Hameed Ali, Saraki & Impounded Range Rover: The scandal within a controversy

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•Revelations on a failed attempt to misinform Nigerians

By Henry Umoru

This is probably not the best moments for the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, under its  Comptroller-General, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (retd), as the agency is under the searchlight of the Senate, because of the controversial policy on the  payment of import duties on old vehicles on Nigerian roads.

By the same token, the Senate and its President, Bukola Saraki  are in the eye of the storm for alleged criminality. For purposes of reiteration, the import of the NCS order is that an average Nigerian driving his car on the road can be stopped and have his car impounded if it is discovered that the duty paid to the NCS was illegally discounted or is fake. It is the matter of fake documentation that has now been insinuated into the face-off between Ali and the Senate, with an allegation that the Senate and/or Saraki  had been caught in the web, hence the showdown. But how did it all get to this sorry pass?

The story of impounded Range Rover

An accusation came that the Senate and Saraki were merely on a vengeful mission against the Nigerian Customs Service,  NCS, because of the alleged seizure of a bullet proof Range Rover Sport Utility Vehicle, SUV, valued at N298 million, by Ali’s men, hinged on the allegation that he Saraki refused to pay the Customs duty of N74 million.

Reacting to the development, Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the Senate President, Yusuph Olaniyonu, said  the seized imported SUV belonged to the Senate and not Saraki, just as he stressed that the issue of payment or non-payment duty was between the supplier engaged by the Senate and the NCS, and not between the Senate President or the Senate and the government agency.

Olaniyonu, who noted that Saraki had nothing to do with the importation of vehicle, however, described the allegation raised linking the Senate President to the importation of vehicle as lacking basis as it was outright falsehood.

In the statement, Olaniyonu referred to  documents about the seized vehicle, adding, “A supplier was engaged by the Senate to supply a vehicle. While transferring the vehicle between Lagos and Abuja, it was impounded by the Customs. We believe that is an issue between the supplier and the Customs. So, why is somebody trying to drag in the name of Saraki into the issue”.

The allegations against Saraki

An online medium had reported that the Senate was at war with the leadership of the NCS because Customs officials seized the SUV which, according to it, is  owned by Saraki.

The report said: “Our investigators discovered that Nigerian Customs officers in Lagos had on January 11, 2017, intercepted and impounded a Range Rover SUV which carried documents that claimed its chassis number was ‘SALGV3TF3EA190243.’ Customs sources told our correspondent that the value of the car was N298 million, which meant that Customs duty of N74 million should have been paid on the car.  At the interception of the car, its driver claimed that the vehicle belonged to the Senate President and presented a letter from the National Assembly liaison office in Lagos, indicating that the driver of the luxury vehicle was authorized to drive the Senate President’s official Range Rover bulletproof car.   Our sources disclosed that when asked to show evidence of duty payment and an end-user certificate from the office of the National Security Adviser—a document required for bulletproof vehicles—the driver presented documents that were found to be fake. The reportedly fake documents provided by the driver indicated that a measly Customs duty of N8 million was paid on the car. Customs officials said that, apart from the fact the duty was extremely low, they also determined that the presented document itself was fake. They consequently seized the vehicle.

“Later the same day, January 17, 2017, the Senate sent a letter signed by one Architect O.A. Ojo acting as the Secretary of Procurement, Estate, and Works of the National Assembly, requesting the release of the vehicle, which he claimed belonged to the convoy of the ‘Senate’. In its response, the Nigerian Customs sent a letter signed by Othman, A.S. Comptroller, Import and Export. The letter dated January 24 2017, again requested for the end user certificate as well as evidence of proper clearance before the vehicle could be released. Neither Mr. Saraki nor the National Assembly provided the required documents.

“The price tag on that car was $142,000, but the importer gave the value as $64,516. The exchange rate at the time of car importation was N155 to $1. Curiously, the Customs officials that cleared the car and  passed it off as a ‘used’ car.  Although the car was cleared in March 2015, Customs papers clearly stated it was a 2014 car, which clearly meant it was a brand new car that should have attracted higher duty.

