By Chris Paul Otaigbe
Three years earlier, you had engaged in the importation of rice, which was then not illegitimate. You had brought in 30 containers of the commodity through your agent, who is licensed by the Customs Service.
In order to reduce the Duty to be paid on the goods, your agent decided to falsely declare the products as yeasts. Unfortunately, for the chap, he probably met an ‘unfriendly and uncooperative, indeed, uncompromising’ team at the port.
They impound the goods despite your pleas. So, you lose that consignment!
You would, later, discover that your seized consignments had disappeared from the port. The official explanation, by Customs, for the evaporation of 30 containers of your rice is that the goods were sent to the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps to be given to the IDPs.
No problem, you told yourself, since you still had another 30 containers coming. You had hoped to use proceeds from the sale of that consignment to pay the many businessmen who had contributed their money to you to purchase the commodity.
So, later, that same period, the goods proceeded on its way to Nigeria as the ship conveying it sails on, flying high your hopes on the rice consignment, you and all your business partners are expecting with great anxiety back home.
However, your worst nightmare flashed before you as you watched and read the news of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN’s) ban on 41 items INCLUDING RICE!! Your ship is stuck on the high sea!!!
Desperate, you send an appeal to the Customs to treat your case within the context that you had already purchased these goods and were already on their way before the ban. The Customs officials advised you to write to the CBN that made the directive.
You do all you can, in the end… nothing came out of it. You lost that consignment, again! One more time, you swallow the pain and cut your loss! That was three years ago.
Three years down the line, your attention is drawn to a media show of your consignment seized three years ago as contraband goods seized by Customs. What is frighteningly damaging is the fact that your status has changed from that of an ordinary big-time business personality to a high ranking official of the State.
This is the story of the ongoing saga between the Nigeria Customs Service and Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited, a subsidiary of Masters Energy Group owned by Uche Ogah, the minister of state for mines and steel development.
Here is the real story:
On October 29, the Nigeria Customs Service, celebrated in the media, its seizure of containers of ‘expired’ rice at the Tin Can Island port in Apapa, Lagos.
The 54 seized containers included 33 containers of rice, 11 containers of unregistered pharmaceutical products, two used tyres, one container of used clothing, and four refined vegetable oil in retail packs.
Hameed Ali, the Comptroller-General of Customs, said the 33 containers bearing ‘expired’ rice were imported from Thailand and China, and added that the seizures were as a result of the partial border closure.
“One significant finding about this seizure is that all the rice are expired or about to expire,” Mr Ali, a retired army colonel, told journalists in Lagos.
He added that the impounded containers had a duty paid value of N2.7 billion.
Barely 24 hours after Mr Ali announced the seizures, Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited, through its Lawyer, Monday Ubani, disclaimed and denounced Customs’ representation of the story behind their ‘big catch’.
Immediately, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Customs, Joseph Attah, issued a Press Statement, on behalf of the Comptroller-General (CGC) to diminish the rebuttal of the Master’s Group’s Lawyer.
In his statement, Attah admitted that 30 containers imported by Masters Energy and falsely declared as yeast were seized in 2016/2017, adding that after judicial process, the rice was forfeited to the Federal Government.
He also did not deny that the 30 containers of rice were distributed to victims of the insurgency in the north-east in line with Presidential directive. He noted that of the 33, only 25 belong to Masters Energy Limited.
According to him, the discovery of these containers stacked in the terminal came as a result of painstaking profiling of un-utilized Bill of Lading and unclosed manifests which led to the physical exposure of these containers with expired rice. Some of the bags had inscriptions of Nigeria Addresses, for consignments coming from outside the country. (No. 31A Remi Fani Kayode Street, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos and Yunee International Trading Co. Ltd, 103 Ebittu Ukiwe Street, Jabi, Abuja)
According to the rules, “when goods are imported but not declared, they are not yet brought to Customs attention hence cannot exit the port unless the owners succeed in compromising Port officials and operatives to smuggle them out.” Stated Attah. But this was not (or could not) be the case here.
He claimed the it was the recent increase in surveillance at all entry and exit points which led to the holistic audit of all manifests and profiling of all un-utilized Bill of Lading that led to this interception.
