Customs, importer disagree over seized containers of rice

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The Nigeria Customs Service and Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited, owners of some of the containers of rice recently seized by the former, have disagreed over the dates when the seizures were made.

While the Customs on Friday insisted that the rice containers were recently impounded, the importer, Masters Energy, said they were seized by the NCS in 2016, about three years before the current partial closure of land borders by the Federal Government.

On October 29, the NCS had announced that it impounded 52 containers of banned goods worth N2.7bn smuggled through the Tin Can Island Port in Lagos.

While announcing the seizure, the Comptroller General of the NCS, Col Hameed Ali (retd), disclosed that 34 of the 52 containers had rice in them.

He said the border closure had prompted smugglers to route some banned items through the seaports.

He said since certificate (Form M) had not been issued by the Central Bank of Nigeria for importation of rice since 2015, any rice that came through the seaport must have been smuggled.

Ali also disclosed that some of the rice had expired while others were about to expire.

A day after the story broke, Masters Energy responded through its lawyer, Mr Monday Ubani, that it imported the rice and was seized in 2016 and not 2019 as claimed by the Customs boss.

Reports quoted Ubani as saying that the rice containers were impounded in 2016 due to the inability of the company’s clearing agent to pay the correct tariff on the commodity.

“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 lawyer stated.

Ubani said Masters Energy had offered to pay the correct tariff on the rice since the agent had been paid the full amount but decided to cut down the amount and pay lower tariff.

The firm, according to him, was told that the rice had already been distributed to the Internally Displaced Persons homes.

He said 60 containers of rice were imported and they came in two batches. Thirty containers were seized at first and the remaining 30 arrived later.

However, by the time the remaining 30 containers came in, the CBN had added rice on its list of 41 items not eligible for foreign exchange.

He said due to this policy, the 30 containers were abandoned and not cleared, adding that the Customs had written to them asking them to seek CBN’s permission to have the containers cleared.

But sources at the Customs had said that the rice containers were seized between 2018 and 2019 and that Masters Energy is not the owners of all the impounded containers of rice.

On Friday, the spokesperson for the NCS, Joseph Attah, who had earlier addressed the issue in the report, issued a statement confirming that in 2016/2017, 30 containers of rice declared as yeast by Masters Energy were seized and distributed to the IDPs.

He said out of the 33 containers of rice unveiled by Ali on October 29, only 25 containers belonged to Masters Energy.

He said, “The discovery of these containers stacked in the terminal came as a result of painstaking profiling of unutilised bills of lading and undisclosed manifests which led to the physical discovery of these containers with expired rice.

“It should be noted that when goods are imported but not declared, they are not yet brought to the 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.”

Attah also said, “Containers have distinct identities (numbers); so they cannot be mixed (up) 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.”

He added that the lists of the seizures for 2016 and 2019 showing dates of the seizures were available for all to see.


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