By Cecilia Ijuo
The Chairman Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff, Sen. Hope Uzodinma has denied any link with the 30 containers of rice seized by the Nigerian Customs Service.
Speaking with our correspondent, Uzodinma said that he had no personal interest in the imported rice and as such was not mounting pressure for its release.
The lawmaker was reacting to some online publications alleging that he was mounting pressure on the comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hammed Ali(retd) to release 30 containers smuggled rice imported last year.
He explained that contrary to the reports, the letter sent to the Nigeria Customs Service was based on a petition by one Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited to the committee, he chaired.
According to him, with the power reposed in the legislature to among other things attend to concerns of Nigerians, the committee decided to play it part.
“Sometime around November last year, the committee received a petition from Masters Masters Energy Commodities Trading Limited company.
“Alleging that 30 containers of rice imported by them was seized by Nigeria customs even when they paid the necessary duties and the necessary assessments were done by Nigerian Customs and that they needed our intervention.
“Of course you know, as a representatives of the people, that is why we are here, what I did was, the committee met and then sent out the petition to Customs Service asking them to react to the petition.
“The Customs reacted through a letter sent to the Committee on 25th November, 2016, confirming that this rice was imported and that the rice was seized because it was not declared according to the right classification.
“When I got that letter, to my surprise, the tone of the response was suggesting a kind of innuendo as if our letter was for them to release the rice.
“No. what we wrote was very clear, you can see the copy of the letter, it said make comment, react to this comment because every Nigerian citizen is entitled to fair hearing.
“And when we got their reply, we looked at the response from the Nigerian customs Service, signed by the comptroller General.
“We immediately resolved and did a letter thanking him for his quick response to our enquiry and also reminding him that the sole intention in the matter was that justice should be done in line with their extant rules.
“The decision neither suggested that I have any link or any relationship with the importer nor did we suggest to the Nigerian Customs to wave any procedure or any internal mechanism by them as to the treatment of issues like this,’’ he said.
He expressed surprise at the display of the letter sent to the Customs boss on social media.
He said it was obvious some people were trying to play politics with governance, adding that he would not succumb to their diversionary tactics.
The lawmaker further said that he would continue to oversight the Nigerian Customs Service as long as he remained the Chairman of the committee.
“You will agree with me that there was nothing in that letter suggesting ulterior motive, rather it was consistent with what is expected of me or the committee that is over sighting customs and as it has to do with their relationship with the public.
“That is what we did and I believe very confidently that what we did is still within the purview of our oversight powers and function.
“I was surprised to see my letter posted on social media, carrying inuendos like Customs Committee Chairman linked with rice importation.
“I don’t import, I don’t do business of rice. Each time I want to do my constituency outing, if it is necessary to include rice in what I will distribute, I buy my rice in from either rice mills in Abakiliki, Benue state and I distribute to my constituents.
“I don’t even eat parboiled rice because it is not healthy. I am not also in the business of rice trading, so I don’t know what is the intention of whoever that has decided to create this situation.
Speaking on whether the committee invited the service to give its side of the matter, the chairman said the committee does not invite people on just any matter until deemed necessary.
He added that the committee wrote a second letter to Ali to clarify that the letter was generated as result of a petition and not he had any link with the seized rice.
The chairman stressed that that the committee thereafter respected the stands of the Customs Service, asking it to ensure that justice was done.
He further blamed the service for not doing a thorough job and thereafter trying to indict him in a matter he had no link with.
“Our major concern in the whole of this is whether the seizure was legitimate seizure or was done in error and the customs explained to us that it was not done in error and we have no reason not to believe them.
“There is an evidence of by the Customs, issuing a pre-arrival assessment report showing how much duty is payable.
“The question is that you customs did this assessment. You issued the invoice, you received the duty. Why did you do wrong assessment.
“While I am not speaking for the importer, it is also important for Customs to share in the blame, because why in the first place did they not do the right assessment given the declaration given by the importer.
“They said it was wrongly classified but there is a declaration that it is parboiled rice. Are there two types of par boiled rice, the answer is no.
“So you do all these things and when you are not able to have your way, you begin to look for whom to blame. So we must be sincere and honest,’’ he said.
On whether it was an attempt by Customs to avenge Senate’s stand on the suspended policy on payment of customs duties on old vehicle, the lawmaker said that he could not be deterred.
“I will not want to lower the integrity of the Senate to begin to compare this institution with the Nigerian Customs Service.
“We are one government and by protocol the Senate is far superior to the Nigeria Customs Service, a paramilitary outfit of government.
“The constitutional powers as contained in the Constitution that ushered in this administration empowers the senate to invite any public officer that is in charge of public expenditure to appear before the senate and appear in a proper manner.
“The head of the Customs service is the Comptroller general of Customs.
“That is the highest rank and every beneficiary of the service should be proud of the service and as a way of encouraging motivation for the upcoming officers, whose aspirations among other things may be one day to become the head of customs.
He said it was important for the head of the service to be properly dressed to motivate officers.