What were you doing before you ventured into freight forwarding?
I was doing importation. My office was in Balogun. We imported only what traders were interested in. At times we would bring in cameras or air-conditioners. But due to the devaluation of the naira, it was anything that we felt would fetch us more money that we imported. Sometimes people made order for goods and we rush down to bring them into the country. That was how we made our money. Before then, I was into the business of buying and selling in Nigeria. I have never done contract and I don’t do contracts.
Would it be right to say that you are one of the biggest merchants in this country?
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I think I was one of the middle class merchants because we expanded importation in Nigeria. In the past, before we went into importation, this market was dominated by the Lebanese, Indians and the British. After some time, when the business was going down, we Nigerians who were a bit enlightened, were forced to go to the source where these goods were manufactured and we discovered that when you go to the source, these goods are cheap and that was what changed the face of trading in Nigeria.
This was how the Alaba market [in Lagos] came and the Kantin Kwari in Kano because most of us brought in the goods and we never brought in the middlemen. Unlike in the past, when most of us went to London, they would tell us to wait for one or three weeks before these goods arrive. By this time, we travelled to London, to the source of these goods and give them the specifications and designs of the goods we needed. So, that was how Nigerians started travelling to China, Japan and other countries like Egypt, Vietnam etc.
As a foremost freight forwarder in Nigeria, what has been your experience?
When I came into the business of freight forwarding, it was a challenge. In the past, when I used to import, a clearing agent would tell you one story or another and your goods will be delayed at the port and you will be forced to pay unnecessary costs as demurrage. So, I sat down and studied this business and discovered that if you do the right thing, and follow the right steps and do the proper documentation, you get the right clients and there is no way your goods would stay in the ports for more than a week. If your documentations are properly done and you pay the correct duty, there is no way your goods will be delayed.
So, we were the second generation of freight forwarders. We decided to make freight forwarding look like a business, unlike in the past when people looked at freight forwarding as a business for touts. When we went into this business, we broke through because we told people the reason we were coming into this business. We told them that this business is a referral business. Because if you do a good business for someone, the news will spread and you will be recommended to other people. I mean, there is no way your goods will be delayed for up to a week if there is no delay from the exporter.
Eventually, business people looked at me as someone they could rely on. At the same time, with the kind of goods we clear, we never believed in taking samples because in the past, you find out that maybe a customer brought in toys; some agents would lie and say Customs asked them to bring 10 or 20 samples. So we delivered goods exactly the way the goods were spelt out in the documents. Of course, in certain cases samples would be taken but they would be returned at the end of the day. So that is one of the ways we changed the face of freight forwarding business in Nigeria.
As one of the members of the board of the CRFFN, what has been your experience?
When I joined the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents [ANLCAs], I was made the chairman of the Customs and Agency Committee. I was the one who brought to an end, the friction between the Nigeria Customs Service and the Agents and I made sure that I cemented that relationship and that is what we are enjoying with the Customs today.
After that, I was made the President of the Freight Forwarders Committee. This time again, I made sure I added more to what I was doing to cement the Customs/Agents good relationship.
In my time, we tried to differentiate the agents. Even within ANLCAs, we had two classes of clearing agents. We had the old school and the modern clearing agents. The old school always believed that if money does not change hands , jobs cannot be done and when we came, we tried to change this. We made them to see that it is the duty of the importer to bring the right documents, to do the right thing because this will save time and save cost and everybody will go smiling. If you do one or two good jobs, you will have referrals and people will come back to you to do more jobs. So, I had a lot of followers because you cannot just come and change things when people are already used to a particular way. There are some old brigades who did not want to change but with time, we tried to change them. Eventually, whenever customs had things to do, they always called us as members who were doing the right things.
At a point, when government did not know what to do, they said that they wanted to bring in the Crown Agent and we objected. We advised the federal government to work on the duty and reduce the number of agencies at the ports. People smuggle because when they go to Cotonou, they can easily bring in their goods at almost one-third of the cost in Nigerian ports, so people prefer to go to Cotonou to clear their goods and because the borders are porous, they find their ways into Nigeria. You find out that there are no reasons we have high tariffs and not getting what we should get.
During my tenure, we had meetings everyday on how to improve the ports. We told them that Crown Agents could not come and work in Nigeria. Today clearing of goods can be done in less than 48 hours.
Can you recollect your experience with the NDLEA when you were arrested?
Yes, it was a very sad experience! In fact, what happened is still a nightmare because I did not know that something like this could happen.
What happened during the trial?
I and two of my boys were discharged and acquitted at the end but the Taiwanese were sentenced to 15 years each.
What was your experience at the Ikoyi prison?
The first two nights of our arrest, we slept in the NDLEA office at Ikeja airport. After that, we were taken to the NDLEA headquarters at Shaw Road, Ikoyi. There, I had one of my worst experiences. I had just come back from England where I went for surgery. I was supposed to go back on 23 rd July. This incident happened on 22nd of July. It is an experience I cannot even wish for my enemy. The wound was still bleeding and I was made to sit on the floor in the NDLEA cell which had no water. We fetched water into Coca cola, Ragolis jerry can (about 1,000 jerry cans) which we pour into plastics in order to bath. The only thing I know was that my family was allowed to bring food for me from home.
At the time all these things were going on, there was no evidence that I was involved in this case. They destroyed my vehicles, broke my wardrobe, even before I told them who had the consignment.
How was your family coping during this period?
It was very traumatic for my family, because the first day they came to my house, they came as if the whole world was going to come to an end. They came, brandishing guns. I heard that NDLEA came to my house with more than 50 guns.
My kids of about 10–14 were made to lie facing the floor with guns on their heads. My children will never forget! They still say it every day. Guns were pointed at my wife. My in-law who had an accident in Bauchi who was staying with us was maltreated.
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