By Ray Ugochukwu
Current happenings in the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) are not palatable at all. It is like the musings the he-goat perceived from the sidelines of a funeral that kept him sad all day. He overheard the organizers saying that if the meat being served does not go round, he should be used to compliment! Great! Great ANLCA slogan is no longer of significance any more! ANLCA, our own ANLCA, born in 1954 is presently on a downward journey and if nothing is done to stem the nosedive, it will become history. It may become another Carthage that was decimated and wiped out by Rome during the Punic Wars of European history. While Carthage suffered in the hands of its arch rival, Rome, ANLCA’s is self-destruct as it is at war with itself.
Members of the Association have always been known as dirty fighters, who apply fair and foul means to ward of enemies. Recall late 1990s when a popular Seme Border based chieftain of the group always led a fetish band across the border, allegedly to make charms sometimes involving burying live cows in the name of fighting the enemies of ANLCA. The man, now late, was so notorious in fetish business that whenever he showed at major functions J-u-j-u! J-u-j-u! would rent the air as his stage name.
Then, the war was between ANLCA and external enemies or enemies within. Presently, it is ANLCA at war with itself – former BOT members against the executives with even some elected officials fighting their fellow officers. It is like a Somalia war of a kind!
HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN?
This writer has been following ANLCA and its activities since the early 1990s, hence the opinion being expressed in this write-up. To begin with, this article is entirely the opinion of the writer, who feels gravely concerned with the turn of events in the once vibrant and respectable group. Of course, opinions can be subjective depending on the perception of the writer.
In the early 1990s up until late 2000, ANLCA was a force to be reckoned with in Nigerian economy. Even with the no-nonsense military regimes, the association was a force of influence. When it coughed, the then Federal Military Government (FMG) caught cold. Then, though lacking in internal democracy, the association successfully challenged any unfriendly government policy towards shipping and trade matters. As the Federal Government would usually reel out its annual budget early January, as was the practice then, ANLCA, led by the ebullient Senator Sanni Kamba, in company of his lieutenant, would march down to Abuja to physically present their misgivings. Before then, it would have addressed a world press conference where it would articulate areas of discomfort and disagreement. The team would remain in Abuja until it had extracted positive commitment of amelioration from government before returning to Lagos. The Federal Ministry of Finance never toyed with the economic views of ANLCA. That was how influential the association was then.
Then, Kamba had his lieutenants as Nze Anyamene, High Chief Olu Falae (not the politician), Chief Frank Ogbuzulu, Lucky Eyis Amiwero, Chief James O.K. Idornigie, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, among others.
Later came the clamour for the democratization of the body. The first semblance of a democratic election held by the group took place at the Nike Lake Resort, Enugu, where the then newly rehabilitated hotel had its Banquet Hall’s shiny floor tiles offering guests, including Kamba, free falls during the opening ceremony. After that election of the late 1990s, won by the Kebbi State born Kamba, ANLCA looked rejuvenated for greater tasks ahead. How wrong that expectation turned out to be!
Under the General Abacha regime in 1996, then Minister of Finance, Chief Anthony Ani, announced the revocation of all clearing licenses following an alleged loss of N12 billion by the Federal Government through the fraudulent activities of licensed customs agents. With that action, ANLCA ceased to exist because the instruments of its existence, licenses, were no more. The association rose to the occasion. Various meetings were held in several places on how to resolve the matter. The argument was that government’s alleged humongous loss of N12 billion was highly spurious at a time the value of cargo throughput was nothing near such an amount.
Immediately, the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA) was born as a platform to fight the injustice and retrieve the revoked licenses. All Managing Directors of the revoked licenses constituted the membership of the new body. Kamba led the fight with the backing of his fellow CEOs of licensed companies. In a couple of days, after high level negotiations and horse-trading in Abuja with the authorities, the license revocation was reversed with life coming back to normal. ANLCA returned into existence with the National Council now almost irrelevant and abandoned. Mr. Lucky Amiwero, then the National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA, perhaps with the hindsight of clairvoyance, saw the future and held strongly to NCMDLCA and ran with it as its leader till date.
