Siezed Goods: We Have Documents to Prove Customs Lied - Lawyer
By Ufuoma Egbamuno and Samuel Akpan
The controversy generated by the disclosure by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) that goods worth over 3 billion naira were seized at the Tin Can Island, Lagos may not go away anytime soon.
Lawyer to Masters Energy Commodity – company that imported the rice – has told Nigeria Info FM that the rice was not expired as alleged by the NCS but were actually imported 3 years ago and seized by the Nigerian government.
On Wednesday, Comptroller General of NCS, Hammed Ali revealed to journalists that goods –including 54 containers of rice – had been seized by the agency as a result of the partial closure of the Nigerian border.
However, Monday Ubani, lawyer to the company involved in the importation of the rice insists the rice was imported in 2016 and not in 2019 as presented by Customs.
“The Customs licensed agent that was supposed to clear the rice for Masters Energy Commodity, went and collected full money for clearing the rice and went and declared the rice as his. So Custom capitalised on that to seize the 30 containers and all efforts to have it paid in full and released was refused,” Ubani explained.
“We even went to the House of Representatives Committee on Custom and made representation and they refused to release it and said they have taken those containers of rice to IDP. Meanwhile, another 30 containers was on the way to Nigeria when Federal Government came out with that infamous 41 items that were under restriction and rice was one of the items.
“So when the 30 containers came into the country also in 2016, Customs now said that the matter is between us and Central Bank because for us to clear, we have to obtain a Form M documentation in order to clear. And so we went to Central Bank but Central Bank said it had closed its portal for Form M because rice now falls under restriction and so we were not able to clear the 30 containers of rice.”
According to the former Vice President of the Nigeria Bar Association, all efforts to get Customs and the Central Bank to resolve this issue proved abortive.
Hear him: “In 2016, letters were written to Custom and Custom replied that they cannot clear the rice - and we have the letters from Custom - unless we get the Form M from Central Bank. So all these things happened in 2016 and so when we were not able to clear the rice, we forgot everything about it. So we were surprised when the press briefing took place two days ago and they were now referring to Masters Energy was being mentioned.”
But the Nigeria Customs Service has denied claims of misrepresentation by Masters Energy discrediting the recent media briefing about the seizure of 33 containers of rice that were mostly expired.
Customs Public Relations Officer, Joseph Attah disclosed this Nigeria Info correspondent Clementine Okonye. Attah conformed that 30 containers imported by Masters Energy and falsely declared as yeast, were seized two years ago but the rice was forfeited to the Federal Government and given to the victims of the insurgency in the North-East in line with Presidential directive.
According to him, the recent discovery of containers stacked in the terminal came because of thorough investigations of un-utilized Bill of Lading and unclosed manifests, which led to the physical discovery of these containers with expired rice.
“Tin Can command even went as far as auditing all manifest that were not closed and all Bill of Ladings that were not utilized. And they discovered that there were some containers that are somewhere parked in any of these terminal that have not been declared.”
“Instead of them keeping quiet, they are the ones now coming out to say this thing was not just brought in now, it has been there. Why has it been there?” inquired the Custom Chief.
But Ubani disagrees with the position of the NCS insisting that it has all the documents to back up its claim.
“So we need to put the record straight,” Ubani says. “There was no rice ever imported into the country through that company after that incident in 2016. I have all the documentation: the Bill of Lading, letter from Customs, letters from shipping managers, and letters from the people who are managing Tin Can Island top us in 2016. Why are they presenting now as 2019?
For the Customs spokesperson, the agency is working towards bringing the culprits to justice even as he admits that “because of the ongoing border closure, clients may now have to divert some of their activities through the sea port.”
Additional reports by Clementine Okonye