On Tuesday, October 2019, Hameed Ali, the comptroller-general of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), paraded among other contraband containers, the 25 by 20-foot containers of expired foreign parboiled rice, which he said was brought into the country through the Tin-Can Island Port Command (TCIPC) by Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited.
Customs claimed the seizure was part of the gains of the recent closure of the nation’s land borders by the federal government. By attributing the seizure to the gains of recent border closure, Customs automatically wanted the public to believe that the seizure was recently made.
The Customs CG however failed to tell Nigerians that the rice, which was produced in 2016, was also imported into the country in 2016 by Master’s Energy Group.
In what seems like a twist, Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited, on last Wednesday confirmed that the containers of rice belonged to it but were not imported as expired products as it was seized in 2016, and not in 2019, as claimed by Ali.
Monday Ubani, Master’s Energy’s lawyer, said the containers of rice were impounded in 2016 due to the inability of the company’s Customs’ licensed agent to pay the correct duty 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, made false declaration in order to cut tariffs for the 30 containers of rice,” he said.
According to him, the firm was willing to pay the correct tariff as the agent was paid in full, but he decided to cut corners.
Ubani, who said that Master’s Energy imported 60 containers in all, stated that the first 30 containers were seized due to under-declaration by the agent while the remaining 30 containers arrived later at the port when the Federal Government had put rice as one of the 41 Items that would not enjoy foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
He said the last 30 containers were among the 25 containers of the expired rice that were showcased three years after, and that they have remained uncleared and abandoned since 2019.
“We have a letter from Customs asking Masters Energy to seek the approval of CBN before they can clear this last set of 30 containers of rice. All these events took place in 2016,” he said.
Reacting to Master’s Energy, Joseph Attah, national public relations officer of Customs, who described Master’s Energy statement as false narrative, said it was desperation to save face.
Yes, indeed 30 containers imported by Masters Energy and falsely declared as yeast were seized in 2016/2017, said Attah.
“For clarity, NCS wishes to state that after judicial process, the rice was forfeited to the Federal Government. The 30 containers of rice were given to the victims of the insurgency in the north-east in line with Presidential directive.
On the 25 containers of expired rice, Attach said, they were discovered in the terminal as a result of profiling of un-utilised Bill of Lading and unclosed manifests.
He said that when goods are imported but not declared, they are not yet brought to Customs attention and cannot exit the port. It was therefore the recent steeped up surveillance at all entry and exit points that led to the holistic audit of all manifests and profiling of all un-utilised Bill of Lading that led to this interception.
“It is obvious that their desperation to save face is hindering understanding of the fact that until an undeclared container is identified, it cannot be intercepted therefore cannot be talked about. Why should it bother the company that NCS is informing the public about the interception of containers they did not declare? Could it be for the fear of the legal action that will follow the press briefing?” he questioned.
Recall that during the media briefing that Ali claimed that majority of rice imported into Nigeria is expired. Based on this, pundits believed that Customs claim was a bit exaggerated.
According to them, in as much as Customs was doing their job of tackling smuggling through the protectionist economist approach, it was however wrong to use Master Energy as ‘scapegoat’ to justify border closure as well as the claim that Nigerians feed on foreign rice expired.