“Shortly after the seizure of the car, the Nigerian Senate mounted a vigorous attack on the Nigerian Customs Service, demanding that the agency stops any further efforts to confiscate vehicles found to have evaded payment of duties. The senators also summoned the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, to appear before the Senate. In the letter of invitation, the senators specified that Mr. Ali, a retired Army Colonel, must wear the official Customs uniform when he appeared before them. Mr. Ali has so far refused to heed the order to wear the Customs uniform.”

Fresh Facts

But Sunday Vanguard gathered that the National Assembly, and not Saraki, bought the Range Rover 2014 LWB Armoured Car Euro Norm B6, from a car dealer, Tokunboh Akindele. Before the procument, however,  Akindele was said to have  engaged the services of Hizmark Company, based in the United States,  to purchase two vehicles of the brand bought by the National Assembly, and deliver them to him in Lagos, saying one Latif Olajide cleared the vehicles  and delivered them to him (Akindele) sometime in September 2015. He claimed to have later sold one of the SUVs to the National Assembly in January 2016.

Then, according to documents obtained by Sunday Vanguard,  Akindele, on January 13, 2017, received a phone call from a representative of the National Assembly informing  him that the NCS had impounded the SUV he sold to them on the grounds that the documents used in clearing it  were forged. The car dealer, however, in the documents, said he had no knowledge that the documents were forged before he sold the car to the National Assembly and that he never authorised any person – including Olajide – to forge the documents required to clear the car.

In an affidavit sworn to  at the High Court of Lagos State by Akindele, on  January 25, 2017, he said: “Sometime in 2014, I engaged the services of Hizmark Inc., a company registered in the United States of America, USA, to purchase two (2) armoured Range Rover Sport Utility Vehicles (the “Cars”) and deliver them to me in Lagos.

“I received an invoice from Hizmark Inc. with details of all the expenses to be incurred for purchasing and delivering the cars to me in Lagos and subsequently made payments towards the purchase of the cars and expenses to be incurred.

“Hizmark Inc. informed me that the cars had been shipped and introduced me to one Mr. Latif Olajide, a licensed and registered clearing agent in Nigeria, in August 2015, whom it said would be responsible for paying all the applicable duties, clearing the Cars at Tin Can Island Port, Lagos, and delivering them to me.

“Mr. Olajide cleared the Cars and delivered them to me sometime in September 2015. Subsequently, I sold one of the Cars to the Nigeria National Assembly in January 2016.

“On 13th January 2017, I received a phone call from a representative of the Nigeria National Assembly who informed me that the Nigeria Customs Services had impounded the car I sold to them on the grounds that the documents used in clearing the Cars were forged.

“I had no knowledge that the documents used in clearing the Cars were forged before I sold the Car to the Nigeria National Assembly neither did I authorise any person including Mr. Olajide to forge the documents required to clear the Cars”.

Akindele later wrote a letter, dated 14th March, 2017, to the Comptroller General of NCS requesting for the issuance of debit note to remit the appropriate import duty on the seized SUV.

“The car dealer said, in part, in the letter: “I sold the car to a third party for a valuable consideration but the car was impounded from the third party by the Nigeria Custom Service on the grounds that the documents used in clearing the same were forged. Both myself and Hizmark Inc. have made several attempts to contact Mr Latif Olajide to question him and demand  evidence of appropriate payment to the Federal Government but all efforts proved abortive. The third party has also rescinded the purchase and demanded that I refund the full amount paid for the car.

“Both I and Hizmark Inc. have been unable to locate Latif Olajide and now foisted with the obligation to refund the buyer with the money paid for the car – whilst it remains impounded by the Nigeria Customs Service. As a responsible taxpaying citizen, I know my obligation to pay appropriate taxes to the different levels of government and its agencies. I have never shied away from my civic responsibilities and I am always prepared to support our government in every way I can.

“It is in this light that I seek your wise counsel and indulgence for the issuance of a debit note for the appropriate duty for clearing the car. I also make a plea for leniency in the computation of the duty – bearing in mind all the monies I have lost due to the fraud perpetrated against myself and Hizmark Inc by Mr Latif Olajide and THE losses I have made with regard to the purchase and use of the car.

“I undertake to immediately remit all appropriate duty required for clearing the car at the time and point of entry into Nigeria”.

