Irked by the profligacy of Stella Oduah, minister of aviation, Nigerians call for her removal for allegedly spending N255 million on two bullet-proof cars, which ought to have cost about N80 million. As the controversy continues to gain intensity, the presidency and National Assembly have set up panels to probe the transaction
| By Olu Ojewale | Nov. 4, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
HER detractors call her arrogant and dictatorial. Her supporters say she is courageous, innovative and hard working. But in recent times, Stella Oduah, minister of aviation, has been in the eyes of the storm and seems to have provided her enemies the gun and ammunitions to shoot her down.
Just as the outrage caused by the recent air crash was petering out, Oduah’s obvious past mistake has come to haunt her as media report links her with the purchase of two bulletproof BMW cars came to light, Thursday, October 17. The public was justifiably outraged when Joe Obi, media aide of the minister, in admitting the purchase of the cars said they were meant to protect her from the bullets of detractors and would be assassins.
The two BMW cars bought by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, have allegedly cost the nation N255 million or $1.6 million and in a country where most people live on less than a dollar per day. Since the ignoble purchase became public, Oduah has been unable to protect herself from public verbal and media attacks on her person. Many Nigerians have called for her sack from office, while others have suggested to her to resign. At the time of filing this report, none of the options has been taken by either President Goodluck Jonathan who appointed her into office or the lady at the centre of the issue.
But in an “Executive Summary on the Procurement of NCAA Operational Vehicles,” letter sent to President Jonathan, dated October 21, 2013, Oduah, explained the process of acquisition of the vehicles. The minister insisted that the two BMW bought by the NCAA had gone through due process, as tenders were called for and banks involved in the financing. She said the agency had requested for 56 operational vehicles through lease financing. “This option was proposed to the ministry to enable the NCAA make 36 monthly payments based on receipt from Internally generated revenue, IGR. The ministry, therefore, granted due approval,” she said in the letter.
Based on the ministry’s approval, the NCAA was said to have invited expression of interests from all banks in Nigeria for the financing of the vehicles. Of the three banks namely First Bank Plc; Union Bank Plc; and Stanbic IBTC whose bids were most responsible, First Bank eventually got the nod to facilitate the procurement in June this year. She said between June 20 and 25, invoices were received from various accredited motor vehicle dealers and that only Coscharis Motors Limited quoted for BMW security vehicles. On June 28, the NCAA Parastatal Tenders Board approved the selection of First Bank for the lease financing as well as Metropolitan Motor Vehicles and Coscharis for the supply of the vehicles. “All necessary approvals were sought and obtained,” the minister said. According to Oduah, between July 8 and August 12, a number of meetings were held with the First Bank, which resulted in signing of contract agreement and necessary documentation. However, the executive summary did not say how many vehicles were eventually purchased and how much was paid for them.
In any case, on Wednesday, October 23, Jonathan set up a three-member committee to investigate the allegation against the minister. Isa Bello, a former head of service of the federation, is the chairman of the committee which has Sambo Dasuki, a retired colonel and the national security adviser, and Dick Iruenebere, a retired air-vice marshal, as members. According to Reuben Abati, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, the committee which has two weeks to submit its report, would among other things, ascertain whether the procurement of the vehicles followed due process and the purpose of procurement. “This three-man panel is also to find out the purpose to which the vehicles were procured and then to inquire into any other incidental matter. President Jonathan will like to assure the general public that nobody, no matter how highly placed, will be shielded or exempted from this inquiry that he has directed and that appropriate action will be taken against any person or persons who may be found guilty of misconduct or misappropriation of public funds either in this respect or in any other respect,” Abati said.
Abati said that having received information on the scandal, the president had taken initial steps by asking the embattled Oduah for explanation.
That, in any way, has not stopped interested parties from continuing in the battle of wits. Apparently outraged by the minister’s alleged profligacy, members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, October 22, ordered an investigation into the matter. The House, in a resolution, gave its committee on aviation one week to conduct a probe into the purchase and report to it. Sampson Osagie, minority whip and member of the All Progressives Congress, APC, from Edo State, sponsored the motion that led to the adoption of the resolution. Leading the debate at the session presided over by Aminu Tambuwal, speaker of the House, Osagie claimed that the action of the minister and the NCAA had raised doubts over the “sincerity of the federal government to fight corruption.” He noted that the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission spelt out the entitlements of all public officers, which Oduah was already enjoying as a minister.
