26 June 2015, Lagos – Stakeholders in the maritime sector of the economy are now at loggerheads over who controls the collection of practitioners operating fees at the nation’s seaports, writes John Iwori
In the last two months, one issue has remained on the front burner in the maritime sector of the economy. It is the collection of practitioners operating fee from freight forwarders by the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN). The issue has caused division in the freight forwarders association to the extent that members can no longer speak with one voice. The falcon can no longer hear the falconer. It is a clear case of a house divided against itself, which definitely cannot stand. The crux of the matter is who collects the practitioners operating fee and how much. It is believed in some quarters that the percentage collected by CRFFN ought to be reviewed downward in view of the poor state of the economy occasioned by the declining price of crude oil in the international market since last year.
A Divided House
It is on record that freight forwarders hardly speak with one voice again; it is either that one group of freight forwarders is supporting the federal government on an issue with the other group opposing the same issue. This is not new. It has always been the case with the way and manner most freight forwarders support or oppose virtually every issue in the maritime industry and beyond. The only exemption to this is when it is of common interest, which has to do with their mutual benefits. In fact, it is the recurrent fighting and in-fighting over who gets what, when and how among freight forwarders that resulted in emergence of several associations in the maritime industry.
The associations are so numerous that some of them are not known beyond their members. Some do not have any known address or secretariat. They operate from the confines of their private offices or residential homes of the key promoters. Some have not conducted any election to change their leadership right from when they were formed many years ago. In fact, apart from the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1954, most of the associations were established by a few individuals after they fell out over issues of various contending interests when they were in ANLCA. This explained why most of the promoters of the splinter groups are former key members of ANLCA. The division, rancour and acrimony have been carried into the fight for the collection of the practitioner practising fee by CRFFN.
One Meeting Different Outcomes
While ANLCA has taken a position on the collection on the collection of the practitioner practising fee by CRFFN, the other freight forwarding associations have teamed up to oppose it with the two groups attending meetings in Lagos and Abuja and coming up with different accounts on their outcomes. It is a case of the same meeting, the same venue, the same time, the same attendees but different outcomes. The meeting was convened to address the lingering tussle over the collection of the practitioner practising fee but it ended up a fiasco with conflicting results. Apparently concerned by the impact of the rivalry among the licensed customs agents, the Federal Ministry of Transport, which set up the council through the CRFFN Act 2007 convened the meeting at Dipharima House, its corporate headquarters in Abuja penultimate Wednesday. The meeting was at the instance of the ministry with the officials of ANLCA and its opponents on the collection of the practitioners practising fee under the auspices of the Concerned Registered Freight Forwarders Associations (CRFFA) in attendance. It was an exercise in futility however, as the meeting ended several hours after without a clear information on the resolutions reached.
It must be noted that CRFFA is a coalition of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Association of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (AREFFN) and National Association of Freight Forwarders and Consolidators (NAFFAC). The ministry had called the meeting to resolve the lingering face-off between ANLCA and the other associations over CRFFN’s bid to collect the contentious fee. Two key persons that attended and participated at the Abuja meeting, AREFFN President, Mr. Frank Ukor and the National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA, Mr. Kayode Farinto, gave different accounts of what transpired at the meeting. While Ukor said the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Transport (FMOT), Mallam Mohammed Bashar threatened to sanction ANLCA “if it failed to submit itself to the directive and regulation of CRFFN”, Farinto gave a different version of what transpired.
According to Ukor, the long and short of the meeting was that the Permanent Secretary told ANLCA at the meeting that CRFFN is an agency of government and the Attorney General had advised that even though the Council is not sitting, the Minister can give directive as to the operation of the agency till the board is in place. In fact, he said CRFFN has the right to order collection of practicing fee as approved by the Ministry and it is the position of the law and that if ANLCA should act to the contrary, it is committing felony as it against the law for any citizen to oppose the law of the Federal Republic. Bashar said the Ministry would rework the modalities for collection and sharing of the practitioner fee and that ANLCA would be sanctioned if it refuses to submit itself.
However, Farinto who is the newly elected National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA said the FMOT Permanent Secretary listened to all the parties present and postponed the meeting to a later date to rule on the dispute.
“At the meeting, every one stated their side. After that, the other group brought out a letter from the Ministry of Justice where they said the Attorney General advised that the Council can operate without a Governing Council but we told them we are not a party to that letter hence it cannot be binding on us. The conclusion is that he (the Permanent Secretary) will study the letters and reconvene the meeting as soon as possible but we don’t know when”, he said.
THISDAY had reported that ANLCA had resisted the collection of the practitioner operating fees in spite of its approval for collection by CRFFN as approved by former Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Audu Umar. The erstwhile minister had conveyed the grant of approval for CRFFN to begin the collection of the practitioner practising fee vide a letter dated 26th February, 2015. Since then, the freight forwarders community have known no peace as the key actors continue to bicker on the way and manner the fee should be collected.
It is clear that the fight over the collection of the practitioner practising fee by CRFFN is beyond the surface. It is a battle for the soul of the nation’s seaports, airports and international borders. This is not unconnected with the fact that these are the major areas of operations by freight forwarders across the country and whoever is in charge of its collection will wield considerable influence in a sector that ranks second in terms of revenue accruing into the federation account after crude oil. It is therefore important for all contenders to seethe their sword and work together for the common good. The gladiators in the fight over the collection of the fee, ANLCA and CRFFA must come to the negotiation table and chart the way forward. They cannot afford to continue to fight at the detriment of the economy. The need for the proponents and opponents of the practitioner practising fee to work together and speak with one voice is very imperative as other pertinent issues are left unattended as they continue to fight and bicker.
– This Day