The seized rice
The Nigerian Customs Service and Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited are engaged in a war of words over the containers of ‘expired’ rice seized by the former at the Tin Can Island port in Apapa, Lagos, and presented to the media on October 29.
The 54 seized containers included 33 containers of rice, 11 containers of unregistered pharmaceutical products, two used tyres, one container of used clothing, and four refined vegetable oil in retail packs.
Hameed Ali, the Comptroller General of Customs, said the 33 containers bearing ‘expired’ rice were imported from Thailand and China, and added that the seizures were as a result of the partial border closure.
“One significant finding about this seizure is that all the rice are expired or about to expire,” Mr Ali, a retired army colonel, told journalists in Lagos.
He added that the impounded containers had a duty paid value of N2.7 billion.
Seized rice not expired
Barely 24 hours after Mr Ali announced the seizures, Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited came out to say the rice containers belonged to it and were seized in 2016, and not in 2019 as the customs boss claimed.
Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited is a subsidiary of Masters Energy Group owned by Uche Ogah, the minister of state for mines and steel development.
Monday Ubani, a lawyer to the company, said in a statement that “there is no single truth” in Mr Ali’s claims.
According to Mr Ubani, 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,” said Mr Ubani, a former vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association.
“The company indicated willingness to pay the correct tariff as the agent was paid full money but decided to cut down the tarriffs in order to avoid paying full value of the tarriffs.”
Mr Ubani said Masters Energy later learned that the seized rice had been taken to internally displaced people (IDPs) in the north.
“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 bill of lading to that effect.
“The quantity imported were 60 containers in all. Thirty (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 uncleared and abandoned. We have a letter from Customs Authority 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.”
Responding to the claims, the spokesperson of the Nigerian Customs Service, Joseph Attah, accused Masters Energy Ltd of engaging in propaganda.
Mr Attah said the containers presented to the public on October 29 were produced after “a painstaking profiling” of all unutilised bills of lading “in the last one or two months”, as directed by the Controller General.
He added that the rice containers seized from Masters Energy Ltd in 2016 had been falsely declared as yeast and had since been distributed to IDPs, insisting that the ones shown to the media on Tuesday were impounded in 2019.
“You see container seizures are not used to blackmail anybody because they have numbers,” Mr Attah told PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday evening.
“One thing with importers is that, once one of their containers is seized, they won’t come for others for declaration. Recently, the Controller of Customs (CG) directed that all unutilised bill of lading should be profiled.
“While going to the terminals to search for these unutilised containers, we discovered these containers because the importers and agents failed to come for actual declaration of content and clarification.
“I think these people that have committed this act should be rather worried about their actions and not come up with propaganda. These containers seized were through profiling and not sentiment. If you know the CG, you will know he cannot be confused with cheap propaganda.”
PREMIUM TIMES’ checks showed that the Customs, indeed, impounded 31 containers of rice belonging to Masters Energy Commodities Trading Ltd at the Tin Can Island ports imported from Thailand in August 2016.
The containers were seized because the agent declared the contents to be yeast and not rice.
At the time, yeast importation attracted five per cent duty while rice had 110 per cent duty and 60 per cent levy.
Masters Energy Commodities put the blame on the clearing agent who claimed the “job was captured as another item” because when they submitted the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) as rice to the Customs, it was rejected on the grounds of no proof of funds.
According to a letter by the clearing agent, Destiny Impex Limited, to the Nigeria Customs Service dated August 26, 2016, the containers were physically examined and a Demand Notice for rice was raised, with the knowledge of the Customs Area Controller and DC Valuation.
The agent said he was about to make payment, after the Customs officials had raised the proper Demand Notice for rice, when a directive came from Controller General’s office that the containers be impounded.
Masters Energy Commodities showed PREMIUM TIMES the bill of lading for the shipment which described the goods as “Thai Parboiled Rice.”
However, the Customs said for falsifying the document and “attempting to cheat the government”, the over 14,000 bags of rice in the containers would be seized without any option of payment by the importer.