Group raises alarm over alleged plan to withdraw $300m illegally from Customs account

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WITH few weeks to the end of President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, a Forum of Non-governmental Organisations in Nigeria (FONGON), has asked the President to immediately halt the concession process of the E-Customs project over an alleged plot to deplete the Nigeria Customs Service’s Comprehensive Import Service Scheme/Nigeria Export Supervision Scheme, (CISS/NESS) accounts running into billions of Naira.

The group specifically alleged a clandestine plan to illegally withdraw the sum of $300 million from the CISS/NESS accounts without showing evidence of commensurate investments done as envisaged by the financial plan drawn by the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) in the concession agreement.

National Coordinator of FONGON, Wole Badmus, who briefed newsmen on Thursday in Abuja, noted that the concession plan was President Buhari’s initiative on customs modernisation to make services at the Port more effective.

Badmus, however, said the way and manner the concession process is being manipulated and highjacked by some vested interests, if not arrested by the President “would hang a scandal on his neck and soils his reputation barely few weeks to the end of his administration”.

He explained that the E-Customs project is a Public-Private-Partnership concession (and), not a direct procurement contract, which was why a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) was created by the consortium.

He listed members of the consortium originally approved by President Buhari to include: Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited, Bergmans Security Consultant and Supplies Limited, and Africa Finance Corporation.

According to him, part of the concession agreement was for the Concessionaire to provide counterpart funding and as well as fund the project for nine months before being granted access to $300 million from the CISS/NESS accounts in the first phase of the project.

Badmus, however, said trouble started following the deaths of the former Chief of Staff to President Abba Kyari and former Director-General of ICRC, Chidi Izuwah, in 2021, giving room for the Controller-General (CG) of Customs, Hammed Ibrahim Ali, Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed in agreement with the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami to substitute the consortium with Trade Modernization Project Ltd (TMPL) as the new Concessionaire.

TMPL, he noted from investigation from Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), is owned by some members of Buhari Support Organisation (BSO), disclosing that TMPL, which was created in 2022 did not participate in the bidding process when it started in 2015.

He added that in the new agreement, the Trade Modernization Project Ltd, would commence draw down of the $300 million from the first day without payment of counterpart fund in violation of the earlier agreement for the Concessionaire to pay the counterpart ahead and fund the project for nine months before access to CISS/NESS fund.

“The President should immediately dissociate himself and direct the Minister of Finance, the Attorney General of the Federation and the Nigeria Customs Service to reverse the illegality committed before Hameed Ali hangs a scandal on his neck and soils his reputation,” he said.

Badmus said: “We recall that earlier, the ICRC in a letter to the Chief of Staff to the President provided a succinct framework and financial plan for the project. In a letter 22 May, 2019, the DG/CEO of the ICRC, wrote:

“The Private partners to the project will raise the required financing for the project through contributions from the Promoters Equity, Loans and Vendor Financing from all Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), including Huawei.

“The proposed Financing Plan for the project shows that the project will be financed through $30million equity and $270m debt financing in Phase 1, while $180m will the Capital Structure for Phase 2, (years 7 to 12). The third and final phase of the project will be financed through retained earnings and excess cash flows.

“We are alarmed that this clause is not reflected on the concession agreement signed by Trade Modernization Project Ltd (TMPL) as document in court reveals.

“The HMOF and AGF simply looked the other way in order to allow TMPL access to the Comprehensive Import Service Scheme/Nigeria Export Supervision Scheme, (CISS/NESS) accounts without showing evidence of commensurate investments done as envisaged by the financial plan drawn by ICRC.

“It was simply replaced with a clause to access the CISS/NESS account from date of commencement.

“The foregoing has exposed the intention of Hameed Ali with the support of the AGF and HMOF to deplete the CISS/NESS accounts with funds running into hundreds of billions of naira.

“We also like to interrogate the role of Dr Abdu Abubakar, a quantity surveyor who is a consultant on ICT to the NCS and a serving director with CBN.

“He is reportedly spearheading and coordinating the illegality to make sure that access to CISS/NESS is granted in clear contravention of presidential directives.

“These are clear landmines being laid in place for the in-coming administration. The desperation to access the CISS/NESS accounts before the departure of the current administration is quite suspicious,” the group said.

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