A Federal High Court, Abuja, on Wednesday, ordered the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to pay Maggpiy Trading TFZE over N5.5bn as damages for unlawful seizure of 90 containers of rice imported by the firm.
Defendants in the suits are the NCS and the Chairman, Nigerian Customs Service Board (NCSB) as the first and second defendants.
In a judgment in suit No: FHC/CA/CS/40/2017, Justice Inyang Ekwo, held that the respondents acted unlawfully and without any justification in law in the seizure of the containers.
The plaintiff had told the court that on March 18, 2017, officials of the NCS invaded and sealed up its warehouse in the Tinapa Free Trade Zone (TFTZ), Calabar, Cross River State, containing over 90containers of 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 and detained its 40 trucks, containing 317 transit containers of rice, destined for the Tinapa Free Trade Zone, without lawful justification for 120 days along Onne, Port-Harcourt road.
In this judgment, Justice Ekwo upheld the plaintiff’s claims and held that the NCS and the Chairman, NCSB, acted unlawfully and without any justification in law.
The judge 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.
He said: “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 1st and 2nd defendants, 19421 of 50 kg bags and 1639 of 25 kg of the seized rice consignment have been pilfered by officers of the defendants.
Justice Ekwo rejected their defence, adding that there was no justification for their actions.
The judge faulted the defendants’ claim that they acted under the Federal Ministry of Finance Import Guidelines, Procedures and Documentation Requirements under the Destination Inspection Scheme in Nigeria.
Justice Ekwo held 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 judge also rejected some circular tendered by the Customs to justify their action.
Justice Ekwo held that not only were most of the circulars made after the plaintiff’s rice consignment was seized on March 18, 2017, the defendants 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 1st and 2nd defendants, do not apply to this case,” the judge said.
“The argument by the 1st and 2nd 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 Zoneand Resort.
“The containers were therefore, in transit between one sea port 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.
Justice Ekwo noted that such an argument amounted to a futile attempt to distinguish between rice and food.
“The 1st and 2nd defendants proferred 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.”
The judge 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 defendants ought to provide evidence of prosecution or conviction of the plaintiff for the alleged offence of smuggling.
The judge granted all the reliefs by the plaintiff and awarded specific and general in damages in favour of the plaintiff, and against the 1st and 2nd defendants, in the amount estimated at N3,805,638,950 and $4,796,550.
Justice 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 judgment 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.”