By Steve Agbota, [email protected] 

Kayode Farinto, a prominent figure in the Nigerian maritime industry and a former Acting National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), has offered a nuanced perspective on the National Single Window.

    He  believes the National Single Window is a positive step for streamlining import/export and welcomes its development but criticises the exclusion of professional freight forwarders from the committee designing the policy. He said their expertise is crucial to ensure the system’s efficiency and avoid vulnerabilities. He discusses other maritime industry issues, including fixed FX for import duty.

How would you describe the recently launched National Single Window and what does it portend for the industry?

The idea behind the National Single Window is very good. We all know this and we have been clamoring for it. It’s just that this government is just coming up to look at the issue of import and export and is going to address a lot of issues in the industry. So it is a very good development and welcome idea. The only snag is that professional freight forwarders are not included in that committee. So that’s why I call it a snag and we have made our presentation known to the high authorities.

I want to believe it is an oversight because you can’t actually design a national single window without putting in freight forwarders. Particularly, these are the experts and if you design anything like this, it is the freight forwarders that will tell you how this thing can work, how it can be so that it cannot be compromised or have any shortcomings in the national single window. So, I don’t want us to over flog it. Let us look at it as a big omission from the government, which I believe, will be addressed very soon.

Do you think the snag is as a result of CRFFN’s lack of incompetency?

There is no lack of incompetence. The board of trustees or the governing board is not in place. The governing board is supposed to drive ideologies for the Council and make representations to the government. Had it been there is a governing board in place this would not be happening. So, these are the things that are actually affecting good representation on behalf of CRFFN. This is why the Minister of Marine and Blue economy should start looking towards that direction. We have a governing board in place whose tenure has not expired. Why don’t you allow them to complete their tenure? Then you will conduct another election for another governing board so that we can move forward.

I was saying that CRFFN has been hijacked by the government, we have over 30 members and the government is appointing 17.  Ordinarily, what would have happened when this new government came on board was to dissolve those appointees, bring in new appointees to work with the elected. I bought a form for N500, 000. We campaigned and we were elected for a period of two years. We have not even completed one year when the government came on board. There was supposed to be an interpretation from the Attorney General’s office. I don’t know whether all these things were done and that’s why you see a lot of people rushing to court. I don’t believe the court can solve this issue. The new government may not know but it is good to make the government to know.

Why don’t you appoint the new 17 appointees and then work with the elected?

Let’s look at the recent drop in FX and how it has affected importation. We’ve had calls from several quarters calling that the government should give a fixed price for custom exchange. How would you react to all of this?

I predicted it. I said when it gets to a stage; Naira will go to 1,500 per dollar. What I never saw was that it was going to reach N1,900 per dollar and after a while, it started declining and that is exactly what is happening. I also recommended that we should have a fixed exchange rate for import purposes. That would have assisted us. But unfortunately we have a CBN governor who believes he wants to bring in his ideology and who believes that advice may not work for us. But whether anybody likes it or not, the dollar is continuing to decline now. Are you now going to be changing the exchange rate on a daily basis? It’s not too good for our industry because there is no predictability.

I want to go to China now and bring in 10 containers of this purse and we all know that China takes minimum of 60 days. Before the arrival of my vessels, perhaps the dollar would have jumped up or it will have come down. But if we have a fixed, predictive dollar rate, I know that in the next two quarters, this is going to be the exchange rate, then you will see the industry thriving. That is what the policy formulators are lacking to be able to project into the future and look at how to solve that problem. If they had implemented that fixing of dollar exchange rate for Customs purposes or for maybe N1,000 per dollar at that time, it will be better. We are almost entering the second quarter now. They will not be reviewing it. But that is not the case and the dollar is continuing to slide because of the fact that government is putting a lot of things to strengthen Naira.

Recently, the new CEO of Shippers Council proposed a one per cent freight stabilisation fund. Some stakeholders, including the Lagos Shippers Association kicked against this. What is your take on this?

Ideally, there are a lot of things that wrong with the Shippers Council. We have laws that make the Council a toothless bulldog that can only bark but cannot bite. When I saw the issue of stabilisation fund, I laughed because I know that it will not scale through. The Shippers Council now is putting a lot of things before the public domain and they are not looking at the feedback mechanism. Ideally, the government is supposed to still be funding the Shippers Council for her to stabilise before they now start talking about where to generate money from. The issue of stabilisation fund that you are looking at is a thing that everybody should sit on the round table and look at it. We have suggested for a long time that the freight charges that NIMASA has taken 3 per cent. Where is that fund going?

