- Webb Fontaine causing more harm than good at Nigerian ports
Prince Olusegun Oduntan is a veteran freight forwarder and a chieftain of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). In this exclusive chat with The News Diet, he speaks on several issues affecting freight forwarding business in the nation, analysing the port environment, the lingering conflict at ANLCA, challenges with Customs evolvement in automation, among others. Excerpts:
The Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) has been collecting Practitioners Operating Fees (POF) for some years. How has the repayment plan for declarants worked out?
It is true that CRFFN has begun collecting the POF for several months. Freight agents have been paying through the agency’s consultant who collects the monies on behalf of CRFFN, but I’m not aware any declarant has been able to get any refund. I haven’t got a refund and I think the framework for repaying declarants might pose some issues but we haven’t got to that stage yet. It’s true that monies or part of it ought to come back to the declarant and at the appropriate time we would see how they handle it.
Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) valuation process and the V-Reg have been utilized for some months and it appears the teething challenges with these platforms have been surmounted. How would you rate these automation processes by Customs and others in recent times?
You would recall that there were protests and push-backs following the introduction of VIN valuation system as the process started off without stakeholders input. Customs have been able to correct that by engaging port users and correcting most of the initial challenges. However, I will rate them at 55 percent with these automated processes so far. This isn’t because they aren’t trying their best, but there are numerous problems which I believe will be sorted out over time. For a child to walk, he or she would have to stumble and fall at several attempts. The child would have to go through gradual stages which start by crawling and then trying to stand and falling before standing and ultimately walking without aid.
A look at the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) raises a lot of concern because at the initial stage, the then Comptroller General lamented that the monies been paid to foreign companies had become too high and supporting PAAR would curb some those charges. Customs stressed that they were the ones querying the Risk Assessment Report (RAR) and argued that with PAAR, operators could evacuate their cargoes.
It was only after PAAR was successfully implemented that we began to learn that it was just an advisory document. Today, PAAR is still being queried at the Customs headquarters or arbitrarily jacked-up. This wasn’t the initial plan.
Following these introduction of automated processes, coupled with the Customs Modernization Project, the relevance of Customs I.T provider ‘Webb Fontaine’ has become questionable. After 16 years of providing I.T services for Customs, should the company continue this service when one considers the progress and massive investments Customs have recorded on automation?
Customs are already playing a lead role in having automated processes at the ports. Webb Fontaine should be on their way out because they have actually done more damage than good at the nation’s ports. NCS also has a crop of I.T savvy and well-skilled officers to provide the services Webb Fontaine has been offering. It think the Service has been strategically recruiting skilled personnel in recent times to be able to solve I.T issues. Nigeria doesn’t need Webb Fontaine anymore.
Since the intervention of the Ministry of Transportation, Engr. Mu’azu Jaji Sambo and the leadership of CRFFN on ANLCA leadership crisis, there is yet to be a report on the conflict resolution strategy for the association. What is the latest update on this?
The truth is that I’m neither a Governing Board member of CRFFN nor privy to happenings at the Ministry. However, we have all agreed to accept the outcome or position of CRFFN and the Ministry. ANLCA crisis is like a country that has gone to war. The war could last for several years, but eventually it must be resolved. We have gotten to that stage where the conflict must be resolved and ANLCA will not be an exception.
We are all waiting and hopeful that CRFFN and the Ministry’s intervention comes up soonest. Similarly, we also hope and pray that people accept it irrespective of the feelings or recommendations. In the spirit of comradeship, I think it’s time to shelve all the conflicts in order to bequeath to the next generation a better and more formidable ANLCA.
In few weeks we would be in a new year and 2023 is special for Nigeria because of the upcoming presidential elections. What’s your forecast on port business, especially freight forwarding activities?
The upcoming election has caused a downturn in businesses already. People aren’t willing to import or export as they prefer to hold on to their monies to see which direction the nation heads with the next polls. This has always been the system in Nigeria. Infact, there should ordinarily be a boom in imports because of the yuletide season which usually sparks more imports but that’s not the case because of the upcoming elections.
Since people are uncertain about the nation’s political direction in 2023, they would rather hold back than spend. This is also responsible for the scarcity of forex because monies are usually kept in dollars and not naira.
Although there are still some effects of the global economic meltdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia/Ukraine war, the most deciding factor in port business in Nigeria is the upcoming elections.
Barge operations have eased the evacuation of cargoes from Lagos ports in the last two years. However, there are concerns about the regulations and safety. What’s your position on this?
One of the reasons the congestion that was at the peak few years ago disappeared is because of the introduction of barge operations. With barges, there are numerous outlets to evacuate cargoes unlike the period when we only had a singular access which was the road. We have only had few incidents of mishaps with barges and quality regulation from the government agencies and barge operators should eliminate this. Nevertheless, there have been more positive accomplishments with barges at the ports.
An eminent personality in the Nigerian maritime sector, Chairman of Nigerian Ports Consultative Council (NPCC) Otunba Kunle Folarin recently passed on. What were your memories of him?
On several occasions, I was privileged to listen to his contributions on the nation’s port sector and I can say that he was an enigma. We pray for the repose of his soul and those he has left behind. We also pray that the industry improves to be the efficient and productive one he thought it could be. God will grant him eternal rest because he was a good man.