead when some of us will no longer be in office. We just pray that those who succeed us should have that same vision and continue from where we stopped. That is my wish.
Why do you think Tin can Island Port is notorious for what is referred to as bad jobs?
It is the largest port and it contains several terminals. If you go to Apapa it is APM terminal. I am talking of seaport terminal. If you go to Apapa it is only that APM terminal that vessels discharge in. But in Tin Can, you have several terminals you have Ports and Cargo, Five Star Logistics and many more.
You know that PTML was part of Tin can before it was carved out. So what this has come to be is that the large presence of different groups of people doing different things has made Tin Can to be the busiest port. In fact, now Tin Canâ€™s revenue is higher than that of Apapa that traditionally used to be the premier number one port. That is just the reason.
We have talked about it with the CGC of Customs and at a time they were thinking of splitting that port into two commands but the logistics is where will the CAC be located and then duplication of other offices under that command and that is why you discover apart from the CG himself that has been looking into Tin Can, we in our association too, Tin Can has always been our focus because that is where those who do not want things to be done right are concentrated and they regard it as their traditional home.
It is only in Tin Can where you see anybody can be an agent, anybody because those who are supposed to check them encourage them. That is where you see informants popularly called kelebe now turn out from being an informant to become an agent, an agent to custom officers. So the level of compliance in that place is low but within the past 2 years it has been on the ascendance.
We even got a recommendation from the CAC of Tin Can that since the advent of the new executives in Tin Can that sanity has been creeping in. It might take a while to dislodge somebody whose mouth has been kept at the bottle of honey to remove it telling him that it will purge you but you have to replace it with something else. That is why all these trainings are going on.
And I can boastfully tell you we have held more meetings in the past 4 years in this our national secretariat than all the meetings held since inception of ANLCA added together. This is due to the fact it is through meetings we solve their problems. We tell them what is going on. We let them know what is happening in the nation. We tell them what we have brought from abroad for them to take it back to their own chapter and have their own regular meetings and then tell the members what is going on.
So we maintain that contact regularly. In fact, it was because we were thinking we would get our visa to China that was on Friday that is why you are not seeing meeting here, every week we have meetings with the chairmen, we let them know what is going on we call the board members we tell them what is going on how far we have gone what we need to do.