Today, the association is embroiled in crisis. Key members of the former Board of Trustees (BOT) are at war with the National Executive Committee (NECOM) led by Hon. Iju Tony Nwabunike. It has been allegations and counter allegations in the last three years. If the issue is not about allegations of betrayal of trust against the former Chairman, Taiwo Mustapha by Nwabunike, it is about tenure elongation, et al. Presently in the Western Zone, all the nine chapters have two factions of Chapter executives all ‘elected’. One put in place by the ex-BOT, which claims the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) has extended its tenure after six years in office; and the other, by the present NECOM. This is a time-bomb waiting to explode. A case of two captains in a ship!
Recently, Nwabunike’s NECOM successfully conducted its own election in the Western Zone after a similar outing in the East.
Before this time, some dangerously armed hoodlums had on October 6, 2021, stormed the Amuwo-Odofin headquarters of the association, chasing away workers and visitors and wreaking destruction on the building. It was alleged that Taiwo Mustapha-led group was behind the attack for which some suspects were arrested with dangerous weapons and charms. According to the Vice President of ANLCA, Dr. Collins Kayode Farinto, the targets of the attack were Tony Nwabunike and his NECOM team. Last Thursday news had it that Chief John Ofobike and Taiye Oyeniyi, a former Secretary of BOT and gladiators in the crisis, were allegedly picked up by the Police for being fingered in the attack on Dikko Inde House. Farinto alleged that while Oyeniyi recruited the hoodlums said to be members of the Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), Ofobike provided them with the necessary paraphernalia like ANLCA identity cards to gains access into the premises. He went further to say that Oyeniyi sold a lie to the hoodlums that the Igbos had taken over the association in a Yoruba land, a comment that propelled the attackers to storm the place. However, according to him, the OPC members expressed surprise seeing fellow Yorubas now speaking to them, he as the Vice President and Secretary in the person of Alhaji Babatunde Mukaila and apologized for their actions.
Just recently, Nwabunike was allegedly attacked by hoodlums at the PTML, Tin Can Island Port, while embarking on a courtesy visit to the Controller, a development said to have resulted in his loss of valuable items and physical attack.
THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE
A key gladiator in the ANLCA brouhaha is Alhaji Taiwo Mustapha, former Chairman of the BOT, who still lays claims to the office, according to him, courtesy of CAC. Mustapha, very articulate, litigation warlord against NECOM, has seen it all in the Eastern Zone before foraying into the West through BOT callings.
Another is Prince Taiye Oyeniyi, who at his 70th birthday celebration earned the ‘ANLCA Field Marshal’ sobriquet. Oyeniyi, the colossus of the Western Zone politics, ever smiling and always clutching his currency-filled armpit purse, and a friend of the media, is said to be on the driving seat of the movement to edge out from office Tony Iju and co.
Of course, Chief Dennis Okafor, the CEO Denca Bonded Terminal, who rarely talks, is there. His gentle looks betray his explosive inner being which could prompt him to fight even his brother for what he perceives as a worthy cause.
Not forgetting the ebullient Chief John Ofobike, alias Dan Katsina, the Caterpillar of Western Zone politics, who from day one never hid his disdain for Nwabunike’s emergence as President and has continued to fight him with his full weight despite the fact that they hail from the same state.
Chief Henry Njoku, another actor, is the Pope of the Eastern Zone, his base, whose grip of the West cannot be underestimated. His ubiquitous presence in ANLCA activities has made him a godfather of some sort. His palatial Port Hourcourt home is a Mecca of some sort in ANLCA politics. One can only neglect him at his own peril. However, because of his affinity to Nwabunike his BOT allies are no longer comfortable with him.
Though now late, Aare Sanni Shittu, was a force too. May God rest his soul! He was AGIP – any government in power. The demise of this amiable fellow whose punkish hair-do, matched with Saudi golden coated teeth aligning with equally shiny chains, may be contributing to the crisis. He was a man of peace, always ever ready to plead and calm frayed nerves from opposing sides.
Also in the fray is Chief Ernest Elochukwu, a former National President of ANLCA, blunt to a fault and would not give in to a perceived injustice. Observers are surprised that he is involved in the feud knowing how tasking it is to lead the group. Under his leadership, ANLCA almost became homeless as it was ejected from its Kariko House headquarters on Wharf Road for alleged rent default. It was however by his wit, tenacity and candour that he was quick to recover and refused to be overwhelmed before the expiration of his tenure.
There is the gentleman Babatunde Mukaila, the soft-spoken National Secretary, who would do everything to support his boss, Iju, as he sees the attacks on him as mere persecution. At times he could be so pissed off with the antics of their detractors that reporting to the office, to him, could be so discouraging. All the same, he refuses to be intimidated or cowed.