Osagie argued that the rest of the world would laugh at Nigeria as a country whose universities had been shut down for three months owing to funding issues and yet its minister could afford the luxury of two BMW bulletproof cars worth N255m. Osagie said given “the poverty and unemployment ravaging our dear nation and its people, it will be absurd, unthinkable and, indeed, unpatriotic for an agency of government to connive with its political head to incur such an expenditure simply for the comfort and safety of one public officer. The furore generated by the said matter has left tongues wagging as the sincerity and objectivity of this administration’s stand on the fight against corruption as again re-emphasised by Mr. President’s nationwide broadcast on October 1, 2013.”
Supporting Osagie’s motion, Hassan Saleh, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, from Benue State, recalled that the NCAA boss had already admitted purchasing the cars. “There is no doubt that the cars were bought. The director-general of the NCAA confirmed it. The question now is whether the cars are the priority of this country and the NCAA or not. This is the same agency that is unable to pay some of its workers basic allowances,” Saleh said.
While the majority of members agreed that the matter called for investigation, Matthew Omegara, a member of the committee on aviation, informed the House that the committee sighted the proposal to buy the cars in the 2013 budget of the NCAA, but rejected it. “I can confirm that we deleted this issue of cars from the budget of the NCAA. It was clearly deleted from the agency’s budget,” Omegara said. He, therefore, expressed shock that the agency still went ahead to indulge in such an extra-budgetary expenditure without the consent of the National Assembly.
Invariably, the committee on aviation got the mandate of the House to find out whether it was correct that the purchase was made and whether the purchase was authorised by any appropriation law and if the NCAA had been complying with Fiscal Responsibilities Act on the remittance of its internally generated revenue; whether the minister was entitled to such vehicle under any law in Nigeria; whether the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and all anti-corruption agencies are not bound to investigate and prosecute all those involved if no appropriation law approved the purchase; whether (even if any appropriation law approved it) and whether the president and commander-in-chief could continue to retain the services of the minister and all those involved in the matter.
In asking the committee to go ahead with the investigation, Tambuwal called for caution, advising his colleagues not to rush into conclusions until the investigation had been conducted. “This is an investigation; we have to be careful to avoid being judgmental. Let the committee go ahead and conduct the investigation,” the speaker said. In the Senate, Hope Uzodinma, chairman, committee on aviation, said that Oduah and heads of agencies under her supervision did not appear before the Senate on Tuesday, as being speculated because the committee had yet to invite her.
Uzodinma told journalists after the Tuesday’s plenary, that the Senate had just approved its last sitting on October 8, and voted to summon Oduah over the crisis in the aviation industry. He said: “With the approval of the votes and proceedings of the last Senate session today (Tuesday), containing the summoning of the minister, our committee will now meet within this week to fix the exact date, to invite the minister and other relevant aviation chiefs for questioning on the troubled sector.”
But before the probe, Okechukwu Iloh, a trader, would want the National Assembly members to be true to themselves if they were not also corrupt. “A plot of land in Maitama area of Abuja costs over N400 million and many of these high-profile Nigerians own their different choice properties there. What then is the big deal for a ministry buying two cars worth N255 million for itself while other personal high-profile citizens buy theirs privately at all cost? We all know that the car is not for Stella Oduah, the aviation minister, but it’s for the ministry. Any Nigerian who is saying that she should be sacked is ignorant because the cars were not registered in her name,” Iloh told Realnews.
But a lot of Nigerians who have been reacting to the story have had nothing but condemnation for the minister. Since the matter was blown over, the embattled minister has kept mute and did not even show up at the weekly Federal Executive Council, FEC, meeting held at the council chambers of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, on Wednesday, October 23. But that has not doused calls for her sack.
On its part, the law firm of Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and a human rights activist, petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, urging it to investigate the minister for fraud and extortion. In the petition signed by Samuel Ogala, and made available to the media, the law firm described Oduah’s case as an outrageous prodigal action.
