By Dr Sam Onyemelukwe
Following the continued failure of the successive governing boards of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding Practice in Nigeria (CRFFN) and the recent attempt to ammend the Act by the National Assembly, Dr Samuel Onyemelukwe, the pioneer member of the Council and the Vice-chairman of the second governing council, examines the interplay of intrigues, selfish interests, ignorance and outright mischief of stakeholders whose acts of omission and commission he said have continued to bug down and impair the performance of the CRFFN.
In every organized system or society, laws are needed as guiding principles to set the rules of engagement so that operators and stakeholders in the system will conform to predetermined tenets and standards so as to achieve identified goals and objectives.
This is similar to what happened in the institution of an Act to regulate the freight forwarding sector in Nigeria.
It will be recalled that up to the late 1990s, the freight forwarder was still seen and addressed as a clearing agent in Nigeria.
It was a nomenclature that did not define the gamut of operations in the chain of logistics of freight forwarding.
Though, it remained a sensitive profession, as it functions in the delivery network of gate-keeping to determine what enters and what exits the shores of Nigeria, but it was a profession for all, an all-comers affair.
There were no entry points and/or standards. Anybody could simply pick up freight documents and answer a clearing agent.
The result was the lacklustre, morbid, as well as unprofessional conducts and practices that became what the profession was known for in those days.
Over time, it became increasingly necessary, in fact, imperative to sanitize the profession and give the industry a new lease of life.
This could only be achieved fundamentally through robust legislation that would take cognizance of the myriads of problems and challenges of the profession and proffer plausible panacea that would stand the test of time.
At inception and towards midwifing this important law, some of the best hands in maritime law, as well as operators and other stakeholders in public and private sector in the maritime industry converged and shared rare synergy to deliver a robust legislation that would address all the issues of the sector and also meet expectations of the federal government in the freight industry.
These include but not limited to the following:
1. Capacity building and developing a professional workforce
2. Eradication of touting, broaching, as well as related misconduct and criminality
3. 48 hours cargo clearance and faster vessel turnaround
4. Expansion of business opportunities and employment generation
5. Ease of doing business and increase in returns to stakeholders
6. Increased revenue to government through growth and plugging of leakages
7. Increase in patronage and making Nigerian ports hub in the sub region
8. Infrastructure development and ripple effect in emergence of strong maritime networks.
12 years down the line, why is the industry still crawling? Why are we faced with murky weather in operations that remain far cry from international standards and global best practices?
Why is the industry faced with low professionalism and poor ethical codes?
These were the questions that ached the industry before the enactment of the CRFFN Act.
Why are these problems still re-echoing in the present times, when the Act ought to have held sway to correct all anomalies?
Finding answers to these questions are fundamental to unknotting the difficult situation that freight forwarding has found itself presently in Nigeria.
Analysis of events shows that many core stakeholders do not understand the spirit of the Act and the intent of its provisions.
Some sensitive stakeholders, including a member of the present governing council had been quoted as saying that the CRFFN Act is faulty.
One of the founders of a notable freight forwarding association in Nigeria likened CRFFN to a professional association like the Nigerian Bar Association.
Yet another core stakeholder and president of one of the major associations, in his wisdom stated that CRFFN is not for licensed Customs agents.
In his understanding, Customs brokerage is different from freight forwarding.
In the same vein, other stakeholders in the maritime sector are not left out in the misconception, as heads of some MDAs critical in synergy to the functions of the CRFFN like the Nigeria Customs Service also misconstrue the CRFFN as one of the freight forwarding associations.
Generally, it appears that freight forwarding and the CRFFN Act have become like the proverbial gigantic elephant that various people describe in many different ways, based on their encounter, feelings, touch or point of view.
But laws do not work that way. Laws are succinct, distinct, specific and targeted to address clearly identifiable issues.
The latter is true of the CRFFN Act.
Therefore, it becomes conflictual if the major stakeholders of the freight forwarding profession including some of those saddled with responsibilities as members of the governing board of CRFFN, who should implement the Act are variously facing different directions in pulling through with its mandates.
This is obviously, the crux of the matter, causing disharmony, friction and confusion and has as well left the drivers in a habitual state of either out of ignorance or pecuniary interest approaching the Attorney General/Minister for Justice for interpretation of some sections of the Act or the National Assembly for one amendment or the other.
This misinterpretation has affected the leverage that CRFFN should enjoy and discharge its functions as a public, private sector regulatory body for freight forwarding in Nigeria.
And on the part of other MDAs like the Nigeria Customs Service, one cannot blame them for the misconception that has to do with how CRFFN has carried on with its operations and activities. In other words, one needs to stand up to be counted.