Of course one cannot forget in a hurry Comrade Adumaza Joe Sani, the estranged National Publicity Secretary. He is an intelligent man that has found himself caught up in the line of cross-fire. By choice he has aligned with the opponents of his boss, sometime churning out caustic write-ups that help to fuel the crisis. His ceaseless pungent essays could send a whole community fleeing when there is no cause for such. In fact, he is a gadfly that keeps its victim restless.
What of Dr. Collins Kayode Farinto, the Vice President? To him, there is no room to waste time. Rather than dissipating precious energy trading blames, the crisis be better settled by face-to-face fisticuff and whoever triumphs should carry the day! He has not seen what Iju and the NECOM has done to deserve all the brickbats thrown at them. That does not however stop him from disagreeing with his boss ones in a while.
Before one forgets, Prince Olayiwola Shittu, the immediate past National President, is being fingered in the crisis. Shittu, one of the few reliable agents, ordinarily is not supposed to make the list of the gladiators but for his alleged silence in the crisis, which is being described as becoming too loud.
The calm and gentle Dayo Azeez is mentioned too as a former BOT member. Though not noted for trouble-making, he can sustain a bite on his opponent without let, when he feels he is on the right path.
Now, the chief protagonist, Iju Tony Nwabunike, the incumbent National President. Fine Boy, they call him, has been dragged to court over eight times since he assumed office without any legal retaliation. As the most politically exposed among his peers, he is known for his disarming smiles, even when in great pains but hardly succumbs to threats and blackmail. He describes himself as the most harassed, abused and vilified President ANLCA has ever had.
And the last but by no means the least, is Mr. Emenike Nwokeoji, who narrowly lost at the election to Tony. He has moved on with his life after the election. An intelligent, soft-spoken and problem-solving gentleman from the East, he only reacts occasionally when any attempt is made to impugn on his highly cherished integrity.
These are the actors in the ANLCA crisis. They are men of means and materials. They have all paid their dues. They are equally beneficiaries of ANLCA’s fruitful existence and longevity. Sadly, the association is dying in their hands. They are presently superintending over the death of their benefactor. The are the Undertakers! What a shame!!
An elder does not stand by and watch a goat deliver in tethers! This is the saying of the sage. The men mentioned above are like statesmen. Statesmen think above self. Just like elders in a family, who do everything possible to enthrone peace! Elders sacrifice their comfort to ensure peace in a family. That is why they are respected as elders. It is because of this essential role they play that children respect them. Children get up from their seats for the elders; they bow or kneel to greet them with both hands if it involves a handshake. They deserve all these from children not simply because of their wrinkles or grey hairs or bent frame. But because of the spectacular roles they play. But when an elder deviates from these respectable roles, he loses the respect of the children. He can even be ridiculed. That is why when an elder turns himself into jellof rice, children will scramble for him. These men, elders, have turned themselves into jeloff rice! It is very sad! One hopes that it does not get to the stage when children would begin to scramble for them.
The ex-BOT members of ANLCA have the larger chunk of the blame in the crisis. The intendment of having a BOT in any organization, be it an association or company, is to have the last line of defence. When everything fails, the BOT becomes the bulwark. That is why those who occupy such positions are carefully chosen. In the case of ANLCA, there had been a time there was a leadership vacuum and the BOT under Chief James O.K. Idornigie rose to the occasion. It held the forte till proper election was held. That was early 2000. If the association becomes bankrupt or is folding up, it is the BOT that would take charge of its assets and liabilities. The last line of defence! Now that it is the Board, made up of elders brawled in war, who will save ANLCA?
THE MONKEY KINGDOM
There was a monkey kingdom located on a giant iroko tree. These animals would stray into the forest for food and when it is dark would all retire to their kingdom, the big tree. One early morning, they saw below, hefty and tiny men wielding axes and matchetes approaching their kingdom. They were wondering what these foolish men had come to do around their domain that time of the day. Soon the men began to slam the base of the iroko with their equipment. Rather than ward off the intruders or at worst quickly relocate with their families, the monkeys were busy laughing hilariously, wondering what the smallish men were up to. They were throwing banters at each other, dancing to the musical sound of the axes and matches. Unknown to them, their kingdom was a few minutes away from collapse. They were happily hopping from one branch to another because to them nothing connects them with the intruders who way down below. Before you say Jack Robbinson, all the monkeys were on the ground. The kingdom has collapsed! Some killed by disintegrating branches, some badly injured and easy prey to the intruders. However, the lucky ones managed to escape. But the damage is done. The kingdom is no more. That is the bleak future of ANLCA, which the ex-BOT and all the gladiators fail to realize.
