Firm Asks Court to Order Customs to Pay N5bn Debt

  • Defendants deny any wrong doing

Tobi Soniyi in Lagos

A property development company, Cambial Ltd has asked an Abuja High Court to order the Nigerian Customs Service Board (NCSB), to pay it N5billion being a debt owed for the sale of 120 units of four-bedroom houses to customs.

In court documents filed by Professor Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN), in the suit, marked: FCT/CV/607/2016, the plaintiff stated that from 2003 to 2007, it obtained Estate Development Loan, totalling about N1.42billion from the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN) which it deployed to the construction of 120 units of four-bedroom houses in its parcel of land located in Kuje, Abuja.

Other defendants are Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC), ex-CGC, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko Inde, Alhaji Garba Bala Makarfi and a legal practitioner, Mr Umar A. Husain.

Cambial stated that after building the 120 units four-bedroom houses, it put the estate up for sale, following which the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), in November 2009 “indicated interest in buying the 120 units of four-bedroom fully detached houses at Kuje, Kuje Area Council, from the plaintiff.”

The estate was commissioned on March 31, 2011 by the then president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan when Abdullahi Dikko was the Comptroller General of Customs.

However, about eight years after senior officials of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and their families moved into the sprawling housing estate, named “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan Customs Barracks,” the plaintiff said NCS has failed to settle an outstanding debt of N5 billion.

Before the deal was consummated, the plaintiff said that NCS later engaged experts from the Federal Ministry of Works, Housing and Urban Development (FMWHUD), who evaluated the houses and and approved N40million per unit, putting the total cost at N4,800,000,000 (N4.8b).

The plaintiff further stated that, rather than pay for what the FMWHUD evaluated, the NCS, represented by Dikko (who was then the CGS) and Makarfi (who was then Assistant Comproller-General Finance, Administration and Technical Services), requested that Cambial provided “additional developments/enhanced infrastructure.”

The “additional developments/enhanced infrastructure,” the plaintiff said, included “fully tarred roads within and outside the estate, fully developed infrastructure like drainage system, dedicated transformers, water tank, treatment plants and the provision of landscaped environment-friendly neighbourhood, among others.”

The plaintiff stated that Dikko and Makarfi agreed to pay separately for the “additional developments,” which it eventually carried out.
Cambial further stated that it became suspicious about the true intention of Dikko and Makarfi when, on April 1, 2010, its account with Zenith Bank was credited with N3,980,952,380.96k by the NCS/Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as the proceeds of the sale of its 120 housing units.

But, that despite its protestations, Dikko and Makarfi ordered the bank to deduct N819,047,619.04 from the N4.8billion, which was the actual amount the houses were to be sold, before it could be allowed to access the funds.

The plaintiff added that, upon its demand to know what the deduction was meant for, Dikko and Makarfi said the deducted N819,047,619.04 was for legal fees, agency fees, Value Added Tax (VAT) and Withholding tax.

“The protests of the plaintiff that the legal and agency fees were supposed to be borne by the NCS, as the purchaser, did not yield any results and the defendants went on to deduct the legal and agency fees.

“The 3rd and 4th defendants (Dikko and Makarfi) further coerced the plaintiff to pay another N1,100,952,380.96 to the law firm of the 5th defendant (Umar Hussaain) trading under the name and style of Capital Law Office.

“The plaintiff avers that, on the order and or directive of the 3rd and 4th defendants, the completion deposit of the sum of N1,100,952,380.96 was paid into the account of the 5th defendant’s law firm (7200057379: Stanbic-IBTC) as agent and external solicitor of the NCS to ensure that the plaintiff carried out all the finishing touches in the houses.”

Cambial stated that, despite having fully completed works in the houses and handed them to the NCS, the defendants have held onto its N1,100,952,380.96. and have refused to pay the cost of the “additional developments/enhanced infrastructure,” which it estimated at N3,602,083,620.81.

It stated: “the NCS has since taken possession of the 120 houses in the estate and renamed the estate ‘Dr. Goodluck Jonathan Customs Barracks.’

“The residents of the estate are enjoying the enhanced infrastructures including the roads constructed by the plaintiff, which are yet to be paid for.”

Cambial stated that the defendants’ failure to settle their indebtedness has made it difficult to repay the loan it took from the FMBN.

The plaintiff is praying the court to among others, order the defendants to pay it N3,602,083,620.81 being cost of the enhanced infrastructure/additional developments, including the roads built within and around the estate; N745,952,380.96 being the balance of the N1.1b it paid to Capital Law Office; N4billion in special damages; N500m in general damages, including interests.

In a pre-action notice written, on behalf of the plaintiff, by Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), to the NCS, he queried the propriety of the conduct of the Customs officials.

Babalola wondered why Dikko and Makarfi (who later became Director, Human Resources, NCS) asked Cambial to pay the N1.1b, which was intended as security for the project, into the account of a private law firm which has no statutory relationship with the NCS.

He also queried why the officials of the NCS compelled Cambial to pay for legal and agency fees and taxes, without issuing it with receipts

The defendants have all denied any wrong doing and want the court to dismiss the suit.

In a joint statement of defence filed by the NCSB, CGS and Makarfi, they claimed to have effectively discharged their obligations under the contract for the purchase of the 120 housing units.

They denied any additional indebtedness to the plaintiff, including the N1.1b, which the plaintiff claimed to have paid to Hussain’s law firm at the prompting of the NCS officials.

“The plaintiff has been paid the contract sum in full and the 1st, 2nd and 4th defendants are not responsible for the plaintiff’s inability to settle any alleged outstanding debt it owes to the FMBN,” they said.

On his part, Hussain denied being an external solicitor or agent of the NCS and its officials.

In his defence, Hussain did not deny receiving ,1,100,952,380.96 from Cambial, but denied knowing that the payment was in relation to the housing estate purchase transaction.

He also denied being party to the property sale transaction between the NCS officials and the plaintiff.

“The 4th defendant (Makarfi) approached the 5th defendant (Hussain) and engaged his service to hold the said N1,100,952,380.96 on trust.

*The said money is said to belong to a deceased family fried of the 4th defendant, pending the issuance and appointment of administrator of the said deceased family friend estate.

“The 4th defendants informed the 5th defendant that the money will be paid by a company called Cambial Ltd and that the 5th defendant should wait for the instruction on how he should disburse the money on behalf of the 4th defendant, and in accordance with the instruction of the deceased family friend to be communicated through the 4th defendant,” Husain said.

He stated that Makarfi later gave instructions, between April 7, 2010 and June 15, 2010, on how he (Husain) should disburse the money, which instructions, Hussain said, he carried out to the letter.

Hussain added: “There is no any complaint by the4th defendant against the 5th defendant on how the money was disbursed, as the 5th defendant complied completely with the instruction of the 4th defendant on disbursements of the money.”