By Samson Echenim
Freight forwarders, under the aegis of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, are battling the country’s largest RoRo terminal operator, Port and Terminal Multiservices Limited, PTML, accusing the terminal of restricting access to its facilities, thereby hindering the Federal Government’s Ease of Doing Business initiative.
Founder of NAGAFF, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, alleged that PTML “refused to honour the order of the Federal Government by insisting that, before any freight forwarder can gain access into its terminal, he must have been registered and possess the PTML access card.”
Aniebonam argued that access into the port, as spelt out in the ministerial order issued by Minister of Transportation, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, CRFFN, states that access into the port must be by the authority of the Nigerian Ports Authority, which is landlord to the port concessionaires.
“Access into the port for a freight forwarder is based on the identity card issued by the CRFFN to its members and certified by the NPA as the custodian of the port, but PTML is not compliant. I am so sad that they doing it with impunity,” he said.
The bickering snowballed into a planned protest by the freight forwarders before the leadership of NAGAFF hinted that it was looking to resolve the matter through peaceful means.
But that was after NAGAFF had accused PTML of extorting its members in the name of making port access cards for them.
In one of its several statements on the matter last week, NAGAFF’s Head of Special Duties, Rev Emma Agubanze, said: “The National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) may lead a coalition of Freight Forwarders and Licensed Customs Agents Associations to stop the PTML illegal collection of access card fees in their terminal. It is on record that NAGAFF had severally complained to the NPA and the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, that the policy on Ease of Doing Business is not being appreciated, going by the expectation of stakeholders.”
However, as apt as NAGAFF’s claim may appear, it is necessary to put the issues straight by examining the position of Nigeria’s trade laws on the matter. The imbroglio can be resolved if freight forwarders understand that their status as Customs agents is clearly on the designation of same by the Nigeria Customs Service.
For example, the Customs and Excise Management Act, CEMA, does not recognize an individual as declarant (Customs clearing agent) but a corporate body. As a result, the Customs Service licenses only corporate bodies as Customs agents. This appears to be breeding infractions in the port, as freight forwarders hold their practice on the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, CRFFN, which recognizes individuals as practitioners.
While debunking the allegation of extortion by freight forwarders, PTML insisted that the issue of access control be done in compliance with CEMA provisions that define Customs brokers/agents as licensed Customs agents with genuine jobs, maintaining that these are the only people to be allowed into the port.
“Against the wrong notion of some practitioners, CRFFN, as a regulatory body for practitioners in the freight forwarding business, is responsible for certification, regulation and control of various specialists within the trade group of which Customs agency is one, whereas Customs brokers are specifically licensed and authorised to perform import and export documentation activities by the Nigeria Customs Service based on Sections 153 – 156 of the CEMA ACT,” said Ascanio Russo, Managing Director of Grimaldi Shipping, parent company of PTML.
According to him, the issuance of PTML access card is therefore premised on authorisation and licensing of a corporate organisation and its accredited representatives as Customs agents/brokers, regulated at the Customs port command level by Customs Authority Card, otherwise known as NCS form C30. The NCS form C30 is a yearly renewable document.
This position was corroborated by the Customs Area Controller of Apapa Area 1, Jibrin Musa, who stated, while speaking to some maritime journalists in his office recently, that the Customs Service only licenses companies as CEMA law provides and not individuals.
The Grimaldi boss, Russo, who was quoted in a statement by the company’s General Manager, Mr Tunde Keshinro, further said: “Biometric access card is a combination of access control and identity management of all users of the port terminal facility in compliance with ISPS code and relevant government regulations. Viewing the peculiarities of PTML, a stand-alone facility and handler of Ro-Ro trade that attracts huge number of touts in the port area, who parades as clearing agents and freight forwarders, PTML is under obligation in managing the risks and challenges of providing safe and secured environment to all stakeholders to have tight control of the facility.
“The provisions involve huge investment in equipment, technology and administrative process aside the core operations of the company as a terminal operator. PTML is charging N10, 000 per agency (corporate) for 7 biometric cards for their staff (clearing agents). The cost, strictly speaking, does not cover the cost of the card, but for the owner of the agency to take ownership and to discourage frivolous application, noting the level of touts, forgery and fraud in the sector. That thousands are registered is not synonymous with revenue. It is a one-time payment and no renewal fee is charged for subsequent years the agent operates at PTML once they have valid Customs form C30.
“The biometric access card is a singular positive tool that contributes to Federal Goverment’s policy on ease of doing business, as it helps to discourage touring, filter the users and restrict access to only genuine port users at all times, thereby ensuring safety of life and property, entrenchment of secured environment and raising the compliance level of Nigeria seaport on ISPS compliance, noting access control is a sine qua non element of the protocol.
“As the operator of the port terminal handling majority of Ro-Ro trade into Nigeria, management of the high influx of unregulated clearing agents in the port and attendant touting is very challenging in addition to the drive to safeguard customer’s goods and assets which are trusted into our care. The level of stealing, pilferage and vandalism that had been curtailed is unquantifiable given the background of our take off point”.
It would be recalled that, at a recent meeting between clearing agents and management of Grimaldi Shipping, the parent company of PTML, the company’s Deputy Managing Director, Mr. Nitin Senan, stated that most of the persons seeking access into the terminal do not have businesses to transact at the port, referring to them as “ghost agents who do not have Customs licenses.”
As freight forwarders spoil for war on the issue, a shipping expert, James Adebanji, has called for caution,
He said: “In my opinion, I will like to call on the freight forwarders to be cautious, as no terminal operator will want to make money from mere accessibility of its facilities. The customs agents should not forget that they are not the only ones using the port; there a whole lot of people who are coming into the port and they also have to be registered. This is to attain sanity in the port and to ensure that cargoes are safe”.