The Federal High Court in Abuja on Wednesday awarded damages of over N5.5billion against the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Chairman of its Board over the unlawful seizure of 90 containers of rice imported by a firm, Maggpiy Trading TFZE.
Maggpiy, in its suit marked FHC/CA/CS/40/2017, stated that officials of the NCS invaded and sealed up its warehouse in the Tinapa Free Trade Zone (TFTZ), Calabar on March 18, 2017.
The firm said in the suit that the warehouse had rice stored in air-tight containers.
The plaintiff said, in addition to sealing its warehouse with its content, officials of the NCS stole part of the seized rice.
It said the Customs also detained its 40 trucks along Onne, Port-Harcourt road, containing 317 transit containers of rice, destined for the Tinapa Free Trade Zone, for 120 days without lawful justification.
Delivering judgment on Wednesday, Justice Inyang Ekwo upheld the plaintiff’s claims and held that the first and second defendants, that is the NCS and the Chairman of NCSB, acted unlawfully and without any justification in law.
Mr Ekwo rejected the defence raised by the customs and the NCSB chairman, and their attempt to justify their actions.
He faulted the first and second defendants’ claim that they acted under the Federal Ministry of Finance Import Guidelines, Procedures and Documentation Requirements under the Destination Inspection Scheme in Nigeria.
Mr Ekwo said that not only was the document inadmissible and worthless, having not been signed; there was no provision in the document that made it applicable to Free Trade Zones.
“I have studied the document, I cannot find anywhere it is made applicable to Free Trade Zones, which both parties have agreed, is a country within a country.”
The court also rejected some circular tendered by the customs to justify their action.
Mr Ekwo held that not only were most of the circulars made after the plaintiff’s rice consignment was seized on March 18, 2017, but the defendants also failed to show the law and orders pursuant to which the circulars were issued.
“The circular made on March 30, 2017, declaring Free Trade Zones, as land borders cannot apply to this case because it does not have a retrospective effect.
“Therefore, the circulars, made after the plaintiff had imported the rice, and relied upon by the first and second defendants, do not apply to this case,” the judge said.
He also faulted the defendant’s argument that they were exempted, under the Customs and Excise Management Act, from any liability and prosecution while applying the provisions of the law.
The judge said such exemption only applies where officials of the NCS are exercising the power granted by the law, which is the Customs and Excise Management Act.
He added that “It has not been shown to this court the provisions of the said Act that authorises any of the Customs officials to enter and seal business premises in a Free Trade Zone.
“In that case, the foray of the first and second defendants into the territory of the Tinapa Free Trade Zone and Resort, which is not a territory of the 1st and 2nd defendants, and which was not to enforce the provisions of the Nigerian Export Processing Zone Act or any regulation thereof,was illegal and unlawful.
“The argument by the first and second defendants that the plaintiff was importing its rice through the land border was questionable because the containers they seized were merely being transported on land, from Onne Sea Port to the Tinapa Free Trade Zone and Resort.
“The containers were, therefore, in transit between one seaport and another. And, being in transit cannot be interpreted as land border importation.”
The judge described as infantile the argument that the plaintiff, in importing rice, acted outside its operating licence which was for the plaintiff to trade in food and beverages in Tinapa Free Trade Zone.
Mr Ekwo noted that such an argument amounted to a futile attempt to distinguish between rice and food.
He frowned at the discovery that part of the seized consignment was stolen by officials of the Nigerian Customs, while the plaintiff’s warehouse was sealed by the defendants.
According to the judge, “another intriguing part of the defendants action, during the course of this proceedings, is the discovery that, when stocks were taken, upon the unsealing of the warehouse by the first and second defendants, 19421 of 50 kg bags and 1639 of 25 kg of the seized rice consignment have been pilfered by officers of the first and second defendants.
“The first and second defendants prove no defence on this issue nor countered the evidence of the plaintiff.
“This, in my opinion, is a brazen act of treating the proceedings before the court with contempt apart from the reprehensible theft that the act of the 1st and 2nd defendants represents.”
Mr Ekwo further held that the defendants failed to supply evidence in support of their allegation that the plaintiff was involved in the smuggling of rice.
He added that smuggling being a criminal offence, the first and second defendant ought to have provided evidence of prosecution or conviction of the plaintiff for the alleged offence of smuggling.
He also frowned at the defendants’ failure to obey two different interlocutory orders of the court, which were intended to mitigate the loss which the plaintiff eventually suffered as a result of the theft of part of the seized goods and contamination from prolonging sealing of the warehouse.
He then granted all the reliefs sought by the plaintiff and awarded specific and general in damages in favour of the plaintiff in the amount estimated at N3.8 billion (N3,805,638,950) and $4,796,550 (about N1.7 billion).
Mr Ekwo also granted an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants from further unlawfully interfering with the lawful business transactions of the plaintiff within the Tinapa Free Trade Zone.
He also said the judgements sum shall attract interest “at the prevailing Monetary Policy Rate of the Central Bank from the date of judgment until judgment sum is fully paid.”
The judge, however, said the plaintiff proved no case against the National Security Adviser (NSA) who was was the third defendant in the suit.