The police angle

Sunday Vanguard also gathered that Hizmark wrote to the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Zone 2  Command Headquarters, Lagos, requesting him to investigate Latif Olajide for forgery based on the circumstances surrounding the duty paid on the controversial SUV.

A  petition, dated January 23, 2017, and written by Baba Alokolaro of  The New Practice on behalf of the company, read, “We are solicitors to Hizmark Inc. (our Client) and write on its instruction. Our Client is a business registered in the United States of America. Our Client received instructions from Mr. Tokunboh Akindele sometime in 2014 to purchase two (2) armored Rang Rover Sport Utility Vehicles (the “Car”) and deliver them to him in Lagos. Our Client purchased the Cars in 2014 and armored them at HPC Armoring in July 2015. We have attached copies of the payment receipts for your records.

“The Cars were shipped no Nigeria in September 2015 and our client subsequently engaged the services of Mr. Latif Olajide to pay all the applicable duties and clear the cars at the Tin Can Island Port, Lagos, based on his representation that he is a licensed and registered clearing agent. Our client provided all the documents and funds required to clear the cars and the same were cleared and delivered to Mr. Tokumboh Akindele in September 2015.

Sen. Bukola Saraki and Ameed Ali

“It is our understanding that Mr. Akindele sold  one of the cars to a third party for valuable consideration but the car was impounded from the third party by the Nigerian Custom Service on the grounds that the documents used in clearing the same were forged. Our clients has made several attempts to contact Mr. Olajide to question him but all efforts proved abortive. “We are all of the opinion that if the documents used in clearing the car were indeed forged, Mr Olajide would have committed an offence under Section 363 of the Lagos State Criminal Law Chapter c17 laws of Lagos State 2011.

“Accordingly, we urge you to use your good offices to commence investigations into this matter with a view to presenting Mr. Olajide for forgery. Whilst thanking you for your kind consideration, we confirm our availability to clarify any issues you may have with regard to this petition”.

Meanwhile, the Clerk to the National Assembly, who is the Chief Accounting Officer of the parliament, wrote a letter to Hizmark, withdrawing from the contract on the parliament of the seized SUV and revoking it even though there was no financial commitment from the National Assembly.

The letter, dated 15th February, 2017 and titled, “ RE: RANGE ROVER : CHASSIS NO.SALGV3TF3EA190243”, was written on behalf of the Clerk to National Assembly by the Secretary of Procurement, Estate and Works, Arc. Ojo O.A.

The letter read, “Kindly recall your recent complaints about your inability to retrieve the above vehicle (RANGE ROVER BLACK LONG WHEEL BASE, 2014 MODEL) from the Nigeria Custom Services which is meant to be one of the official convoy vehicles of the Senate.

“Despite our efforts to assist in retrieving same which failed to yield desired result, we are therefore, constrained to inform you that due to your inability to deliver within the time frame, the vehicle is no longer required.”

Controversy

This month (March), two months after the controversy involving the NCS, Akindele, Hizmark and the Senate on the seized SUV, the NCS issued a policy on the controversial payment of import duties on old vehicles on Nigerian roads.

The policy apparently triggered a controversy as Nigerians began to ask why an individual who did not import a car, did not steal a car from the ports and who did not even know the tariff meant to be paid, should be subjected to  harassment by men of the NCS?

The statement issued by NCS had read in part: “All persons in possession of such vehicles should take advantage of the grace period to pay appropriate dues on them, as there will be an aggressive anti -smuggling operation to seize as well as prosecute owners of such smuggled vehicles after the deadline of April 12.”

But the Senate, in an action that seemed it was taking sides with the people, summoned the NCS Comptroller General, Col. Hammed Ibrahim Ali (retd), to explain the directive.

The Senate action did not stop there.

The chambre also asked Ali to explain before its Senator Uzodiama Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff in NCS uniform which he had not worn since he assumed office.

The resolutions of the Senate were sequel to a Point of Order and later a motion by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’ Allah.

Presenting his motion titled, “Circular issued by Colonel Hammed Ali, Ibn Na’ Allah said, “The Comptroller-General of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd) has approved a grace period of one month between Monday 13th March to Wednesday 12th 2017, for owners of vehicles within the country whose customs duty has not been paid to do so.

