The Federal High Court, sitting in Lagos, on Friday cleared the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) of contempt charges brought against it by the Nigerian Liquefied and Natural Gas Limited (NLNG) in the wake of the lingering dispute over unpaid statutory levies.
The maritime regulatory agency had on May 3 triggered a major trade dispute with the NLNG by blocking access to the nation’s major loading terminals for gas export at Bonny Island, after it claimed that the gas company failed to meet its demands on several occasions to pay appropriate taxes and levies for doing business in the country’s territorial waters.
The NLNG had however defended its refusal to pay the money with claims that its action was guided by the provisions of the Nigeria LNG (Fiscal Incentives, Guarantees and Assurances) Act, which exempts it from such levies and charges.
But following President Goodluck Jonathan’s directive that the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, wade into the rift, an understanding was reached between the two bodies for the amicable resolution of the dispute.
Although the NLNG commenced payment of the debt, put at about $158 million (about N24.7billion), it said it was doing so under protest, while proceeding to file a case at the Federal High Court, Lagos seeking judicial interpretation to clarify the legality or otherwise of the levies.
But in his ruling on Friday, the trial judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, said he was relying on the information made available to the court by the lawyers on both sides that their clients had reached agreement on how to amicably settle the protracted dispute.
Consequently, the contempt charges brought against NIMASA, and its security consulting firm, Global West, AG, were struck out, while the NLNG was advised to ensure that it fulfilled its obligations in line with the terms of the agreement.
Under the terms of the agreement, it was gathered that the NLNG agreed to undertake the payment of the outstanding levies attributable to the FOB and Cabotage vessels.
Should the company fail to make payments to NIMASA within three months from Friday, NIMASA was given the liberty to collect these levies directly from the FOB and cabotage vessels without further recourse to NLNG.
The disputed taxes include the 3 per cent gross levy on freight (in-bound and out-bound) cargo ships, 2 per cent surcharge on cabotage levy, and sea protection levy charged on all foreign flagged ships calling at the nation’s ports facilities.
NLNG however indicated that its payments would continue to be made under protest and without prejudice to the legal rights of all parties to seek appropriate judicial interpretation and resolution up to any level allowed under the Constitution.
On its part, NIMASA also agreed to immediately withdraw the detention orders on NLNG vessels and remove the blockade of the Bonny access waterway to release all NLNG vessels currently being detained in its enforcement of Nigerian laws, including the NIMASA Act 2007 and the Coastal and Inland Shipping (Cabotage) Act 2003.
“NIMASA has undertaken not to detain NLNG owned or chartered vessels as long as NLNG continued to make the payments,” NIMASA said in a statement by its Deputy Director /Head Public Relations, Isichei Osamgbi.
The court made the terms an order of court by consent of the parties and their counsel Friday.
All parties have, however, reserved their rights in the substantive suit, which has been adjourned to September 19 for mention.