Battle Over Legal Representation Stalls Hearing In E-Customs Concession Project Suit against FG

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Hearing in the legal battle by the E-Customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies, (West Africa) Limited against the Federal Government was on Tuesday stalled at the Federal High Court, Abuja over a dispute on legal representation.

The two aggrieved companies which instituted the suit against the government, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, and others had hitherto been represented by Ahmed Raji, SAN, to challenge alleged illegalities introduced into a concession agreement by the NCS under the former Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Ahmed Ali, rtd.

However, at Tuesday’s proceedings before Justice Inyang Ekwo, a new twist crept up when another lawyer, Pius Nnoli announced appearance for E-Customs HC Project Ltd, as against the representation of the senior lawyer.

The bid by Nnoli to take over was vehemently opposed by Ahmed Raji on the ground that he is the lawful counsel engaged by the company.

Tuesday’s proceeding ran into a hitch when Nnoli informed Justice Ekwo that the senior lawyer had filed a counter affidavit against his attempt to represent E-Customs HC Project Limited as counsel for the company, being the first plaintiff.

He said that the counter affidavit served on him in the court room was voluminous and that he needed time to peruse through and file a formal reply to it.

Nnoli subsequently pleaded with Justice Ekwo to grant him a short adjournment to enable him file his reply and display the instrument with which he was engaged by his client. 

Upon an enquiry by the court, Raji, SAN, confirmed that Nnoli was served in the court room with the counter affidavit to his claims of being a lawyer in the suit.

Justice Ekwo in a brief remark thereafter held that it is right to give Nnoli time to respond to the counter affidavit. Based on no objections from lawyers in the suit, Justice Ekwo   adjourned hearing in the suit till Thursday, October 26 2023.

The two aggrieved companies, E-customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited had jointly sued the Federal Government to challenge the alleged unlawful and fraudulent concession of the E-custom project to African Finance corporation.

The two plaintiffs had in their statement of claims narrated how they proposed to carry out custom modernization project through several government officials for the benefit of Nigeria Customs Service. 

They claimed that after a series of meetings and negotiation with some of the defendants, President Mohammadu Buhari granted anticipated approval for the E- Customs Project.

They averred that on September 2 , 2020, the Minister of Finance presented a memo  EC2020/153 to the Federal Executive Council, the highest decision making body of the Federal Government and secured approval for the two plaintiffs to be granted the concession.

Plaintiffs further claimed that trouble started when the Nigeria Customs Service unilaterally reviewed the Federal Executive Council approval and imposed other conditions, among which are shareholding formula and governance structure.

They claimed that the power of the NCS to unilaterally review FEC approval was protested and that the former Comptroller General of Customs proved adamant.

Plaintiffs asserted that to their surprise, they read in the news that the Nigeria Custom Service had executed a concession agreement with an unknown company, Trade Modernization Project, Huawei Technologies Company and African Finance Corporation sometime in May 2022, in total breach of the memorandum of understanding prepared by the AGF in conjunction with the Minister of Finance.

They also averred that Trade Modernization Project was incorporated in April 2022 at the Corporate Affairs Commission with one Alhaji Saleh Amodu, a close friend of the former Comptroller General, as the Chairman. 

Plaintiffs asserted that the new company having been just incorporated in April 2022 could not have obtained and did not obtain the full business case compliance certificate from the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, ICRC, and the approval of the Federal Executive Council to carry out E- Customs Project.

They therefore asked the court to make a declaration that the belated decision of the Federal Government and its agents to enter into another concession agreement with Trade Modernization Project, Huawei Technologies and African Finance Corporation in respect of the E-Customs Project is illegal, null and void, having been made in gross violation of Section 2 of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission Act, 2005.

They 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 Federal Executive Council at the 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 AGF, Finance Minister, ICRC and NCS to consummate the E- Customs Project with the 1st plaintiff as approved by the FEC in September 2020. 

Besides, the two plaintiffs asked the court to compel the defendants to pay them a sum of N200 million as cost of litigation.

Defendants in the suit are the Federal Government of Nigeria, Attorney-General of the Federation, Finance Minister, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, Nigeria Customs Service, Trade Modernization Project Limited, Huawei Technologies, African Finance Corporation and Bergman Security Consultant and Supplies Limited as 1st to 9th defendants respectively.

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