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Claim of Eastern ports revival misleading — Nwokeoji

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Member, Presidential Committee on Ease of Doing Business, Mr. Emenike Nwokeoji, in this interview discredits comments that suggests revival of eastern ports describing the claims as political conspiracy. He also spoke on other issues


By Eguono Odjegba

As a former member of the Presidential Committee on Ease of Doing Business, what is your view on the recent CBN Policy on Form M, and the clause dealing with third party ban, where is our import heading?

Import is heading for total destruction. It goes to the same thing we were saying, you can’t give what you don’t have. I am not a politician but at a point during President Goodluck Jonathan government, I thought we were already there when he assembled all the best brains of vibrant men and women as the country’s economic team. So I thought we were heading to something, because everything got to the point of negotiating us out of debts and wrong terms and clauses of debts. But we have sunk back deeper. What do you expect? I was a member of the Presidential Committee on the Ease of Doing Business, I was nominated by ANLCA. If you go to our meetings, Vice President Osinbajo is head, there is no sincerity of purpose, you cannot move one inch. Tell me one industry in five years this government has revived and taken out of collapse. Our economy is not tailored to be driven by government.

You are concerned about job creation, but we were talking about the CBN new Form M policy

I was only preparing the background for you to understand the policy inconvenience. The Form M is a clear policy somersault and the latest of policies that does not give room to sustainable planning. You wake one day, finance ministry will say one thing, you wake up another day CBN will say another thing; how can an economy stabilize under such atmosphere? Why would the people at the CBN and finance ministry work against third party, where is third party financing not applicable in global trade?

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I want to import one container of pressing iron and you want me to go to the manufacturer in Europe or Asia. They will direct you to their distributor or agent.  Third party obligation is not a Nigerian way of doing business, it is universal. Sometimes we have individuals in government who make mockery of fiscal policies.

What about the product pricing evaluation clause of the new policy, is that one justified?

Do they have the data, where do they get the data, is it something you wake up one morning and say you want to do product pricing? The whole idea looks like they want to bring in the special agents through the back door. As a country, do we have data? Do you think it is easy to build a data of all commodities being imported from all the parts of the world? It’s not something you get overnight, up till tomorrow the Nigeria Customs is still building data.

One of your colleagues told me few years back that freight rate is not fixed and that it can be negotiated depending on the volume. Wouldn’t that also constitute a conflict between government officials and importers and their agents?

CEMA, Customs Excise and Management Act, has an acceptable range which negotiated rate cannot come below. That rate refurbishes the discount, you can’t come below it, otherwise anybody can just change prices. There is a benchmark. But when it now comes to price, it is not an easy thing, for one product alone from the same location; it is difficult for you without the data to get it right. If it is paper it depends on the value and if it is being recycled, a whole lot of things can be considered before getting the appropriate value.

So would you say this is a policy error?

The policy is worse than error; it is narrow-minded and insensitive. It is about time those in charge of policy decision making are subjected to fitness evaluation, because majority of these policies don’t support real growth. Who is doing this to us, who are in charge?

Let’s talk about other fiscal policies, the closure of Nigerian border, it was a year two days ago and still in place. Now there are reprisals from West African countries, the Ghananian government is taking Nigerian business men through nightmare, same thing is replicating in Togo, but then government keeps saying it has recorded so much gain as a result of the closure

First of all I am only hearing this from you that there are reprisal actions, why am I saying so? Last month or so, I think the Speaker House of Reps, if am right went to Ghana. If it is a reprisal decision that they are discussing he wouldn’t have been the right person to go there, if they see it that way. I can tell you my answer is no. They have not seen it that way. If we were told that closure of the border was for a period and for specific reasons, ordinarily they should give us quarterly report on how far they have gone. It is not enough to tell us that seizures have been made, that is ridiculous. They started by telling us that rice farmers are now selling their local rice. Was there any time that you are passing the road and somewhere they dumped rice made in Nigeria and it was unable to sell because foreign rice stopped customers from patronizing them? You see when they claimed they have seized this and that, where is the data, who is handling the data, and from where? The border closure is a national action, we hear from people that are not supposed to comment.  So the issue of border closure is not far from the issue of Form M we just discussed. Which border did they close by the way?

There are parts of Nigeria that there are no borders, with your SUV you can drive anywhere, cross to another country without anybody asking you any question. So the Form M thing is tied to the border closure to empower it on the book and leave the borders porous at some places where all manners of imports are coming in without Form M policy interference.

