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Lawyers battle over representation in N3.1bn e-custom suit

From Olalekan Awojodu, Abuja

Again, the hearing in the suit of the $3.1 e-custom was stalled before a Federal High Court, Abuja owing to ensuing tussle over legal representation for the plaintiffs in the suit.

The plaintiffs, E-customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited had instituted a suit against the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and nine others for allegedly signing a fresh agreement that excludes them in the original concession thereby overriding the Federal Executive Council (FEC).

When the matter was called, E-Customs HC Project Limited, listed as the 1st plaintiff in the suit, announced its decision to withdraw from the suit in an application for withdrawal brought by it’s counsel, Mr Ugochukwu Nnoli. The company alleged that it’s consent and authorisation was neither sought nor obtained by the second plaintiff. Nnnoli also told the court that he has written four letters to the counsel to second plaintiff, A.A. Usman which includes a letter of invitation for meeting and letter seeking for change of counsel on the request of the plaintiff among others. However, the lawyer, A.A. Usman to denied being in receipt of any of the letters written by the representative of the plaintiffs.

After the day’s proceeding, Justice Inyang Ekwo adjourned the suit to December 6 for the counsel to resolve issues of legal representation and report for continuation of the suit.

At the last sitting, the court particularly took a swipe at the authorities of the NCS for writing directly to the Chief Judge of the Court instead of through its counsel on record. Justice Inyang Ekwo in his remarks had advised lawyers to always counsel their clients on how to follow due process in litigation matters before the courts.

The Nigeria Customs Service had in the letter to the Court claimed that revenue generation by the Federal Government of Nigeria, a defendant in the suit, may be hampered by the ex-parte order granted earlier by the court. It pleaded that the order is set aside to enable it to continue with fund generation for the government.

Although the matter had earlier been fixed for November 7, 8, and 9 for hearing, parties in the suit were recalled for fresh proceedings during which the ex-parte order was vacated in line with the plea by the NSC.

The court had on June 17 restrained the Federal Government from enforcing or giving effect to the controversial Customs Modernisation Project, otherwise known as e-Custom, allegedly executed by its agents on May 30, 2022.

The agents, who allegedly executed the disputed concession project are the Nigerian Customs Service, Trade Modernisation Project Limited, Huawei Technologies Company Nigeria Limited and African Finance Corporation.

The court also issued an order of interim injunction against the Federal Government or its agents, acting through the Federal Executive Council, from retrospectively ratifying the decisions to concession the Custom Modernisation Project also known as the e-custom project to Trade Modernisation Project Limited, Huawei Technologies Company Limited and African Finance Corporation.

The restraining order issued by Justice Ekwo was to last till the hearing and the determination of the suit brought against the defendants by Messrs E-Customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited.

Counsel to the two aggrieved companies, had argued an ex-parte application in which he prayed the Court for interim orders against the defendants to protect the interest of his clients.

Justice Ekwo, while ruling on the ex-parte application on June 17 granted the prayers of the plaintiffs having placed sufficient evidence of interest in the concession project. He had earlier directed parties in the suit to go and first explore an out-of-court settlement in the matter.

Due to no objection to the directive from the parties, Justice Ekwo adopted November 7, 8 and 9 for a report of the settlement to be presented to the court and for a hearing in case the out-of-court settlement failed.

Plaintiffs in the suit, E-Customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited had approached the court to among others, declare that the decision by the Federal Government and its agent to enter into a concession agreement with the defendants in respect of the e-Customs project is illegal, 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 rightful concessionaire for the e-customs project as approved by the Federal Executive Council, FEC, at its meeting on September 2, 2020, and in line with Section 2 of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission Act.

The plaintiffs are also seeking an order directing the Federal Government through the AGF, Finance Minister, ICRC and the NCS to consummate the e- Customs project with the 1st plaintiff, (E-Customs) as approved by FEC in its September 2020 meeting.

Defendants in the suit are the Federal Government, Attorney General of the Federation, Finance Minister, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, Nigeria Customs Service, Trade Modernization Project Limited, Huawei Technologies Company Limited, African Finance Corporation and the Bergmans Security Consultant and Supplies Limited.

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