Barrister Ada Akpunonu is a veteran freight forwarder whose experience in the profession spans several years.
She is also a force to be reckoned with in the politics of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), having held various positions in the association.
So when she speaks on maritime industry, she does so with an unassuming air of authority and unrestrained candour.
As the Chairman of Shipping companies and terminal operators Committee of ANLCA, she speaks with righteous indignation about the exploitative activities of the service providers and their flagrant disregard for rules of engagement.
Barrister Akpunonu discussed this issue and other sundry matters with FUNSO OLOJO and VICTORIA OLANREWAJU in an exclusive chat in her office.
Q. Recently, the top hierarchy of Customs stated that goods with different names should not be cleared and we learnt that a lot of containers are caught in the web. What is your view on this third party clearance?
A. Two wrongs they say can never make a right; actually your declaration is supposed to correspond with what you are carrying, the name of your importer and so on.
But some of these government policies have a way of affecting operations. In order for people to find the new way, in order for people to find the way that it will be easier for them, Some are not doing it because they want to cut corners, but just device a means to facilitate this, so at the end of the day ,they got into this trouble.
So I am not saying that customs are wrong in wanting to correct this anomalies but since this practice has been on and they just descended on the perpetrators ,we cannot allow this to continue, there must be a new way because its affecting some of the importers and they are really into mess .
When looking at the problems and cause and also look at the economy, it has affected the operations actually.
So we are hoping on customs to find a way to stop the sufferings this has brought to stake holders.
In an attempt by agents to find a way around the cumbersome nature of government policy, they have to devise a way even though it is not the right thing to do.
Secondly, we are talking of ease of doing business and of the truth; one of organization that has really complied and is assisting the stakeholders in the implementation of that government policy is the NPA.
The MD, Hajia Hadiza is very compassionate about it and even ensuring that other agencies of the government in the ports also comply but unfortunately, a tree cannot make a forest.
She has tried her best, looking at the way she handled the issue of police and some other agencies and so on.
The police now make sure they investigate and study before blocking containers; we no longer have blanket blocking, they just don’t block containers for no reason.
Q. What about other agencies like Customs, what is the level of their compliance to this issue of ease of doing business?
A. Well customs are doing their best but we hope there will be improvement in what we have.
Q. In what areas do you want the Customs to improve?
A. In all areas. In terms of facilitation of trade, educating, training the stakeholders because people get involved in so many criminal practises out of ignorance.
Fortunately for us, the former Tin-Can CAC laid a very good foundation on the issue of trainings and the new CAC here has continued.
Q. This issue of containers that are trapped at the ports, what happens if customs insist that they are not going to back down, what will be the implication or consequence?
A. When there is problem there will always be a way to solve the problem. The present Customs management listen most of the times. when problems like this come up, we make presentations, we seat on a round table and we look for a way to solve this problems without any means of short changing the government because all they are interested in is to ensure that we do not short change the government .
Q. How has the port operating environment been?
A. The operating environment is terrible.
Shipping companies and terminal operators are not complying with ease of doing business.
Take the issue of Cosco and Maersk line, as we are talking now, the cost of transportation has increased because Cosco is not dropping empty containers.
Because they do not have holding bays and then counting demurrage on it in defiance of NPA’s directive.
They are the ones that have caused this problem, liabilities had come up as a result of their inefficiency which is to be borne by the importers and the agents at the end of the day because they continue to count that as demurrages.
We have government and Shippers Council who is doing nothing.
I had a case where I had taken Cosco to Shippers Council, had meeting and agreed on what Cosco should refund an importer, but when I went back to Shippers’ Council to find out why Cosco had not returned the money, they could not find the file.
Q. So what are you doing to address this problem as the Chairman of the committee on shipping companies and terminal operators in ANLCA?
A. We have written letters to shipping companies; held meeting with stakeholders and we are following up but somehow we have some challenges in respect of our operations and activities in ANLCA.
But we are pushing despite the crisis because at the end of the day it is our members and the general public that are suffering because whatever you had paid as demurrage and so on will be added to your total cost and pass it to the consumers.
If these issues are not addressed, there is no way the inflation rate can be curbed, and it will look as if the government is not doing anything.
The terminal operators have begun to stop booking for examination as early as 12pm. What is the official hour of doing business in Nigeria? These people are foreigners and making our ports very unfriendly and people are now going to the neighbouring countries to bring in their goods.
Q. I am aware that NPA gave a directive that all shipping companies must have holding bays and any container that does not originate from the holding bay will not be allowed into the ports. So have you gone back to the NPA to lodge your complaint?
A.The MD NPA is like a lone voice. She is trying her best but others are not helping her; a tree cannot make a forest, but I encourage her to continue with her good work.
She is a big asset to this industry. A serious sanction should be placed on Cosco, Maersk line and also, there is need for the stakeholders to come together and advise our importers on the shipping lines they should be using.
If we boycott Cosco and Maersk line, they will sit up. And we thank God CRFFN is now in place and we are all going to work together and know how to solve some of these problems.
Sometimes they transfer these containers from one terminal to the other, sometimes delay the transfer for three weeks and the importers are being charged demurrage for no cause of their own.
Q. But Cosco and Maersk line control more than 60% of business in containers freight
A. That is why we are having this problem, they are inefficient and they see us as some lawless society.
One of the foreigners once said Nigeria is a good place to do business because some of the things that are obtainable here are not in their country because if they do it, the company will be out of business but here, no sanctions.
They syphon this money to their countries, creating inflation, making people to lose their investments and not being able to create jobs.
Q. What do you think government should do to put a stop to this problems?
A. The government has to set up an independent people with integrity including stakeholders, because we wear the shoes and we know where it hurts, to tell them the truth about the operations at our sea ports.
Q. Are you saying they are not aware?
A. They may not be aware of the truth, because government do not interact with the stakeholders.
Even during policy formulation and so on, stakeholders should be part of policy formulation so that you get the true information from them.
The government representatives are the ones operating and cannot report to themselves, representatives cannot be a judge in their own case.
They can never open up and tell you what we are passing through, but get the stakeholders involved then you will know the truth and know how to tackle some of the problems we have.
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