Court orders CBN, 4 others to pay N5.5b judgment debt before Sept 1 over Customs’ unlawful rice seizures.

Court orders CBN, 4 others to pay N5.5b judgment debt before Sept 1 over Customs’ unlawful rice seizures.

The Federal High Court, Abuja has ordered the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and four other banks to pay N5.5billion judgment debt in an interest yielding account before September 1.

Other affected banks are Fidelity, Access, UBA and Zenith whose case would not be heard in court until evidence of payment of the punitive huge sum.

Justice Inyang Eden Ekwo gave the order as a condition for the hearing of the applications filed by CBN and the four banks for the stay of execution of an order of garnishee absolute made by the court since June 15.

“The garnishees are hereby ordered to pay the judgment sum into an interest yielding account to be maintained by the Chief Registrar of this court as condition for the application for stay to be heard.

“This case is hereby adjourned to 1st September, 2021 for the respective applications,” Justice Ekwo said.

The banks are listed as garnishees in the suit, marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/1165/2020 initiated by a firm – Maggpiy Trading TFZE – to retrieve about N5.5B (N3.82billion and $4.95million) judgment sum earlier given in its favour by the court in the suit it filed against the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Chairman of its Board.

In their applications, the banks are seeking to stay the execution of the garnishee order absolute pending the determination of their appeals.

Maggpiy Trading had sued the NCSB, its Chairman and the National Security Adviser (NSA), claiming that, on March 18, 2017, officials of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) unjustly sealed off its warehouses located within the Tinapa Free Trade Zone and Resort (TFTZR), Calabar, Cross River State.

It stated, in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/40/2017 that the warehouses, at the time they were sealed off by men of the NCS, contained 90 containers worth of rice, with each of the containers holding 540 bags of rice.

The firm added that, without any provocation and after accepting N53M from it as stamp duties, men of the NCS also detained by the road side at Onne, Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, 40 trucks with which it was transporting 317 transit containers of rice to its Tinapa Free Trade Zone and Resort facility.

Maggpiy Trading company stated that its warehouses were eventually unsealed after over four months and that it was compelled by the defendants to re-export the imported rice to Cotonou, Benin Republic on July 28, 2017.

The firm stated that it found that some of the containers had been stolen; incurred heavy costs and that most of what was left of the consignment had been destroyed.

The defendants however denied any wrong doing, claiming that the plaintiff (Maggpiy Trading) breached the Federal Government’s fiscal policy on the importation of any physical goods into Nigeria.

They argued that the plaintiff’s action of importing rice into the country “was calculated to undermine the federal government’s fiscal policy on food security, which is meant to encourage local production of rice, and the ban on importation of rice through land boarder.

The trial court, in its judgment given on July 10, 2019, upheld the plaintiff’s case on the grounds that the NCS and its officials acted outside the law when they knew that the federal government’s circular on which they claimed to have acted is not applicable to Free Trade Zone which are considered as “country within a country.”

Justice Ekwo, who was the trial judge, frowned at the refusal of the defendants to obey his two interlocutory orders made on December 15, 2017 and June 27, 2018 for the rice to be sold and the proceed kept in an interest yielding accounts pending the determination to the case in view of the perishable nature of the consignment.

He proceeded to grant all the plaintiff’s reliefs, but exonerated the 3rd defendant (the NSA), who was found to have played no role in the whole episode.

The judge made a declaration “that the 1st and 2nd defendants have no power, authority or justification to seal off the plaintiff’s warehouses located at the Tinapa Free Trade Zone, Calabar, Cross River State or to seize, detain or order the seizure or detention of the plaintiff’s containers of rice lawfully Imported through the Onne Sea Port for conveyance to the Calabar Free Trade Zone.”

He also made “a declaration that the seizure or detention by the 1st and 2nd defendants of 317 transit containers belonging to the plaintiff at Onne Sea Port, Rivers State and the order for their re-exportation is illegal, unlawful and unjustified.”

Justice Ekwo further declared “that the sealing off by the 1st and 2nd defendants of the plaintiff’s warehouses at Tinapa Free Trade Zone, Calabar containing 90 containers worth of rice escorted to the said warehouse by the Nigerian Customs and over which duties were duly paid by the plaintiff is illegal, unlawful and unjustified.

He granted an order of perpetual injunction restraining the 1st and 2nd defendants from further unlawfully interfering with the lawful business transactions of the Plaintiff within the Tinapa Free Trade Zone.”

The judge awarded both special and general damages against the 1st and 2nd defendants totalling N3,832,779,450.00 and $4,958,950.

He ordered that the monetary part of the judgment shall attract interest “at the prevailing Monetary Policy Rate (Central Bank rate) from date of judgment until judgment sums are fully liquidated.”

A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal, Abuja subsequently upheld the judgment in its decision on August 20, 2020 and dismissed the appeal, marked: CA/A/819/2019 filed by the Nigerian Customs Service Board (NCSB) and its Chairman.

The appellate court, in dismissing the appeal, held that the Federal High Court was in order when it held in favour of the plaintiff – Maggpiy Trading TFZE – in the judgment given by Justice Ekwo on July 10, 2019 in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/40/2017.

Justices Emmanuel Agim, Peter Ige and Yargata Nimpar (of the Court of Appeal) were unanimous in holding that the appellants (NCSB and its Chairman) failed to fault the judgment by Justice Ekwo.

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