The petition said in part: “Apart from the fact that the said threat to the life of the minister was never reported to the police, the extortion of the sum of N255m from the NCAA, a parastatal under the ministry of aviation, is fraudulent in every material particular. Specifically, the said sum of N255m was not appropriated by the National Assembly while the officials of the NCAA who authorised the expenditure of the sum of N255m exceeded their approval limit.” The firm also threatened to take the EFCC to court to compel it to investigate the matter.
In a letter to the NCAA, Falana himself on Monday, October 21, asked Fola Akinkuotu, director general of the NCAA, to, within seven days, release information on the purchase of the two BMW bulletproof cars bought for the minister. The lawyer, who cited the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, said the NCAA boss should supply copies of “all the documents relating to the purchase of the cars, including budgetary approval and due process for the entire transaction.”
The letter, signed on his behalf by Adedotun Isola-Osobu, a lawyer in his chamber, and dated October 21, 2013, said: “In your press conference in Abuja held on Friday, October 18, 2013, you did admit that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority actually bought the controversial armoured cars and that ‘it is customary to convey the minister and visiting dignitaries in security vehicles whenever they are in Nigeria’. In the light of your claim at the said press conference, we are compelled to request you to make available to us certified true copies of the documents relating to the purchase of the cars, including budgetary approval and due process for the entire transaction.
“Since you claimed that it is customary to purchase such cars for aviation minister and visiting foreign dignitaries, you are also requested to provide the records of previous purchase of armoured cars by the aviation ministry or the NCAA. Take notice that you are mandatorily required to supply the requested information within seven days of the receipt of this letter by virtue of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.”
Dino Melaye, leader of the Anti-corruption Network, ACN, and members of his group on Thursday, October 24, stormed the headquarters of the federal ministry of aviation in Abuja, to demand the sack of Oduah. Melaye, a former House of Representatives member, had on Wednesday, promised to embark on the action and demanded that the minister should refund the N255m used in purchasing two armoured BMW cars. “We are going to be mobilising Nigerians to ask for her sack and to also ask that the money be refunded to the government coffers.” He added that the ACN had petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, urging the anti-corruption agency to probe the minister.
But a good number of Nigerians appear to be fed up with the minister, especially because her action seemed to suggest that the federal government is not serious about fighting corruption and the insensitivity of spending such a colossal sum of money in buying two cars at such an outrageous price. Ibuchukwu Ezike, executive director of the Civil Liberties Organisation, said the minister’s action had clearly shown that the federal government was not ready to fight corruption. Ezike demanded that Oduah be sacked and prosecuted. “If this happened in climes where laws are obeyed; where the credibility of processes is respected, such public officer is sacked and prosecuted. We believe that what has happened is enough reason for the minister, not only to be removed, but to be prosecuted,” the CLO boss said.
Speaking in a similar vein, Joe Okei-Odumakin, president of Campaign for Democracy, CD, asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to step into the matter to unravel how the bulletproof cars were bought. And to discourage such impunity in future, Okei-Odumakin said the minister should be sacked, prosecuted and punished. “We have been following the developments in the aviation sector, but with this colossal waste of public funds and the arrogance with which the explanation was given, we ask that Oduah should step aside. We want to use this opportunity to call on the EFCC to thoroughly investigate the scam and ensure that all those who are involved in purchasing the vehicles and the minister herself are prosecuted.”
Waheed Odusile an editor, in his column on Tuesday, October 22, wrote in part: “If truly she had been receiving threats from God-knows-who over whatever she has been doing as aviation minister, she ought to have gone to her boss and friend President Goodluck Jonathan to seek extra protection if she wasn’t satisfied with the security arrangements around her. It is not the business of the NCAA to buy those cars for her, if truly she needs them, but that of her employers, the federal government of Nigeria. If her ministry couldn’t afford them then the presidency should have paid if it was convinced that her life was in danger. To have burdened the NCAA with the cost of the armoured limos was an attempt to cripple the agency and endanger the flying public.
“In the face of inadequate human capacity to discharge the onerous tasks of aircraft inspection and certification, 1.6 million USD in the purse of the NCAA could have done wonders in the training of its personnel. Because of the paucity of fund, I understand statutory trainings abroad, in most cases, for NCAA personnel are no longer being carried out as and when due. They are now staggered with a huge backlog.
