Business

Court restrains FG from concessioning $3.2b e-Customs project to Chinese firm

By ADAKU WALTER

Following conflicts among concessionaires in the $3.2 billion Customs modernisation project, a Federal High Court in Abuja has restrained the Federal Government from enforcing or giving effect to an agreement on the e-Customs project signed on May 30, 2022.

The Trumpet recalled that the lead concessionaire, Bionica Technologies Limited hinted at a litigation to stop the project, following the impasse with other concessionaires and the Federal Government on the contract.

They alleged that the Nigeria Custom Service (NCS), Trade Modernisation Project Limited, Huawei Technologies Company Nigeria Limited and the African Finance Corporation (AFC), executed the disputed concession agreement.

The court had on Friday, also issued an order of interim injunction against the Federal Government or its agents acting through the Federal Executive Council (FEC) from retrospectively ratifying the decision to concession the Customs Modernisation Project also known as e-Customs project to Trade Modernisation Project Limited, Huawei Technologies Company Limited and the AFC.

The restraining order issued by Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Abuja Division of the court shall last till the hearing and determination of a suit brought against the Federal Government and other parties by the two aggrieved companies.

The two firms, E-Customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited had challenged the alleged unlawful concession of the E-Customs project to the defendants.

Counsel to the aggrieved companies, Anone Usman, who had argued an ex parte application, prayed the Court for interim orders against the defendants to protect his clients’ interests.

Ruling on the application, Justice Ekwo granted the prayers of the plaintiff having placed sufficient evidence of interest in the project and also granted permission to the companies to serve a writ of summons and other filed processes on the AFC at its head office, in Ikoyi, Lagos through DHL courier services.

Defendants in the suit are the Federal Government of Nigeria; Attorney-General of the Federation; Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning; Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC); NCS; Trade Modernisation Project Limited; Huawei Technologies Limited; AFC and Bergman Security Consultants and Supply Limited being first to ninth defendants in the case.

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Justice Ekwo subsequently fixed June 28, 2022 for hearing in the matter, just as the plaintiffs in their statements of claim narrated how they proposed to actualise the project through several government officials for the overall benefit of the NCS.

They claimed that after series of meetings and negotiations with some of the defendants, President Muhammadu Buhari granted anticipated approval for the e-Customs Project, insisting that on September 2, 2020, the Minister of Finance presented a memorandum marked: EC2020/153 to the FEC and secured approval for the plaintiffs for the concession.

The plaintiffs further claimed that trouble started when the NCS unilaterally reviewed the FEC’s approval and imposed other conditions among which are reversed shareholding formula and governance structure, adding that the power of the NCS to unilaterally review FEC approval was rejected, but that the Comptroller General of the Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.) remained resolute on going ahead with the project.

They said it was shocking to read in the news that the NCS had executed a concession agreement on the e-Customs project on May 30, 2022 with Huawei Technologies Company and the AFC, describing the development as a flagrant breach of the Concession Agreement approved by the AGF and Minister of Finance.

The plaintiffs also noted that the Trade Modernisation Project was incorporated in April 2022 at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) with one Alhaji Saleh Amodu, said to be a close friend of the Comptroller General of Customs as Chairman.

Noting that the company was just incorporated in April 2022, the plaintiffs argued that the company could not have obtained and did not obtain the full business case compliance certificate from the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (IRCC) and FEC’s approval to carry out the e-Customs project.

They asked the court to declaration that the Federal Government’s and its agents decision to enter into concession agreement with the Trade Modernisation Project, Huawei Technologies Company and AFC in respect of the e-Customs project was illegal, null and void, having been made in gross violation of Section 2 of the ICRC Act 2005.

The plaintiffs also asked the court to declare that E-customs HC Project Limited is the approved and rightful concessionaire for the e-Customs project as approved by the FEC at its meeting of September 2, 2020 and in line with Section 2 of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Act.

They also applied for an order of the court directing the Federal Government through the AGF, Finance Minister, ICRC and NCS to consummate the e-Customs project with the first plaintiff as approved by FEC in September 2020.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs asked the court to compel the defendants to pay N200 million as the cost of litigation.

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