EASTERN ZONE THINKING
This writer was privileged to be in Port Harcourt last January during the Eastern Zone chapter elections that took place. He had interactions with the licensed customs agents there and could feel the pulse of their frustration with Lagos, Western Zone. They are highly disappointed with the Western Zone politics and the bickering that is attached to it. In fact, from the musings in that area Nwabunike may be the last National President of a united ANLCA.
It was to avoid the Western Zone type of electioneering that the people organized what could be termed a commando style of election. They learnt some elements from the West were to attend their election and quickly changed strategy. At the buildup to the zone’s election tempers were high with frontliners almost at daggers drawn. However, to pre-empt the West’s do-or-die style, good reasoning prevailed as all the gladiators overnight held a meeting where they decided to bury the hatchet and forge a common front. “Let us not be like the West” was the refrain! As a result, many of the frontliners settled for lesser offices resulting in what was more of mere affirmation of positions than election on the D-day. Compromise is allowed in politics.
Until two hours into the election, many of the candidates and guests never had inkling into the venue of the exercise. It was while on the way to the event that media men were told the venue was the Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt. And this was after the advertised day of the election, January 28, 2021 had suddenly been brought forward to January 26. They did this to avoid the meddlesomeness of the West.
For those, including media men, alleging that people being coerced to step down for others in the election, was all false. East did not just want to toe the West’s politics of bitterness.
THE BONE OF CONTENTION
Many reasons are being advanced as to why the ex-BOT led by Alhaji Mustapha is allegedly fighting dirty to oust Iju. Key is the alleged breach of what is known as the Santiago Agreement by Nwabunike. It was alleged that the President pleaded for elongation of time for his friend, Chief Njoku, as Chairman, after which he would exit to make way for Mustapha to come on board. When that time reached, according to the tale, Iju did not abide by the accord. Nwabunike has severally debunked the claim. A prominent journalist has been escalating this tale to the detriment of the President. He had likened it to General Yakubu Gowon’s breach of the Aburi Accord in Ghana he reached with late Odumegwu Ojukwu that led to the outbreak of the civil war. Iju has maintained that such never happened. It has been a case of ‘your word against mine’.
Okay, granted that this happened at all, as highly condemnable as it may be but is it enough reason to destroy ANLCA? Should one set his house on fire because a venomous snake crawled into his bedroom? To become the BOT boss is something personal. Should one because of a failed personal ambition set an institution on fire?
By the way, if every being that committed abomination should be killed, the first culprit should have been the he-goat for chasing and sleeping with his mother! During the election that brought in the BOT that supervised ANLCA’s election an Accord was said to have been breached and nobody made noise about it. Before that election the entire candidates had resolved that whoever scored the highest number of votes should be made the Chairman. At the end of the day Nwabunike emerged tops but he was denied the chairmanship position which was given to another person. He did not make any fuss about it as he took it with philosophical equanimity. To him, it was a personal ambition which did not sail through and should not affect jeopardize the association’s overall interest. So, why all the noise about the Santiago Agreement! He who wants to go to equity must first come with clean hands!
In the midst of the confusion in the association the ex-BOT has gone ahead to organize an election in the Western Zone. But the ANLCA Constitution available to this writer states clearly the role of the Board in an election. Section 13 (5d) says the Board shall appoint members of the Association Electoral Commission (ASECO) “to be ratified by National Executive Council” which is the NECOM. The question is which NECOM ratified the ASECO that conducted the election? If, according to the belief of the ex-BOT members NECOM has been sacked by the court, a new election should have taken place for a new executives that should have ratified the ASECO for its operations to be legal and binding.
The actions of the dramatis personae in the crisis have eroded the little image the association still retains before maritime stakeholders. Not too long ago, there was a ‘news break’ that Nwabunike and Mukaila had been arrested by the Police for whatever reason. Calls were put through to the duo only for the former to say he was taking his breakfast in his hotel room in Abuja, streaming live videos to authenticate his claims. No news till date has been heard of the so called ‘breaking news’. What a level of degeneration!
