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Auto dealer, Fire Service workers trade blame in failed car purchase scheme

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Fire service men on duty (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

• 161 personnel cry foul
• Officials deny involvement

About 161 staffs of the Federal Fire Service (FFS) are worried. They are worried that they may lose millions of naira, which they allegedly paid as part-payment for brands of fairly used vehicles to a contractor, Whitehorse Capital Limited. The company has not delivered the vehicles after promising to do so on several occasions.

Personnel of the service and other interested parties who participated in the offer to buy the vehicles at low cost with a flexible payment option, have alleged that there is now cause to suspect the deal is a huge scam, masterminded by insiders in the FFS, as the contractor has failed to deliver on several agreed dates, since November 2020 and that the last delivery date the contractor gave has since elapsed, leaving many in fear of losing their money.

Alarmed by the continued and prolonged wait for the vehicles, in addition to excuses and the various delivery dates given by the company, those affected have called on the FFS to intervene and save them from losing their money from a likely scam. According to them, the date of delivery has been shifted about five times already, which they claimed amounts to the company “buying more time for itself.”

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The Guardian learnt that the company approached the Service with the proposal to sell fairly used vehicles to staff. Many across the states and the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT), showed interest, since it has something to do with the office and subsequently subscribed to the scheme. Affected subscribers said the deal appears to be shrouded in suspicion and blamed the fire service for the turn of event.

However, Whitehorse Capital Limited, and its Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Paul Oyemike said the allegations of fraud or scam against it are untrue. The company, which is also into mass transit and courier services, among others, denied any plot to defraud the subscribers.

The company, located in Lifecamp, Abuja, through its former Deputy Managing Director, Mr. Enokela Owoicho, now disengaged, had approached the fire service with the proposal. But the company allegedly ran into some hitches in the process of importing the vehicles leading to the delay in delivery. The company said there is no element of fraud as alleged by some of its aggrieved subscribers, who are staff of the fire service.

It also said that even though they have been assuring the staff of FFS that they will deliver, notwithstanding the hitches, a lot of them were not willing to reason with them and had continued to threaten the company. It said that it got to the extent that one of the personnel, whose husband is an army officer, had stormed the company’s office on several occasion and created a scene until part of his wife’s money was refunded.

Explaining some of the challenges relating to the staff and the scam allegations, the new Managing Director of the company, Mr. Elias Abutu, said they have been in communication with the personnel, clarifying to them the reason for the delay, but some of them have not been taking it and have been threatening to deal with them if the cars are not supplied immediately because of the previous cancellations.

“We do understand their pain of dashed expectations and the excitement, especially when one pays for a new thing. We also understand that they are getting tired of waiting, but it was never our intention. One of the staff, a woman, has already got her car since last year December because it happened that we gave out some cars last December to another agency and among the few cars that were remaining was a Pontiac, which was the exact car she requested for.

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“We went through our list to see if there was any subscriber that asked for it and we saw that she had ordered for a Pontiac, so we called her and she took it. But sadly, since she took delivery of that car in December last year, she has only made her monthly payment twice. Still, nobody is looking at some of the risks our company also has to bear dealing with individual persons because our contract was with individual staff and not the Service,” he explained.

Affirming the validity of the contract, he said: “We actually are in a contract with some of the personnel of the Federal Fire Service and what we normally do for our customers is run a car scheme where clients pay 50 per cent value of the car they want. When we import and hand over to them, they spread the remaining 50 per cent for as much as 12 months. But the arrangement we had with the individual staff of the fire service is actually for 24 months to pay off the 50 per cent balance.”

According to him, the company has actually explained to them the reason for the delay. “That is because we had some challenges, which lingered for some months, but currently, we are making headway and we have asked them to exercise patience. Most of them have asked for refund of their initial deposit and we would do just that. It is not only that, we have written to them officially and have been engaging them on this unfortunate issue,” Abutu said.

When asked if there was any office in FSS that the company was interfacing with, Abutu said they usually pass information to individuals who then gather together for a meeting. “We do this direct communication with the personnel because our contract is not with the management of the service. At the point where they started complaining, the management of the Fire Service had an interaction with us on how we could resolve the issue. So, we wrote to them and gave reasons for the delay.