“The annoying thing about this $1.6 m limousine purchase for the minister was that NCAA had to borrow the money from a local bank by mortgaging it’s future earnings. So, the money the agency has not earned, it has spent, to provide comfort and security for Madam Minister. Whoever approved that purchase has misappropriated or is it misapplied public funds and must be punished. Mind you, this is not the first time the NCAA and the other parastatals under the Ministry of Aviation were being forced to do the biddings of Madam Minister.”
Dele Ore, a captain and president, Aviation Roundtable, AV, said that the prices quoted for the armoured vehicles were too ridiculous to contemplate. “By the information that I have at my disposal, I can categorically say that a single armoured vehicle cannot be more expensive than N40 million; the amount of N255 million which was quoted as the price of the two vehicles was definitely outrageous. Well, in my opinion, it is fraud, the whole thing is just fraudulent, and it is rather unfortunate.” Speaking in the same vein, Muhammed Tukur, assistant general secretary, Airline Operators of Nigeria, also said the N255million quoted for the procurement of the vehicles was exorbitant. “That price that they have stated cannot be right; they have inflated the price. It is obvious that there is something wrong somewhere, and we hope the relevant agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission will step into the matter and do a thorough investigation,” Tukur said.
But the minister is not without any support. Ogu Nwadike, a public affairs analyst, told Realnews that Oduah should not be totally blamed for what has happened. “So, if Odauh resigns tomorrow as minister, everything being equal, those vehicles will still be packed in the ministry of aviation. They can’t be taken away. This is an insecurity regime and anybody coming on board is a target. I didn’t see anything wrong in spending public funds to fortify our leaders. It is not easy to be a public figure now; many of them are in danger, they don’t sleep in the same room more than two days. They always move from one place to the other like monkeys avoiding a sudden death in order to keep the country moving forward. There is no doubt that the minister has made many enemies for herself. For instance, Femi Fani-Kayode, former aviation minister, hit her, she hit him back and people who were in the ministry when Fani-Kayode was there started coming up with issues. I tell people when you are criticising don’t overdo it because one day things might bring you into the same position and people will now begin to expect you to put in place those things you have been criticising before you got into the place,” Nwadike said. He argued that it would be hypocrisy to crucify Oduah for owning bulletproof cars because so many people in government also go about in bullet proof cars.
Akinkuotu does not see any big deal in the purchase of the bulletproof cars either. At a press conference in Abuja, on Friday, October 18, he tried to justify the cost when he said three factors should be considered for the cost of the price. “First, each car that you buy nowadays has a customised aspect to it and this may impact on the price. The other factor is what I call the environmental situation. Yesterday, a gentleman from Britain met me and said the fares in this country on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were high. And he wondered why the situation had continued, but he said it was because Nigerians could afford it.
“So the other aspect in this particular context is what I will call the monopolistic situation on these cars. Coscharis, as far as I understand, is about the only guy that sells BMW cars of this nature in Nigeria. If he is the only one selling, then you must buy from him if you want the car and he can name the price. So those are factors that may have resulted. But mind you, I am not holding brief on this. I do not know how much the cars cost and I cannot relate or answer the question on the actual cost of these cars. But were they budgeted for? Yes.”
He said aviation was a global industry and the NCAA, the regulator of the organ in the aviation sector in Nigeria, very often played host to dignitaries from international civil aviation bodies and needed such security vehicles to convey the ministers and foreign dignitaries whenever they were in Nigeria. He said the cars were not for the minister per se. That, indeed, was in contradiction to what Joe Obi, media aide of the minister, said when he was confronted with the fact about the purchase of the cars. Obi said: “When she came on board as the minister, she inherited a lot of baggage in terms of the concession and lease agreements in the sector, which were clearly not in the interest of the government and people of Nigeria. And so, she took bold steps and some of these agreements were reviewed and some were terminated, and these moves disturbed some entrenched interests in the sector, and within this period, she began to receive some imminent threats to her life; therefore, the need for the vehicles.”
Akinkuotu also caused an outrage by his statement which suggested that he was more interested in how the transaction leaked than the exorbitant cost of the cars. Speaking at a press conference in Abuja on Friday, October 18, Akinkuotu said: “I am not saying that this particular information should not be put in the public domain. But how it was obtained is the concern. If somebody breaks into an office and makes copies of official documents, then the break-in has become criminal. So, we are in the process of trying to find the source of this leakage and I am very concerned about it. Because this information may look trivial but there are other information that we have that are confidential and it is only fair for us to respect the confidentiality of information. I am not saying that they broke into our office, but they obtained the information illegally.”