Wouldn’t this create trade distortion amongst those who are registered trading communities who are being denied Form M?

You are even going too low to trading, when you are doing this, do you consider the manufacturers and how they source their raw materials? These are the people that drive the economy, forget about traders. How will they operate? We are asking people to look inward and start manufacturing and one man just open one small place, maybe he will need two, three, or fifteen containers in a year and you say he will not have a third party based Form M. Who will attend to him? How will the factory run?

Can you give a time frame for the full revival of the Eastern Port in view of efforts by government to make the regional ports gets back into operation full throttle?

I cannot because press men like you have been killing the port, when you people use the word revival, was the port shut down before? What are you reviving? You don’t revive something that is alive. If you marginalize a place and you say you are reviewing, what are you reviving? The ports have been operating from day one, it is home of oil well activities that is keeping the economy going. So what are we reviving, the Onne port is the deepest sea port in Nigeria, any vessel that cannot berth in Onne will not berth anywhere else in Nigeria. That’s why it is called Federal Ocean Terminal, FOT. It has over 14metre draught. If a country decides to kill itself, it does so using politics. We have seen what is happening in Lagos.

The impression before now was that there is too much attention been given to the Lagos ports, with Calabar port…

It is marginalization, I can give you one example. If you want to bring in container form UK to Nigeria, before now we had one flat freight rate in the whole country. If you are moving from China, from any part of the world once you say Nigeria, they will ask you which port? They give you a rate, the rate will apply whether you are going to Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar or Lago.

Then during Structural Adjustment policy, volume of cargo dropped, when volume of cargo dropped, it became difficult to get enough cargo that can go to maybe Calabar or maybe Port Harcourt, then the shippers now devised a means, they now said if you are going to Calabar or Port Harcourt,  instead of waiting this long to get the quantity to fill a vessel, why don’t we drop this cargo in Lagos and discount four hundred dollars for you, you can use it to transport it to any part of the country. That’s how it all started. That’s where it developed into freight inflation, if you write anybody now that you want to go to Lagos, they will tell you $1500 for a start, if you  say it is Port Harcourt, they will tell you ‘oh its port Harcourt, $1700 from $400. The thing is going to about $800. So if you now have ten containers coming to Port Harcourt and somebody is discounting it by almost $800, you will check the transportation from Port Harcourt to Lagos, and meanwhile Lagos is a big market, if it is a finished product, it is possible that you can even sell half of it in Lagos. You will see that from trade you have already started counting your gain, that’s one. Number two, call time to Lagos is shorter; it is possible to…because even those vessels that come to Port Harcourt, they will still stop first in Lagos before coming here. So it is possible that if you are into a business for instance, you imported this face mask and you need it to come now that there is urgent need for it, if you drop it in Lagos, you will use any amount of money, clear it fast and push it into the market. Before the person will come here, the other people will clear their own and their own is already in the market.

That’s business for you. You know so based on that importers now will start, once you see some people use back roads for small amount the importer can enter bush to get his cargo across, so that was where this freight differential started, the vessel will first land in Lagos, the possibility of you having access to your cargo faster than the other person is there and of course you know the person that enters the market first dictates the price, before the place is flooded. Even when we have noticed that we are shooting ourselves in the leg there is no road to Lagos ports, your truck will load, you won’t even have a way to come out. The place is in a big mess, when the truck drops their cargo, there is no way to drop the empty container.

And then your container deposit is higher because you are on your own, there is no ombudsman or regulator you can complain. Forget anybody that will tell you they are regulating, people that cannot regulate themselves what are they regulating?

That’s where the issue is with Onne port and the other Eastern ports. At Onne port I can say I am looking for my container and they will tell me where my container is, you can’t do it in any other port, they don’t need to go and search, anybody who goes into the terminal will tell you how organized it is. The trailer man that is called in to go and pick a container in Onne port is not allowed to loiter, he cannot say he want to go and ease himself, once he is already inside. Nobody is seen on the ground once the truck driver gets in if he wants to go and ease himself, there’s a person that will go and pick him and bring him to where he will ease himself and take him back. You can’t come down and say you want to search for your container or you want to do this or that.

That will tell you how well organized Onne port and the others in the eastern axis is. In fact they know the position of your container, so why will you leave such a place and go to a place where people are taking you through hell? We are not looking for the best in this country, that’s why we are where we are. We are not appreciative of what God has given to us and we will continue to pay the price.

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