Last week, we sent them a message, asking them to send us their account details for the transfers. Normally, once we are dealing with an organisation, we prefer going through their staff cooperative because, then it will be easier for us to collate and coordinate but because they came as individuals, we had to get their individual account details for refunds,” he explained.

One of the subscribers said he paid N1.2 million, as initial payment with the balance of N1.2 million to be spread over a period of 24 months. He also said information regarding the vehicle scheme was passed across to staff through the welfare and pensions unit of the FSS.

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A circular obtained by The Guardian dated August 14, 2020, signed by the Head, Special Duties, Staff Welfare and Pensions and addressed to the office of the CGF, DCG (A&S), Legal Adviser, all Zonal Commanders, all Controllers, Ag Internal Auditor and all State Commanders called for an interactive session with all staff between August 25 and 28, 2020 across all stations.

Part of the circular reads: “I am directed to inform all staff that there will be an interactive session with Whitehorse Capital Limited regarding proposal for supply of Tokunbo vehicles to interested personnel with flexible payment terms.”

Other details available to The Guardian also showed that many officers ordered for Toyota Corolla 2005 and 2007. Others were interested in Toyota Rav 4 and Corolla Matrix, including a Mercedes Benz C180 2000, a Gulf 3, 2003 model and a Peugeot 406, all of various colours.

The subscribers claimed that after receiving millions of naira as 50 per cent part payment from staff of the Service, the company took a back sit and has since failed to deliver the vehicles, adopting what some describe as delay tactics.
“I was about to change my car when the offer was brought to our office. I almost placed an order but when I looked at the prices they were offering, I questioned the genuineness and quality of the cars because they were too cheap to be true,” an officers narrated.

Even though both the company and the Service did not disclose the total amount paid so far, it was gathered that some paid N800, 000, N1.4 million and N750, 000. Others also paid N1.2.million and N1.5 million as their 50 per cent payment, all of which they are worried may be lost.

But in its response, the FFS said after it was approached by Whitehorse limited with the offer, it chose not to go into any deal with the company because it noticed that it was using an insurance bond instead of a bank bond, hence it refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and advised staff to beware of going into any business with the firm.

Legal adviser of the FFS, Mrs. Rabi Ejelade, explained that the Service does not have any dealing with Whitehorse Capital Limited, but it is aware that some of its personnel went into a business agreement with the company on a personal capacity.

She explained that when the said proposal came, the legal department studied it and advised that because the document the company presented as bond along with the proposal was an insurance bond instead of a bank guarantee bond, it will be risky for the FFS to do business with it.

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She, however, said that because some staff had already heard of the offer and showed interest, the Service called for a meeting and advised them to do so on a personal basis and not under the auspices of the FSS. According to her, some thereafter met with the welfare unit and decided to patronise the contractor on a personal basis.

“When they came to the legal team with the proposal through the staff welfare unit, we held a meeting for a careful study. One of the things I pointed out to them was the insurance bond the firm presented. If they had brought a bank guaranty bond, it would have been better.

“But you know, the way people are impatient when they see something seemingly good. Many were eager to take the offer. So, we said if they want to go into it, the Fire Service would not be party to it. But if any officer wants to go into it, it would be strictly on a personal basis not under the Service because the MoU they brought has no correlation with the Service,” she stated.

She explained that despite the red flag raised by the management of the service, many still took the bait because the vehicles were offered at ridiculously low prices by the company, thereby luring those that felt it was a good offer.

Regarding the earlier mentioned circular calling for meeting of all staff, she explained that it was the meeting where the issue was explained to interested personnel, which also informed them that they were free to patronise the company on their own and not under the cover of the FFS.

Some of the subscribers said they paid the initial deposit to the Whitehorse through its bank account and the money collected from FFS staff nationwide runs into billions of naira. That, they said, was why they are calling for intervention to ensure the recovery of their money. They also accused the management of the FFS of leading them astray.

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