“Consequently, all motor dealers and private owners of such vehicles are advised to visit the nearest customs zonal office to pay the appropriate customs duties on them. I think we have a compelling need to protect the Nigerian public against this arbitrariness. I asked if I buy a car 8yrs back for example duly registered and I live in Sokoto and then you required me to come to Kaduna and to know whether my customs duty is authentic or not, what you are requiring from me is even outside the provision of the law. It is the responsibility of the Nigerian customs to do this document and if they now shift it back forth to its citizens to determine whether what they have is authentic or not; I think it is sufficiently ridiculous to call the attention of this Senate to say no to this kind of arbitrariness.”

Senators who contributed to the motion condemned the policy.

Saraki, who presided over the plenary, noted that the directive contravenes the law and would therefore not stand.  He then urged the NCS boss to come up with the way forward, adding, “This is a very straightforward motion and our responsibility here is to ensure that we oversight agencies and ensure that they comply with the law. It is very clear that this circular does not meet the requirement of the law. The Customs Committee should quickly look into this matter and come out with a way forward.”

But Ali shot back, saying there was no going back on the directive and this further provoked the senators.

He also shunned the Senate “because he had a management meeting to attend.”

In a letter addressed to the Clerk of the Senate, Nelson Ayewoh, and signed by an Assistant Comptroller-General of Customs, Azarema Abubakar, the Customs boss asked the Senate to defer the date of his appearance as the summon coincided with the Routine Management meeting of the NCS.

Senate Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, tried to give the Customs boss a soft landing by appealing to his colleagues  to oblige him his request since, according to him, two wrongs do not make a right. The Senate stood its ground.

President Muhammadu Buhari was said to have waded into the crisis, warning his appointees not to overheat the polity by creating what he termed  avoidable friction between the Executive and the Legislature.

Following the intervention, Ali visited the Senate to have discussions with Saraki and Lawan.

Then he made a u-turn. In a  letter he personally signed, with reference number NCS/ ADM/ MGT/ 018/S.88/C/ Customs, dated March 14, 2017 and titled, “ Re: Invitation to brief the Senate”, Ali said he was ready to answer to the Senate’s summon.  He, however, said he regretted his inability to do so because of a bereavement.

In the letter,  the Comptroller General informed the Senate that he was already reviewing the policy on Customs duties and that he would  fully brief the Senate on his findings when the review was completed.

“The goal of the review is to take a broad additional input from stakeholders and the public on all its aspects. I will welcome opportunity to avail the Senate on our findings and the way forward on improving our capabilities to plug major drainages in the nation’s economy without adding to hardships and within our mandate,”the Customs boss said.

“Regarding the wearing of uniform, I wish to advise that the Senate avails itself of the legal basis of its decision to compel me to wear uniform. I am similarly seeking legal advise on this issue, so that both the Senate and I will operate within the proper legal framework”.

Though the statement said the policy on the duties payment on old vehicles was being reviewed, the Senate insisted the Comptroller-General must appear before its committee in the NCS uniform to discuss the policy and to come to terms with each other in the overall interest of Nigeria.

When he finally appeared, he did not wear uniform. The Senate sent him back and asked that he should re-appear on Wednesday of the next week (last week).

AGF joins fray

But before then, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, had  joined the fray, Malami wrote to the Senate that the NCS boss will not come to the  chamber  in uniform and that the legislature should hands off the matter.”

Angered by the action of the Comptroller-General and Malami, the Senate asked Buhari to sack the Customs boss, saying  he is old and unfit to hold any public office, just as it argued that Ali’s resignation had become imperative because he failed  to show respect to it as an institution, despite being an appointee of  government.

The Senate also urged the NCS boss to outrightly cancel the policy on the payment of import duties on old vehicles rather than reviewing it.

It was amid the raging row between the Senate and the NCS boss that the online medium published its story on the seized SUV saga, saying the upper chambre’s action was to avenge the seizure of the SUV by the Customs.

The medium also said the vehicle in question was imported by Saraki whereas documents showed that the importation was done by another party and the SUV only procured by the National Assembly after it had been imported.

Observers are asking why a transaction that took place in January should be linked to a Customs policy initiated in March.

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