The visibly terrified Akinkuotu said he was “shell-shocked that government information and particularly information from the civil aviation authority has gotten into public purview in an illegal manner. It is criminal! However, what has been done has been done, but I think when such information is gotten, you should have come to the agency to ask. We are not shy to take your questions.”
In an apparent damage control move, Yakubu Dati, general manger, corporate communications, Federal Airport Authority, FAAN, and his colleagues in the aviation sector, have chosen to keep mum on the issue. All efforts to get some reactions from them failed as they either refused to pick their calls or in some cases, reply emails with information of the achievements of the embattled minister. For instance, a statement which emanated from the office of Dati, last Tuesday, in reply to Realnews inquiry, said that it had discovered the plot of the All Progressives Congress, APC, using Melaye to rubbish the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. According to the statement, the phantom linkage of Oduah to the purchase of official vehicles by the NCAA “has assumed a comical dimension as every car, bus and van in all the aviation agencies now allegedly belong to the honourable minister of aviation.” The unsigned statement argued that the documents being mentioned in respect of the vehicles, did not mention the name of the minister of aviation as the owner. Besides, it claimed that the NCAA had already come out to clarify the issue that it conducted the transaction.
The statement said in part: “Indeed, Nigerians are mischievously sold the lie that the cars have been paid for – meanwhile they were purchased on higher purchase and payments are yet to even commence. Nigerians must brace up for more misinformation on this matter as very soon, pictures of trains and ships will soon be published as belonging to the honourable minister of aviation.” The statement asked Nigerians to note that the main target of the campaign was President Jonathan “who must be stopped from running for re-election in 2015, in line with the dictates of the G7, who have demanded that Okonjo Iweala, Alison Madueke, and Princess Oduah must go as a condition for a truce (?).”
It said the same persons behind the current campaign had successfully removed Bart Nnaji, former minister of power, just when his reforms were turning around the power sector. Recently, it argued further, a group led by Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State, similarly succeeded in the campaign of calumny against Festus Odimegwu, who until recently, was the chairman of the Nigerian Population Commission, NPC. The statement claimed that the group had now turned its attention on Oduah, whom it called, another rising star of the Jonathan administration, and should not be allowed to succeed.
In a similar campaign, Dati sent an article written by Ore Kingsley, a captain and supporter of Oduah, in which he enumerated some of the actions that were probably responsible for the gang up against the minister. Kingsley said the purchase of the two cars could be condemned but the main reason the minister has been having problem for bravery because she dismantled the status quo and demanded that things be done in accordance to the rules and regulations. He cited three important contracts Oduah revoked since she became minister and said this had not gone down well with those concerned. “Oduah must have realised by now that many people who talk about development in the aviation industry are really not interested in development; they are interested in their pockets. And as she had closed all the doors against them to make money from “their industry” what does she want them to do? Clap for her for improving the airports?” he said.
Trouble started for Oduah when an online report alleged on Tuesday, October 15, that the minister had bought armoured vehicles for $1.6 million or N255 million and that the cars were delivered to her in August. It reported that documents in its possession showed that the transaction for the purchase of the two BMW cars started in June, but that the request for the delivery and payment for them was fast-tracked between August 13 and 15, this year.
Ahmed Gulak, special adviser to the president on political matters, told Nigerians that Jonathan would not take a decision on the fate of the embattled minister based on media reports. But assured the nation that the president would not be partial in his decision either. Gulak said, “I can assure you that President Jonathan will not shield the minister or any government official for that matter if he receives information that is true….The President is on top of the situation. He will direct appropriate authorities to investigate the matter. Anybody found wanting in terms of corruption or impunity, President Jonathan will not hesitate to show such person the way out of his government. The most important thing is that such decision must be based on facts as provided by appropriate government agencies that will investigate, not based on media reports.”
Indeed, let us hope that justice would be done in this matter by the president so that nobody will be accused of witch-hunting or trying to bury the truth.
Reported by Anayo Ezugwu and Chinwe Okafor