In all objectivity, as well as from a professional standpoint, these efforts at amendment of the Act or seeking interpretations of some sections of the Act are unnecessary; they are only ways to blame the failures of the drivers of the Act on the authors of the Act.
Suffice it to say that, in relation to prevailing circumstances, the CRFFN Act is unequivocally complete, robust and capable of sanitizing and optimizing freight forwarding operations to measure up to operations in advanced maritime nations.
The Act was modelled after the new world order spearheaded by the United States, which is a public, private partnership in government functions.
In fact, the CRFFN is among the pilots or first demonstrations of the model in government functions in Africa; and it was apt, well-conceived and delivered.
The Federal Government keyed into it because the model is transforming operations for the better in other parts of the world.
This is the belief and position of a few unheard voices like some of us in the CRFFN; and since, even as a vice chairman, advising a system of a closed group, who were running operations in their preconceived manner without clearly defined structure, strategy and order was difficult and frustrating, it becomes necessary to devise other ways to advise the system to avoid mistakes that would have severe negative consequences on the industry.
The fact is that, it will be a great disservice to the freight forwarding industry, Nigerians and the nation as a country, if the original concept behind the CRFFN is severely altered.
The major problems on ground bother on wrong or faulty interpretations, as well as poor understanding of the Act by those who drive it, who are expected to know better.
This misconception has created a disconnect in evolving an appropriate structure and strategy to run the CRFFN.
In other words, the CRFFN needs to be redesigned and restructured in line with the provisions of the Act.
This is primary to successful implementation of the Act. This means that what is faulty is the management structure of operations; the Act is not faulty and unless the faulty structure is redesigned and corrected, the management will find it difficult to fulfil the mandates of the Act irrespective of the enormous resources at its disposal.
Furthermore, it is important for provisions of the Act to be followed to the letter. Apart from the issue of the governing board making regulations that run contrary to the Act, there were other decisions relating to the CRFFN that ran foul of sections of the Act; for instance, the last election in the Council.
It was not clear what standards or guidelines were adopted in conducting that election.
Was it based on association lines, maritime zones, on individual or corporate capacity?
It was wrong for that sham of a process to be allowed in a Council of the stature of CRFFN.
It is as a result of misconceptions like that and flagrant disregard of provisions of the Act that it has not met industry expectations; and that is why there is a vicious cycle of going for amendments, seeking interpretation and making regulations that sometimes are in opposition with provisions of the Act.
It would be recalled that the CRFFN amendment bill during the 8th National Assembly was seeking to repeal the public, private partnership concept of the Act to transform the CRFFN into a full federal government agency.
Analysis of the motive behind this school of thought reveals that it was pursued to position the CRFFN to continue to receive allocations and subventions from the federation account; when in actual sense, the CRFFN was designed not only for self-sustenance, but also to stimulate the economy for increased revenue to the federal government.
The position of the Hon. Minister of Transport, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi at that 8th Assembly public hearing on the unnecessary CRFFN amendment was commendable.
The Hon Minister remarked that government interference in operations is unproductive and that it is imperative to note that full government ownership and management of the agencies had inherent restrictions for third party funding, undue government interference, burdensome bureaucratic structures and over bloated workforce.”
It is also important for policy makers to know that increasing government presence and involvement in operations of CRFFN will increasingly reduce its credibility in the eye of international professional bodies like FIATA.
The fact is that the more drivers of CRFFN position it to become a new agency of the federal government, the more the body loses relevance; because, the transport sector is already over-bloated with several agencies that are either operating at cross-purposes and overlap or do not quite have work to do.
The federal government had realized this in March 2014 with the report of Steve Oronsaye Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalization of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies.
To state the obvious, it is expected that the federal government would revisit that report and do the needful.
In other words, if government takes the hard decision to merge some agencies and scrap others that are of no serious importance in terms of self-sustenance and service delivery, will CRFFN survive as an agency of government?
What CRFFN needs are visionary leaders that would leverage on the robust Act and optimize the potentials of the sector.
Suffice it to state again that the CRFFN had not really been properly structured; therefore, there is need to go back to basics and set out a robust organizational format that would be streamlined and function as the Act was intended.
If this can be achieved and the CRFFN can have operational targets and projections for the sector, gradually, meaningful and steady progress will be made towards seamless freight operations in Nigeria.
As of today, the industry is being pressured to its elasticity limit and breaking point. It is, therefore important to stimulate and re-energize the sector for progress and development to play expected economic role in the diversification efforts of the federal government.
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