These are the funds that ordinarily can channel to finance the Shippers Council. What this government is trying to do is to see how to block unnecessary spending. The Shippers Council’s role is supposed to protect Nigerian Shippers. Have they been doing that? The answer is no.

So if I want to score this Shipper’s Council in the last few months, I will say they have failed. They have not even done anything and I don’t even know whether the Shippers Council still exists, except when you see them and you see their vehicles because the Shippers are not being protected. You can only say the Shippers Council is in place when the Shippers are protected. On the issue of the fluctuations of dollars, what has the Counciln done to protect Nigerian Shippers? The Lagos Shippers Association has been taken over by the Shippers Council. So it’s a toothless bulldog also and that’s why they midwife the so-called election that was conducted recently to put in place their preferred candidate. So we don’t even have a Shippers Association.

You were a member of the Shippers Association

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Yes, I was a member. I was even one of the executives. But when I saw that it has been hijacked by the Shippers Council, I had to just pull out until sanity is restored. How can you have a Shippers Association that cannot even control itself? You have been housed in the Shippers Council’s office, so you are a tenant and you can be ejected any time when you say anything that goes contrary to their own policy. A lot of things are wrong and I believe that the Bola Tinubu’s government is coming up with a lot of reforms in the industry. So it’s a gradual thing anyway and I believe we will get to that.

Due to this inefficiency in the Shippers Council, some experts were saying that the Orosanye’s report might affect the Council.

No, it’s not possible. The Orosanye is good but it’s belated and obsolete. It needs to be reviewed. It’s not something that this government can implement easily.

Immediately after this government came on board, they created a Blue Economy ministry. So how do you juxtapose that with the implementation of Orosanye’s report? Orosanye’s report should be given to some experts to review it before implementation because if you implement it the way it is here, there will be a lot of snag even for the government itself. The government that has created a Blue economy moving forward, going backward again now to implement Orosanye’s report will not help. So we are supposed to leave Orosanye’s report in the cooler, pick up a committee and let them review it in line with what is happening now in our industry.

How would you rate the Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy?

You can’t rate the ministry until it stabilises. It’s a ministry that does not even have departments. Most of the departments under the ministry of Blue Economy are still answerable to the Ministry of Transportation. There has not been delineation. There has not been explicit demarcation. Not that you are answerable to the Ministry of Blue Economy today and tomorrow the Ministry of Transportation. So this has not been done. I expected that the Minister of Transportation and the Minister of Blue Economy need to sit together and set up a committee and delineate boundary areas stating what belongs to you and what belongs to us. It has not been done. The Government in its wise thinking has created a ministry for us. It is now left for implementation.

and that is why we say we actually recommended the implementation and the creation of this ministry. When it comes to the implementation, we were left out. So how will sail through? It’s unfortunate and the man who is saddled with that responsibility is an old man. He has his limitation. He is an old man of 80 years. You need good heads who are technically endowed in the area of Transportation and Marine economy. They should sit together and bring out the blueprint for us on Blue economy and the delineation of ministry of transportation and the various departments. If that has been done, by now we should be talking of moving forward. But we are rigmaroling.

Let’s take a look at the Nigerian Customs service. So far so good we’ve seen them roll out some of their first quarter reports even down to the Customs headquarters. How will you assess the performance of the Nigerian Customs Service so far?

Like I said when Wale was appointed, I said we are just having a core Customs officer as the CGC of Customs and you will agree with me that Wale has been ruling out a lot of policy issues. And to his credit, just last week they said they have met up their first quarter targets. So it shows that they are performing despite the fact that we have a very bad economy and despite the fact that the volume of import has dropped by about 65 per cent. He deserved some accolades.

What about vis-à-vis trade facilitation?

The issue of trade facilitation, these are two things that cannot be put into the front burner. The government cannot be talking about target as also talking about trade facilitation. They are two things. It’s either you give the masses trade facilitation and jettison target or you take your target and jettison trade facilitation. But in view of what is happening throughout the whole world.

