The atmosphere at Crushed Rock Industries Nigeria Limited, Ishiagu in Ivo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State leaves much to be desired. It is like a ghost town, deserted and desolate.
But it was not like that in the beginning. Crushed Rock used to be a beehive of activities. Apart from the workers, customers, drivers and loaders, food vendors and petty traders of all sorts pitched their tents within the vicinity and flourished. But things have changed. The indigenous quarry firm is forsaken now.
How the cookie crumbled
What desolated the place? How did things come to this ugly pass? It was gathered that Crushed Rock’s business premises and quarry was sealed by the state government.
Justifying the closure, Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information, Mr Uchenna Orji, said the company had not been paying necessary fees to the state, but rather chose to run to the court.
Take this from Orji: “We are waiting for the court to decide. Meanwhile, the host villages have been tolerating their excesses. They have not been doing what they ought to do in accordance with the agreement with the three villages.
“Unfortunately, the company appears not to have the capacity to work there again because they don’t even have management. They are not performing their responsibilities. The community even met and decided to withdraw the consent given to the company. The company is on its own. We are waiting for the judgment of the court.”
For sealing its business premises and quarry, Crushed Rock Industries Nigeria Limited dragged the Ebonyi State government to Federal High Court, Abuja. Thw company said the allegation that it refused to pay taxes, was because what the government demanded was outrageous and unacceptable.
The suit, filed on behalf of the company by Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), has the Federal Ministry of Mines & Steel Development, the Government of Ebonyi State, Attorney General of the state and then Special Assistant to the governor on Solid Minerals, Ministry of Solid Minerals Development as defendants.
The firm is praying the court, among other demands, for an order mandating the Ebonyi State government to jointly pay it N500million as damages for the sealing and shutting down of the quarry site at Ishiagu, in Ivo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State for more than five months now.
The crisis between the quarry company and Ebonyi State started in May 2019, when the government invited the Board of Directors of the plaintiff to a meeting, which did not end well.
It was gathered that the state government had accused the company of inability to protect and improve on the environmental situation of the host community and allegedly ordered it to construct a road into the adjoining major road in the host community.
The firm denied the allegation, saying it had observed the highest environmental standards and also carried out numerous Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. Also, the company told the state government that it cannot conveniently execute a concrete road project as ordered by the state government because such project was beyond its financial capability.
Confirming the company’s claim of high environmental standard, the Federal Ministry of Mines & Steel Development, which is the 1st Defendant in the matter and the regulator of mining activities in Nigeria, revealed in paragraph 11 of its counter affidavit to the originating summons filed on June 18, 2020, that “the plaintiff has been complying with environmental protection and rehabilitation programmes by filing environmental impact assessment report to the 1st defendant as and when due.”
Crushed Rock Industries said in January 2020, it received a notice of the Ebonyi State Government increasing haulage fees and other levies to the tune N18,700,000 monthly.
The demand notice said: “The haulage fee for one month is calculated on basis of 150 tons per hour at N6,000 per 10 tons which gives a total sum of N18,720,000.00 only and N224,600,000.00 for one year.”
The originating summons of the suit against the state government disclosed that the state government invited the company to another meeting, which held at the deputy governor’s office, wherein the company’s representative were told to pay the fee or risk shutting of firm.
Also, at another meeting on February 11, 2020, with Governor Umahi, the company’s representatives got the same message of either paying the fee or the firm shut.
It was gathered that on May 4, 2020, the Ebonyi State House of Assembly invited the company on the same issue after which the company’s representatives were arrested for insisting that the government levy was outrageous.
The government had issued an order for the shutting down of firm through a notice entitled, “Directive to Shut Down” with reference number EB/SSG/M.58/IX/699, dated January 21, 2020 and signed by the secretary to the state government. The order said the action was taken over alleged violation of environmental regulations by the company.
The company’ plea for reopening of its premises was rejected vide a letter of March 20, 2020, wherein acting commissioner for solid mineral said the sealing of the quarry “was as a result of your non-remittance to the government the accruable assessed haulage fees, hereby sabotaging the government’s IGR policy, among other things.”
Crushed Rock Industries, in its suit, said the ill-treatments meted to it were simply because it could not afford the outrageous haulage fees and airport project levies.
In a counterclaim, the defendants said the plaintiff was guilty of flouting the directives of the 3rd to 6th defendants and unable to pay its legitimate dues to the state government.
However, while urging the Federal High Court to discountenance the claims and contentions of the Ebonyi State government in its counter affidavit however, Ozekhome stated that the plaintiff never at any time agreed to the payment of any specific amount with the Ebonyi State Government.
“The government only imposed the sum unilaterally and arbitrarily on the plaintiff as its alleged haulage fees, without taking into cognizance the current earnings of the plaintiff, which could not pay such outrageous fees,” he further submitted.
Meanwhile, indigenes of the host community, under the aegis of ANO communities, have said they are suffering serious economic deprivation owing to government’s sealing of the quarry company. They, therefore, urged the state government to reconsider its stance on the matter.
In their letters dated April 13 and June 13, 2020 respectively, the people of Ishiagu under the aegis of ANO communities, the composite villages, appealed to the governor of Ebonyi State to re-open the quarry of the plaintiff company as, according to them, “myriads of our people depend wholly on the existence/operations of Crushed Rock Industries Nigeria Ltd to earn daily living in one part while others depend on same to effect their continuous education and farming activities.”
Commissioner’s counter- claim
However, on the claim that some of the villagers were protesting the continued closure of the company, Orji, who is from the area, denied this. The information commissioner said: “No villager is protesting at all. We are saying that the company was not even working even before they went to court. So, the people are not working and they are not doing anything for the communities. They are not fulfilling their obligations to the community and state through payment of revenue.”
Who is right, between Ebonyi State government and Crushed Industries Nigeria Limited? The court will decide.