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Customs, firm bicker over seizure of controversial spoilt rice

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Ali (right) parading the spoilt rice to journalist at Tin Can Port, Lagos PHOTO: sulaimon salau

The closure of Nigerian borders has elicited divergent views from stakeholders, but the seizure of contraband has been a common point of agreement.

Ironically, the seizure by the Nigerian Customs Services (NCS), took a different dimension and triggered controversy when the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, claimed that 33 containers laden with spoilt rice and other items were seized at TinCan Island Port Lagos.

In this instance, both the Customs and the product importer hold firm to their respective arguments.

The importer, Master Energy Commodities Trading Limited, claimed that the rice had been seized since 2016, at variance with Ali’s claim that it was “one of the gains of border closure”.

Legal Counsel to Masters Energy, Monday Ubani, said: “There is no single truth in what Ali was trying to make the whole world to believe in the said press conference. If you goggle, you will find out that sometime in 2016, it was widely reported in the news that about 30 containers of rice belonging 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.

“It was even 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.

“The company indicated a willingness to pay the correct tariff as the agent was paid full money, but decided to cut down the tariffs in order to avoid paying the full value of the tariffs. This request was turned down and the company was later informed through anonymous sources that the same rice had been shared to the internally displaced peoples’ homes in Northern Nigeria,”

He explained further: “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 a bill of lading to that effect. The quantity imported was 60 containers in all. 30 containers were seized due to the under-declaration by the Agent while the remaining 30 containers arrived later at the port by which time the Federal Government has put rice as one of the famous 41 Items that will not enjoy Forex of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Due to this policy as aforementioned, the remaining 30 containers remained un-cleared and abandoned.

“We have a letter from the Customs authorities asking Masters Energy to seek the approval of Central Bank of Nigeria before they can clear the remaining rice. All these events took place in the year 2016.

“The issues begging for questions really with this emergency press briefing by the Retired Colonel are as follows: Why was it convenient for the Comptroller-General to withhold the date of the said interception. These containers belonging to Masters Energy was impounded since 2016.

“What point does Ali want to achieve by this emergency press briefing in 2019, over a seizure that was done since 2016, and already in the news? Is it to prove to the gullible Nigerians that Nigerian Customs Service that is under “heavy fire” for its excesses is really working and saving Nigeria’s economy?

“What was also intended to be achieved by saying that the rice has expired or about to expire when he failed to disclose when the seizure was done and whether the life span of rice was supposed to be forever?

“That Nigeria should clap for the Comptroller-General, who has wasted such quantity of rice that should have been donated to the Internally Displaced People in Nigeria, who are dying of hunger every day?” he queried.

In a swift response, Public Relations Officer, NCS, Joseph Attah, said: “Yes, indeed 30 containers imported by Masters Energy and falsely declared as Yeast were seized in 2016/2017.

“That after the judicial process, the rice was forfeited to the Federal Government. The 30 containers of rice were given to the victims of the insurgency in the North-East in line with the Presidential directive.

“On Tuesday 29th October 2019, the CGC addressed the Press about the interception of 54 containers, out of which 33 containers contained rice. It should be noted that in these 33, only 25 belong to Masters Energy Limited.

“The discovery of these containers stacked in the terminal came as a result of painstaking profiling of unutilised Bill of Lading, and unclosed manifests, which led to the physical discovery of these containers with expired rice. Some of the bags carry Nigerian addresses 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.”

Attah added: “It should be noted that 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. This was not (or could not) be the case here.

“It was therefore the recent steeped up surveillance at all entry and exit points that led to the holistic audit of all manifests and profiling of all un-utilised 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?

“Containers 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.


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