There is no sane government that will be talking about trade facilitation now but to generate money. Don’t forget that our population continues to increase on daily basis and the government has a lot of responsibility to meet up with. This government inherited a zero economy. So they are just coming up now with a lot of ideas on how to generate revenue. So I give it to them, honestly. I give it to them. Despite the fact that we have a serious drop in our importation, they are still meeting up with their targets. So it shows that they are blocking the loopholes, going extra mile to generate revenue. So I don’t want to talk about trade facilitation for now. We are putting it in the refrigerator until everything normalises.

We just finished the first quarter of the year. The industry is so quiet with little or no activities. How will you rate the industry in the last three months?

Like I told you, it will be difficult for me to rate the industry because I got to know that we have been living in borrowed ropes. The last eight years of administration has killed the economy of this country to the extent that what this government is doing now is to rebuild. And when the government is rebuilding, a lot of things are in place and we cannot really rate that government. We can only encourage them and advise them to do better. Look at what has happened in the last three to four months. There is no predictability, which is one of the criteria of the logistic performance index of the World Bank. We don’t have it. You cannot even say what happens to cargo clearance in the next two months. Nobody can predict because the dollar continues to fluctuate. Unfortunately, we don’t have the policy in that direction. I have been saying this several times that we have to sit down and formulate a consistent policy for the industry. We cannot say in the next eight months, dollar will be like this for Customs purposes. Importation will be like this with the traders, issues of CB will be like this and the Nigeria Customs Service will be saddled with the responsibility of trade facilitation. Knowing full well that there is no carrot that will be raise or expectation, the government is not really on their neck. Until we sit down and look at this and looking at our Blue economy, a lot of things are lacking. I traveled recently, I went to Amsterdam and taking that the blue economy would have thinking towards that level because part of the blue economy is supposed to be tourism. I saw a vessel in Amsterdam for tourists for six million euros on a maybe PPP agreement. We should be talking about that even the ministry does not even know that tourism is their responsibility. Look at water hyacinth, what is the government saying about water hyacinth? The Blue economy has not really come out with anything about that. Is this how we are going to be running this government? Well, let us look at it as a teething problem. By the end of December, if we see the way the blue economy ministry is going, and there is no pragmatical approach or improvement, I personally will go to the president and say; there is nothing to do at the ministry of Blue Economy. Do not forget that Hadiza Bala Usman is at the corner evaluating every ministry and all the policies they are doing. I can tell you that the Blue Economy has not really done anything. It is very unfortunate. I do not want to be immodest, biased or bring in any sentiment. But I am looking at our youths, who by now, with the creation of the blue economy, we should be talking about giving them employment. Nobody has spoken about this. When you have not even delineated the various departments, will you be thinking forward? So, a lot of things are really missing. We are thinking that maybe in the next few months with our connection too in Abuja, we will make a presentation.

I try as much as possible to shy away from this question. As much as I know that you also want to shy away from it. It’s been 224 days since the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) elected new executives into positions and up to now, elections into the chapters and board has not taken place. As a former president of the Association and elder statesman, how will you react to this?

Well, let me factual. There is nothing anybody can do to me. I have seen it all. I said I am on sabbatical leave when it comes to ANLCA issue. ANLCA has not been fairing well. It’s very unfortunate. But don’t forget, this was not our plan and this was not even our agreement with the CCC. The CCC, I remember, said we must conduct election of the board one month immediately after NECOM election. An election has been conducted. It is not as if somebody like me went to court. I never went to court. I congratulated you. But all till now this NECOM has not found its feet. So something is wrong with that. It’s an in-house problem.

We commend you particularly for letting peace reign as at that time but we heard rumors that the election was like a buyout. Are you aware of this at inception and you decided to let go?

I got to know of it on the day of the election and I heard everything that has transpired, even to the extent of the money that was being distributed, which was about $50,000. But I am somebody that is very optimistic. I don’t believe in giving excuses. In an election and in every contest, one person must win. That means I have not prepared well. Maybe some other day, if at all, that day will come, if at all somebody like me will contest again, it is telling me that go and prepare well. A lot of things happened in that election vis-a-vis inner politics that I don’t want to talk about. It has come and gone. But the most important thing is that let the various freight forwarders feel the impact of this NECOM, which is not there. We don’t have advocacy anymore again. Nobody is advocating for us anymore. Advocacy is zero. Nobody is following government back to back again, is it not possible again. So, the question is that where are your electoral promises if you have anyone at all? Where are your blueprints if you have anyone at all? My father used to tell me that if a woman has not tasted the house of the second husband, she would not know that the first man was better.