Nigeria: N255m car scandal: Finally, Jonathan moves against Oduah
President Goodluck Jonathan may have finally succumbed to public pressure to move against the embattled Minister of Aviation, Ms Stella Oduah, who is currently being probed over the N255m bulletproof cars bought for her by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
The development came to the fore with the last-minute decision to stop Oduah from signing the much-publicised Bilateral Air Services Agreement with Israel.
The ceremony was given by Presidency officials as the main purpose of her inclusion in the President’s entourage to Israel for this year’s Christian pilgrimage.
In her stead, Minister of State I, Foreign Affairs, Prof. Viola Onwuliri, signed the agreement on behalf of the Federal Government while the Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Zeer Elkin, signed on behalf of the Israeli government.
Presidential spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, after releasing a photograph on Monday on the signing ceremony, issued a statement in which he confirmed that Onwuliri signed on behalf of the government.
Abati did not however explain why Oduah was not allowed to sign the agreement despite the fact that the photograph released by her aides showed that she was present at the event.
The President had come under criticisms for allowing the minister to be on his entourage at a time he set up a three-member panel to investigate the purchase of the cars.
A top Presidency source on the entourage of the President in Israel told our correspondent on the telephone that the decision to stop Oduah from signing the agreement was taken shortly after Jonathan arrived in Israel.
That same reason, he added, informed the decision of the President’s aides to keep the minister away from the President since their arrival in the country.
The Special Adviser on Media to Oduah, Mr. Joe Obi, had on October 22 said in statement that the minister travelled to Israel to sign the pact. Two days after, the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Mr. George Ossi, told the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation that Oduah could not appear before it because she “was leading the Nigerian delegation to Israel to sign the BASA.”
A former Minister of Aviation, Mr.Femi Fani-Kayode, who shed light on the development, said Jonathan must have prevented her from signing the BASA because of the situation she was in.
He said, “BASA is supposed to be signed by the aviation minister or she could delegate it to the permanent secretary in the ministry. The agreement has nothing to do with the Foreign Affairs Ministry. I signed quite a few during my tenure.”
• Oduah, NCAA chiefs risk five years in jail
Before Abati’s statement, the House Committee on Public Procurement had said in Abuja that Oduah, and officials of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority risked five-year jail term if found guilty of breaching procurement regulations in the purchase of the bulletproof cars.
The committee Chairman, Ms Jumoke Okoya-Thomas, who accused the minister of shunning 12 invitations previously extended to her by the committee, explained that the Public Procurement Act clearly spelt out the penalty for any breach.
Section 58 (5) of the Act states, “Any persons, who, while carrying out his duties as an officer of the Bureau or any procuring entity who contravenes any provision of this Act, commits an offence and is liable to a conviction of cumulative punishment of (a) a term of imprisonment of not less than five calendar years without any option of fines and (b) summary dismissal from government services.
Okoya-Thomas dismissed the explanation by the NCAA that the cars were procured through a lease agreement and pointed out that no government official or agency could claim to be ignorant of the provisions of the Act.
According to her, what is important is that since public money was involved, its spending must follow legal procedure.
She added, “Argument about lease purchase does not hold as long as they are going to pay with public funds and to say that the NCAA is within the threshold makes it look like splitting the budget, which is another case on its own under the Procurement law.
“Our committee has the responsibility to oversight BPP and since the core objective of public procurement is to ascertain value for money, we have been having issues with the Ministry of Aviation and agencies under it for sometime now.
“It may interest you to know that we have issued out not less than 12 invitations to the Minister of Aviation, but she has not deemed it fit to respond even for once.
“She has always been giving us one excuse or the other. Apart from the fact that there are issues on the rehabilitation of airports around the country over issues of value for money, which Nigerians are not getting, if she had taken her time to honour our invitation, maybe she would have been able to avoid this issue of threshold.
“What these heads of agencies don’t realise is that when we send out letters like that, it is not to intimidate them but to rub minds and enlighten them on the nitty-gritty of the provisions of procurement laws.
“If she had been honouring our invitations, by now a lot of things would have been known to her and she would not have found herself in this situation.”
• Minister now to appear before Reps Wednesday
Earlier on Monday, the House Committee on Aviation, which is investigating the car scandal, said the minister would no longer appear before it on Tuesday (today) as earlier scheduled.
The committee , headed by Mrs. Nkiruka Onyejeocha, abruptly put off the hearing through a statement on Monday, claiming that it was to give all the stakeholders the opportunity to prepare their documents.
The panel had adjourned hearing on Thursday last week till today.