“It is obvious that their desperation to save face is hindering understanding of the fact that until an undeclared container is identified, it cannot be intercepted therefore cannot be talked about. Why should it bother the company that NCS is informing the public about the interception of containers they did not declare? Could it be for the fear of the legal action that will follow the press briefing?” stated the Custom’s PRO
Containers, he continued, have distinct identities (Numbers) so cannot be mixed to confuse the public. We have the numbers of those falsely declared as yeast and seized then and these (25 in reference) are containers that were not declared and have been fished-out through profiling. They are distinct and clear for any well-meaning individual to understand.
“Let it be clear that NCS stands by every word spoken during the Press briefing and has already commenced action towards bringing the culprits to justice.” He concluded.
In a counter claim, Ubani, a former Vice President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) explained that the second 30 containers which came in the same 2016 was not cleared by Masters Energy Commodity Coy Ltd because of the fact that before the arrival of the containers into the country the Federal government had placed rice as those 41 items that could no longer enjoy forex from CBN.
The company, he said, even wrote a letter to the Customs Services over these containers and they replied directing the company to approach CBN and obtain Form M and other documents to clear the goods from the port. On approaching the CBN, the apex bank reiterated that rice was placed on their prohibited list and so the company could not clear the goods.
“We have letters from the Port managers and the shipping company that communicated this event at that time. The clearing was not done at that time due to this incident. How this incident of 2016 is now being reported as an event of 2019 has not been explained in this press release as Masters Energy Company never imported any more rice since that incident of 2016. Where is the rice of 2019 from? It is fraudulent to mention 2016 matter as 2019 import? I have all the documents of this transaction.” Ubani stated.
The Master’s Energy lawyer asserted that there is no truth “in what Col. Hameed Ali was trying to make the whole world to believe in the said press conference. If you (check) Google, you will find out that sometime in 2016 it was widely reported in the news that about 30 containers of rice belonging to and imported by Masters Energy Commodity Trading Limited through Nigerian Port, Tincan Island, Apapa was impounded for failure to pay the correct tariff when clearing them by the Customs Licensed Agent.” Ubani said.
It was widely reported that Masters Energy then petitioned The House Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff that its agent Messrs Destiny Impex Limited, a clearing company registered and licensed by the Customs made a false declaration in order to cut tariffs for the 30 containers of rice.
When I checked the story on Google, I discovered one of the news reports concerning the 2016 incident was published in the Punch Newspaper (titled: Uzodinma Denies Link With 30 Rice Containers Seized By Customs) on March 28, 2017 written by the Abuja Correspondent of the publication, Leke Baiyewu.
In the story, Senator Hope Uzodinma , who was, then, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff, in his bid to distance himself from the incident, denied having any link with the 30 containers of rice seized by the Nigeria Customs Service.
According to the Punch story, Uzodinma said the letter he sent to the Comptroller General of the NCS, which was published by an online news medium, SaharaReporters, was based on a petition by Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited, to the committee.
In the letter dated November 17, 2016, Uzodinma urged Ali to use his “good office” to release the seized items (in) 2017, which were allegedly imported rice declared at the port as yeast.
For purposes of clarification, the Senator released the content of the letter he had sent to the CGC, IN 2016.
Body of the letter read, “The accompanying documents in respect of the above-mentioned subject matter refers;
“We have gone through the documents as submitted and wish to suggest that you use your good office to look into the case of this company, Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited. It is instructive from the circumstances and accompanying documents that the company from the inception of this transaction disclosed the content of the 30 containers as rice.
“The owner of these containers was probably short changed by their clearing agent. The declaration by the agents that the content of the containers was yeast may not be with the consent of the importer of the 30 containers of rice.
“May we therefore suggest that you take a second look at this case subject to your internal mechanism because the committee is of the opinion that it would be unjust to punish the owners of the 30 containers because of the sins of the agent. We suggest that the agents should rather be sanctioned to act as a deterrent to others.”
According to the Senator (as published in that edition of the Punch Publication), the response from the Customs Service was almost roping the Senate Committee Chairman in the Rice saga.
That was 2016 and the publication that validated the Master’s Energy claim.
Back to the present:
Ubani claimed, that when the case of the first 30 containers occurred, the company indicated willingness to pay appropriate tariff as the agent was paid the full sum but decided to cut down the tariffs in order to avoid paying full value of the tariffs. “This request was turned down and the company was later informed through anonymous source that the same rice has been shared to the internally displaced peoples’ homes in the northern Nigeria.
It is important we point out here that this parboiled rice was purchased from Thailand from a company known as Asia Inter Trade Rice Export Co, Limited with a disclosed address and there is bill of lading to that effect.” Said Ubani.