SILENCE OF PAST LEADERS
The silence of past leaders of the association is becoming very worrisome. Where are Senator Sanni Kamba; Alhaji Inua Mohammed; Chief Peter Eloka Okocha, Chrismatel; Prince Olayiwola Shittu; and other respectable elders? Since the BOT members, the last line of defence, are the warlords, these past leaders they should intervene. Their intervention is not just urgent but very imperative. A drastic solution is required if things must move well for ANLCA. Musings have it that while the warlords are in the trenches with their nuclear warheads and armament, some of them surreptitiously are making overtures demanding for ransoms running into millions for peace to return to the group. Sources have it that same manouvres were allegedly made by same individuals under Prince Shittu, who applied diplomacy to handle the ‘invaders’.
As the association continues to fight and harm itself, its rivals have moved on virtually taking over the entire terrain. Shittu’s administration put Customs Brokerage in the front burner, liaising with world bodies to bring the country into prominence. Administration being a continuum, Nwabunike’s dream is to have the Association chartered using his political network to achieve that. But with the unending bickering, mudslinging and litigations ad infinitum, how can this be achieved. It had been expected that ANLCA should have tapped in from Nwabunike’s political connection to achieve something for itself just like it did with Shittu’s closeness to the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) under late Abdullahi Dikko Inde.
Iju is not a saint and has never claimed to be one. In the circumstance he has found himself, can hardly do more than he is doing presently. What with the over eight litigations hanging on his neck and many more on the way! A big distraction for any administration! If Iju had known the dirty underbelly of ANLCA politics, he would not have ventured in.
Aside several meeting said to have been held with his opponents for peace to no avail, Iju had before the Annual General Meeting (AGM), held in Owerri, requested for the participation ex-BOT members. He publicly declared that he would join forces with others towards returning Mustapha as the Chairman. The alleged response was that Iju and his NECOM had ceased to exist for having been sacked by the courts.
It is worth noting that since Nwabunike came on board almost three years ago, none of the nine Western Zone chapters of the association, except the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, has allegedly remitted the monthly subscription to the headquarters. It is such funds that are used in financing the activities of the group. This is because the chapters’ allegiance allegedly lies with the formerBOT. As a result, NECOM’s backbone in terms of funding in the last three years has remained the six chapters of the Eastern Zone and the little drop from Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, FCT and Kano International Airport counterparts. Yet Lagos alone controls about 65 per cent cargo traffic in and out of the country.
For Iju to have wooed a personality like Dr. Taiwo Afolabi, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Sifax Group to ANLCA even in the midst of crisis shows his political clout. The December Annual General Meeting (AGM), held in Owerri further proved that the President has all it takes to get things done for the association. Apart from pulling the Imo State governor, Senator Hope Uzodinma and his entire cabinet to the forum, political associates and friends of Iju were said to have picked almost all the bills for that event. This is the kind of opportunity groups look out for in their growth and development. Rather, ANLCA is frittering its own away.
AVERTING TOTAL DISINTEGRATION
To avoid what happened in the Monkey Kingdom, it is in the opinion of this writer that the President should bend a little backwards in search of peace. He should not be tired and discouraged in his quest to achieve this. He should quickly move to invite all the leaders of thought in ANLCA including the past Presidents. Not forgetting all the gladiators, new members of the BOT and if possible, some respectable and influential opinion leaders in the society like the traditional rulers to a reconciliation meeting. Participants should be prepared to make sacrifices no matter how aggrieved they may be. This opportunity should be seen as the last chance before the holocaust.
Peaceful resolution is the only option. If Mustapha and co succeed in ousting Nwabunike by court process or use of force, what is the guarantee that whoever takes over would have peace? Even if Tony decides to keep quiet what about his followers and supporters? They would rather die than give the successor a breathing space.
Discussions should therefore be frank. Let nobody hinge on legalese. Experience has shown that any relationship extracted through court process does not endure. Any peace brokered therefrom is like the peace of the grave yard.
While not condoning acts of criminality in any form, the NECOM should tread softly in the use of Police in arresting perceived opponents. Arrests and prosecution should be founded on thorough investigation baked evidence of misdemeanor rather than on ‘might is right’. However, anybody found criminally culpable should be made to face the music but the President can still wield his discretional powers to grant amnesty. If this effort fails, sadly Nunc dimitis would be the inevitable! Remember, the`East is unhappy and watching!!