However, findings indicated that the committee came under pressure to postpone the hearing after Oduah reportedly made “a passionate appeal” to be allowed to appear on Wednesday.
She was said to have explained that she was still in Israel where she had gone to sign the BASA with Israel.
Sources close to the committee confided in The PUNCH that a representative of the embattled minister “begged for her to be allowed to appear on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.”
One of the sources added, “What we hear is that she made appeals.
“She is still in Israel and it is not clear what time the agreement will be signed today (Monday) for her to fly down to Nigeria on Tuesday to attend the hearing.
“Since her appearance is the main issue left before the committee, the members also considered that it was wise to give her till Wednesday to appear.”
The new twist is different from the tough stance the committee took on Thursday when Onyejeocha ruled that “the minister must appear unfailingly on Tuesday; wether she is in Nigeria or not.”
The committee, through its Clerk, Mr. Abubakar Chana, said the postponement was to give all stakeholders the opportunity to put their documents in order and make detailed presentations.
Part of the statement reads, “This is to notify all stakeholders and the general public that the Public Hearing of the House Committee on Aviation on the purchase of two BMW cars by the NCAA earlier slated for Tuesday, October 29, 2013 has been postponed to Wednesday, October 30, 2013.
“This is to allow ample time for the invited agencies to put their documents together…”
The committee wrote a separate letter to Oduah on Monday, which confirmed that the postponement of the hearing was to give her some grace.
The letter by Chana indicated that the committee received a letter from the minister on Monday explaining why she was unable to attend the hearing.
The committee complained that her non-appearance was delaying the investigation, adding that it was forced to reschedule the hearing till Wednesday.
It warned that failure to attend tomorrow’ session would leave the committee with no option but “to enforce the appropriate laws and apply necessary sanctions.”
The letter reads in part, “I am further directed to inform you that your inability to appear before the committee has become a serious constraint to the committee, as the House of Representatives has mandated the committee to submit its report within one week.
“More so, the committee has been utterly gracious for postponing the hearing to Wednesday, October 30, 2013.
“It is the directive of the House that you should appear on the rescheduled date.”
• We didn’t appropriate funds for controversial cars
Also in Abuja, the Senate said it did not appropriate funds to the NCAA for the purchace of bulletproof vehicles for Oduah.
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Aviation, Senator Hope Uzodima, made the clarification at a public hearing where the managements of the NCAA and the National Aviation Management Authority defended their roles in the Associated Airlines plane crash in Lagos on October 3.
Uzodima noted that findings by the committee indicated that the NCAA appeared to have lost its freedom to the Ministry of Aviation.
He also expressed surprise when the NCAA Director-General, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, could not justify the purchase of the bulletproof cars on the grounds that the transaction was concluded before he assumed office.
• Quit, S’East, S’South professionals tell minister
Earlier on Monday, the South-East and South-South Professionals Forum had called on Oduah to step aside in the face of mounting protests over her role in the purchase of the bulletproof cars.
It expressed disappointment over the scandal rocking the Aviation industry which is under Oduah’s watch.
The forum’s President , Emeka Ugwu-Oju, spoke at a stakeholders’ meeting organised to marshal their position on the national dialogue in Benin, Edo State.
Ugwu-Oju said, “We are not saying she is guilty but for what has happened in the ministry under her watch, it is clear the ministry could afford such money for some frivolous purposes. It is a wrong thing to do and somebody has to take responsibility.
“We are of the view that the current minister of aviation should go. She is going not because she is found culpable but we are looking at the overall picture of values.
“The honourable thing for her to do is to step aside and go.”
• NDF says probe panel a ruse
In Minna, Niger State, a pro-democracy group, the National Democratic Forum, said the committee set up by Jonathan to probe the scandal lacked the courage to carry out the assignment.
The group described the committee as a ploy to shield and provide a safe landing for the Aviation minister.
Its position was contained in a statement by its National Co-ordinator, Mr. Jonathan Vatsa, and Secretary, Eze Kalu.
In the statement issued after its 47th Congress in Minna, the group said it believed that the committee would not do a thorough investigation because of fear of ridiculing the Executive arm of government.
The forum, which wants an independent panel to probe the purchase of the cars, advised that the minister and the Principal Officers of the NCAA be suspended immediately.
The statement added, “ We doubt if the Presidency has the courage to really probe Oduah.
“It is on record that the so-much touted fight against corruption by this administration is a ruse. Its penchant to cover the ‘sins’ of some sacred cows is legendary. If this administration could pardon Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, and sweep the House of Representatives bribery scam under the carpet, one should not expect anything positive from the latest panel.