From the story and the different responses of both parties, they both agree that containers of rice imported by Master’s Rice were impounded in 2016 for the reasons already stated.
Due to the controversy and the high-profile personality involved, the seizure created a loud controversy when it was seized in 2016 as validated by the Punch story stated above.
What is not clear, in the claims by both parties is the fact that the recent celebrated seizure which has led to the disputation by the company involved, is how goods seized in 2016 turned out to be declared as part of the goods intercepted in 2019.
Secondly, it is obvious that when the Customs seized the goods in 2016, they were kept under inclement condition and naturally, the content in the containers must have experienced deterioration in its state. Therefore, anyone bringing them out three years later should not have been surprised that they had gone bad.
With the case of Master’s Energy, it is high time, Nigerians begin to interrogate the integrity of the content, nature and time of distribution of prohibited products to victims of insurgency. For instance, no one knows when and if the seized Master’s Energy Consignment was part of the rice sent to the IDP Camp. Or, if they had been, allegedly, shared among Customs officers, while the Service used the IDP camp twist as alibi.
While, one would commend government for giving seized food items to the less privileged, one would advise the managers of seized goods to inject a higher level of transparency to charity and philanthropic conversion of seized goods for the benefit of IDPs and other victims of natural and allied disasters.
In other words, Nigerians should know where the goods you are giving to the IDPs come from, the time, venue and owners of the seized content you want to give the less privileged so the process can be more believable.
The main issue that must be thrashed out is how the name of Master’s Energy was linked to the seizure of the expired or ‘about to expire’ rice consignments which were seized in 2019. Did the company import those consignments in 2019? Is there a document to this effect?
Another issue that was brought to the fore in this whole saga was the fact that expired rice was being ‘re-bagged’ as local rice. If this is linked to the same firm, then there is cause for concern. However, since the last documented relationship or encounter between the nation’s Customs Service and Master’s Energy occurred three years ago, it means that the Service owes the company an admission of error and a retraction of its publicly celebrated claims against the firm as this could cause the company so much more in damages asides its earlier humongous loss of 60 containers of rice.
In conclusion, it is important that both the Customs and Nigerian businessmen and organizations need to be careful how they approach the matter of prohibited goods as untold loss of money, resources and jobs could arise from any error by either party.
While, one commends the Customs for its laudable efforts at ridding the nation of smuggled goods in order to encourage indigenous producers and save jobs for Nigerians, the Service should be humble enough to admit its mistakes where they arise and be prepared to repair the damages they cause Nigerian businesses. After all, they are also essential to job creation and economic development of the same Nigeria.
First Lagos military governor Passed On
Lagos woke up on October 30, 2019 to the death of the first military Governor of the State, General Mobolaji Johnson. He died in a Lagos hospital after a brief illness.
The father of four, served under a former Head of State, Maj. Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, and was appointed the military governor of Lagos by Ironsi’s successor, Gen. Yakubu Gowon.
As Governor, Mobolaji laid the foundation for the development of the infrastructure of the State, which was then the Federal capital of Nigeria.
Mobolaji Johnson, who was Lagos governor from May 1967 to July 1975, died at the age of 83.
Again…Another Building Collapses In Lagos
Residents of Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, Friday evening witnessed the collapse of a two-storey building in the upscale area of the mega city.
According to sources close to the scene of the incident, the collapsed building was still under construction.
As at the time of this report, several people are still trapped in the rubbles of the building as efforts by other workers on-site to save those trapped are ongoing.
The Director-General, Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), Femi Osanyintolu said “LASEMA already activated the Lagos Emergency Response Plan for all first responders to move to the site of the collapsed building.
“Similarly, Lagosians within the vicinity of the incident have been enjoined to stay calm and allow emergency responders to do their job.”
Court orders halt into Ambode’s probe
The ongoing feud between immediate past Governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode and the State House of Assembly came to a height October 30, 2019, when an Ikeja High Court ordered the lawmakers to maintain status quo in their continuing investigation of the former governor. Akinwunmi Ambode.
Earlier, Ambode’s lawyer, had appeared at the Assembly complex for the sitting of the committee of the House probing expenditures of the ex-governor, but was denied entry into the venue of the sitting.
In deference to the court ruling, the committee however, adjourned its inquiry of Ambode indefinitely.
The Order given by Justice Yetunde Adesanya was premised on an ex parte motion filed by Ambode through his counsel, Tayo Oyetibo, SAN.