We Must Not Make Our Country A Dumping Ground For Imported Goods — Akintoye

Peter Akintoye Ojo is a freight forwarding chieftain in the maritime sub-sector of the nation’s economy. He is the Chairman, Tin Can Island Port, Apapa chapter of the International Freight Forwarding Association (IFFA). In this interview with ANDREW UTULU, he speaks on the numerous challenges and bottleneck problems encountered by the maritime industry and its operators in 2017, proffering solutions to some of the challenges to the government for an enhanced and  a more viable maritime sector in 2018 Excerpts:

What is your assessment of the Nigerian maritime sector in 2017?

Well, in freight forwarding sector, we did our best last year, but our best was not enough due to the poor state of the economy. The maritime sector also did their best, but the hash economic atmosphere in the country denied the sector from making positive impact. So, not much was achieved. There were lots of expectations from the maritime sector by the country and its citizens, especially in the area of fright.

The government tried by suspending importation of some items that could be produced in the country. All the same, the turnover from the industry last year was not quite impressive at all.

While commending some steps taken by the government to reposition the economy, the situation in the country does not mean we should allow our country to be a dumping ground, where countries like Japan and China or any other will be bringing in sub-standard goods. The import expectations last year was actually not met, coupled with other challenges.

One major factor that affected ease of doing business in our ports was lack of access roads to the ports — both inwards and outwards, particularly the Apapa axis. This really affected businesses last year.

I am aware that due to all these challenges, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) did not meet their revenue target last year.

This is also as a result of lull in importation, coupled with poor access roads and major roads, which slowed down the movement of cargoes.

Remember that Apapa Ports are the major and most economically viable ports in the country. So, when they are not accessed, definitely, this will slow business activities and impact negatively on the economy.

What is your take on some government agencies overseeing the activities in the maritime domain such as the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC)?  Do you think their actions and inactions impacted well on the ports and their users?

I have not seen, with due respect, any good changes these organisations you have mentioned are bringing to the maritime sector. Just look at the access roads of the Nigerian Ports Authority. The ones that do not even belong to the Federal Government, yet the NPA did not deem it fit to fix. But they are collecting levies and seven per cent surcharge. So what are they doing with the money?

Look at our major access roads, Apapa and Tin Can Island roads. I don’t see much of what NPA is doing to improve the ports. If Hadiza Bala Usman, the NPA Managing Director had been able to stand on her feet, with due respect to the woman, and be on the neck of the Federal Government, the President of this country, these roads would not have been worse than they were before her appointment.

So, I don’t see much of what they are doing, than thinking about how to collect their dollars from the ships that come into the country.

For NIMASA too, I don’t see much of what they are doing. It was as a result of poor performance that made the Dr. Dakaku Peterside- led NIMASA and other agencies that made Nigeria to fail the recent International Maritime Organisation (IMO) election into category C.

The piracy and sea robberies are there, even though they slightly reduced last year compared to what it was in 2016. The maritime institutions are not properly put in shape.

The Seafarers and cadets from Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron in Akwa Ibom State, are still being sent abroad for their sea time training. There is no single ship for sea time training of cadets in the country.   They still take them abroad. Most of the graduates do not have job placement.

Also, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is not left out of these woes. I have not seen much of what they are doing. Shipping companies and terminal operators are still milking the importers, agents and the freight forwarders.

The NSC is watching helplessly. On daily basis, the terminal operators are increasing their charges, the shipping companies are increasing their charges, we have complained severally, but the NSC is doing nothing, yet, they collect their money.  The only thing I have seen NSC do is trying to change the orientation of the people by arranging seminars here and there. That is the only thing they do. They should step up and see what is happening to importers, agents and freight forwarders. The intimidations are too many. They should see themselves as umpire and not allowed the shippers to be swallowed by the shipping companies and terminal operators.

NSC should see itself as the body that midwives the clearing and forwarding groups and the other stakeholders. If NSC is doing what it supposed to do, the terminal operators should not be charging unnecessarily high. The arbitrary charges are killing, it is affecting the industry and the general economy.

How cordial was the relationship of the stakeholders with Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) last year?

There was no doubt about it that there were some bottleneck problems in the clearance of cargo at the ports last year. But as regards the relationship between the Customs, freight forwards and the agents, to be sincere, in 2017, there was improvement.

There was, particularly in my command, which is the Tin Can Island Port. The Area Comptroller, Yusuf Bashar is a good administrator. His lieutenants also did their best in terms of resolving issues amicably. It was not like before when you see pockets of protests here and there due to the highhandedness of the men of Customs Service. Before this time, issues that were supposed to be resolved amicably even without the knowledge of the CAC, were blown out of proportion.

But since the inception of Comptroller Bashar in Tincan Island Port, we have seen the environment peaceful for doing business. He provided all the necessary things for ease of doing business, and because he did this, stakeholders are beginning to comply. I want to use this opportunity to appeal to all and sundry, freight forwarders and agents to increase their compliance level. This is the only way we can achieve the mandate of ease of doing business and earn better working relationship with the Nigerian Customs Service.

What is your advice to the government?

The Federal Government should look at issues objectively. They should monitor the organisations in charge of the sector to ensure that monies being generated are used for the purpose of  which they were meant.

In your opinion, do you think NIMASA has tried in the area of safety of the water front and fight against piracy?

Well to some extent, they have been able reduce hijacking and piracy in 2017 compared to 2016. It is now quite marginal. We expect them to do more. They should not concentrate one of their mandates and leave others. As much as they are trying on the waterways security, they should try on the others.

There are complaints on the highhandedness of the government, shipping companies and terminal operators, which make shippers to divert their cargos to neighbouring countries. What is the way forward as the country is losing huge revenue to her neighbours?

The government should ask itself critical questions as to why the people are diverting their cargoes to neighbouring countries. Unless they come down to the level of freight forwarders, agents and importers, and combine to ask questions. If they continue to ask at the executive level, they can never get the answer. They need to come down to common people, they need to come down to the ports to find the answers because Nigeria is losing huge amount of money to these diversion of cargoes. They need to know the source of the problem. Do you know that the funniest aspect of it is that those goods they divert to neighbouring countries still find their ways to this country?

This is because they are meant for this country; they will come in through smuggling.  I hope we realise that. So, there is need for the Federal Government to look at it objectively and see that we can get out of it.

They must not allow the goods that are harmful to lives to come in. They should think about the goods that we can no longer manufacture due to high cost of production and epileptic power supply and try to reconsider to import them. Since we cannot produce them for now, they should kindly allow such goods in pending when we will be able to manufacture them. If they do that, you will see that importers will no longer divert goods.

If we are producing to the satisfaction of the demand in the country, there will be no need for importation.

You are talking about stopping of importation of vehicles, are we manufacturing here. Even the parts you are assembling, are they not manufactured abroad? Why are we deceiving ourselves?

So what is the way forward to stop smuggling?

Let everybody in this country become Customs officer, you cannot stop smuggling; you can only reduce it to the barest minimum. This is because all our borders are porous. The Customs are doing their best, but they are human beings like you and I. The government should look at its policies and charges on the imported commodities. Yes, some importers may have imported illegally, particularly vehicles. The Customs high command headed by Col. Hammed Ali (Rtd) should give them the opportunity to pay the accurate duty. I’m assuming, Nigeria will move forward.

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Author: Andrew Utulu