By Innocent Anaba
Mr. Frank Umeh is an expert in free zone logistics, custom affairs, export trade development, international trade and human resource management.In this interview, he offered insights into how to make Tinapa the export and import hub like the free trade zones in Dubai and China. Excerpt:
What is your take on Tinapa?
Like I’ve said umpteenth time, Tinapa is a good concept. It is designed in the same fashion like Dubai free trade zone. Tinapa free trade zone is meant to create not only wealth and employment but also drive Nigeria’s economic transformation.
Tinapa has its own competitive advantage over other areas doing business in Nigeria. Its operational framework is articulated in a valid and gazetted law in Nigeria, which is the Tinapa Gazette.
In the law, Tinapa’s target market category is amply stated. The law of Tinapa considers Nigerian business community comprising traders involved in import and export activities; wholesalers and retailers.
And the law also said it is a large proportion of the target market for Tinapa free zone currently imports their goods from Europe, Asia, Middle East and it is expected that the volume within the Tinapa free zone will provide a large enough market to serve the needs of this target market which will necessarily result in substantial foreign exchange savings in travel expenses and hotel accommodation costs.
The purpose of this legal provision is to help in stopping the scarce foreign exchange that leaves the country on daily basis. Now you have the opportunity of coming to Tinapa and giving value to our naira; the travel expenses paid to foreign airlines for international flights and hotel accommodation abroad will no longer be necessary, you do everything in-house.
The say charity begins at home; Tinapa is an opportunity for us to look inwards and see how we can do things, give value to our own currency, give value to our own tourism industry, give value to our own local market among other things.
The success of Tinapa would be anchored on trade. Tinapa is a business and leisure resort. Though business and leisure will go simultaneously but trade should be the catalyst to drive Tinapa’s growth. So, in talking about the success of the project, I will say that the management of Tinapa should focus more on how to promote trade.
And when you talk about trade, you look at the inflow and the outflow. The inflow will look into the logistics, it will look into the warehousing, it will look into transportation, and it will look into the sales within the zone. Those factors are necessary for particular goods inflow.
AMCON is said to be shopping for a new management for Tinapa, what is your take on this?
I think it will be in the interest of AMCON to manage Tinapa on interim basis. They should stabilize the entire system and set standard before they hand it over to a private operator. They should appoint board members with requisite experience and professional background to manage Tinapa.
The temptation of private operator pushing to its limit and the regulatory agencies truncating the entire system anytime it pleases them can only be forestalled through a controlled management. The Tinapa business plan can only work where it is set as an economic experience for the benefit of the society rather than a profit generating framework per se.
What exactly is the problem with Tinapa? Why has it not succeeded to the level it ought to?
I’ve been talking about trade activation fund for Tinapa, that Tinapa needs trade activation fund because our understanding is that trade is or should be the anchor point of the success of Tinapa. It is learnt that the new owners of Tinapa, which is AMCON has said that they are going to inject some fund into Tinapa.
I think that is a welcome development and I pray that the fund is utilized on trade or that trade gets attention when the fund is injected. If Tinapa could have adequate funding for trade and it is properly utilised, I don’t see how Nigerians can still be going to Dubai or China or wherever it is to go and import goods.
Nigerians would naturally come to Tinapa to buy those goods or import it just like any other importation they do through any of the Nigerian ports. But this time around, they can import any quantity of their needs as against going to import 100 containers to pack in their warehouses.
In this case, they can simply come and take the quantity they want, pay necessary duty where required and take the goods to where they reside or where they do their business.
So, Tinapa does not really have a problem but the new owner should imbibe the passion of the visioners of Tinapa and ensure it succeeds. Whoever they pick to manage Tinapa should have the passion and drive to see the place achieve its fundamental objective. What Tinapa needs is proper funding and if this is done, one can confidently say that better days are ahead.
What role should the Nigerian Customs Service play to ensure the success of Tinapa?
Recently, there has been a little problem between the Customs and investors or businessmen at Tinapa. But I know that about two years ago when the Comptroller General of the Customs visited the zone, he made a very good suggestion that the zone management and Customs command both from where goods are being transited to the zone and the area should have an interactive forum with the support of NEPZA which is a regulatory agency for the free zone.
He said that they should be meeting regularly to balance the law as against the policy of government; to educate each other and be able to resolve areas of conflict that may be generated as a result information flow.
I don’t whether that interaction as suggested by the Comptroller General was followed up, maybe as a result of several changes that have gone on in Customs.
So, that idea of interaction between bodies didn’t take place; there has been a lot of information gap that has resulted in the problem that Tinapa is going through now.
I think if they could come together and try to build information flow among themselves, they will have a better relationship.
Tinapa is in a territory and there is a Customs Area Command that manages Tinapa, if there is any shortfall in that management the Customs command has all mechanism to send in reinforcement to see that it operates in line with the provision stated in the gazette.
The zone management will also do its own part, same with the Nigerian Export Processing Zone Authority (NEPZA). To me, the recurrent issues going on between Customs and Tinapa could not be said to have occurred because there was no Customs command to manage the zone.
I’m not in paramilitary service; I’m not in Customs but they have all the mechanism to manage it and block any loophole which might have been exploited. Naturally, businessmen may want to take an opportunity but the Customs is there; the Customs is in all the borders of Nigeria and the idea of being there is to regulate the inflow of goods in line with what the law says.
So, let them not sit back on Tinapa, they should engage Tinapa, bring in their full apparatus and establish necessary departments or offices and work with the zone management to ensure that the vision of Tinapa is realised. I do not think that the idea of shutting down Tinapa on account of misinformation should be the best way to go.