The Oduahgate Scandal

Minister of Aviation and one of the trusted and close allies of President Goodluck Jonathan, Stella Oduah, is embroiled in an alleged corruption scandal involving over N225 million spent for the purchase of two BMW armoured vehicles

One of the BMW 760 armoured cars

One of the BMW 760 armoured cars

These are clearly not the best of times for Stella Oduah, Nigeria’s aviation minister and one of the kitchen cabinet members of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Just smarting from the criticisms that trailed her ministry’s handling of the fallout of the various air crashes in which several Nigerians have lost their lives; Oduah is presently embroiled in allegations bothering on corruption and profl igacy. She is being alleged to have forced Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, (NCAA), one of the parastatals under her ministry to purchase two BMW armoured vehicles worth over the N225 million for her personal use.

An online news medium, SaharaReporters, had reported on Tuesday last week that the armoured vehicles were delivered to the minister in August.

The medium reported that documents in its possession showed that the transaction for the purchase of the two BMW cars started in June, but the request for the delivery and payment for them was fast-tracked between August 13 and 15, 2013. The transaction involved the NCAA, First Bank of Nigeria, and Coscharis Motors Limited and according to the report, the two black BMW 760 Li HSS vehicles with chassis numbers WBAHP41050DW68032 and WBAHP41010DW68044, were reportedly delivered to the NCAA on August 13, 2013. They were received by two store managers, F. Onoabhagbe and Y. A. Amzat, who is also the agency’s head of transport.”

When the lid was fi rst blown off the alleged purchases, the ministry and offi cials of the NCAA attempted to discountenance the report but were forced to recant later when it dawned on them that all the facts relating to the transaction had been leaked to the press.

In what a source admitted to be a volte face, Special Assistant to the Minister on media, Joe Obi, later admitted that the cars in question were purchased for her principal but stressed that the security vehicles were procured for the “use of the offi ce of the honorable minister in response to the clear and imminent threat to her personal security and life following the bold steps she took to reposition the sector.”’

According to Obi, when Oduah 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 while 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.

Obi however added that the vehicles were not “personal vehicles and were not procured in the name of the honorable minister; they are utility vehicles and are for the offi ce of the minister, and if she leaves the offi ce, she will not be taking the vehicles along with her.”

Interestingly, coming on the heels of what is being perceived as offi cial profl igacy is the report that most of the agencies under Oduah’s ministry have virtually been living from hands to mouth and in most cases, unable to buy critical equipment and send its staff for important training.

The NCAA particularly has been under fi re lately over a series of mishaps and near crashes involving planes being operated by domestic airlines that were certifi ed fi t for fl ight operations by its personnels. There have also been rumors that the NCAA does not have enough funds to upgrade its equipment, send its employees for critical training and hire enough qualifi ed hands, while questions are also being raised by industry watchers on the ability of the cash-strapped agency to procure such expensive vehicles.

Though the NCAA’s Director- General, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, had consistently denied the claims of being cash-strapped, highly reliable industry sources told Business Courage at the weekend that some of the agency’s personnel currently training in Manchester, United Kingdom, embarked on the training with their own funds. Besides, Akinkuotu himself is said to have been spending his personal funds for most of the travels.

Interestingly, aviation sources say the claim that the agencies under the ministry are indeed broke may be true after all.

A source close to the Ministry of Aviation told our correspondent that the controversial armoured vehicles may have been bought on credit. According to the source who preferred anonymity, First Bank of Nigeria Plc stood as a guarantor for the agency with Coscharis Motors Limited.

Apart from the two armoured vehicles, NCAA and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, about four months ago purchased about 800 different brands of vehicles, including Hilux Pick- Up for their top personnel and even the minister.

It was gathered that FAAN, in the fi rst phase, procured over 250 vehicles for managers ranging from assistant general managers, deputy general managers, general managers and directors. 2013 Toyota Corolla cars were purchased for assistant general managers, deputy general managers and general managers while Land Cruiser Prado were purchased for directors in the agency.

In the second phase, same brands of vehicles in their hundreds were also purchased by FAAN for its personnel, just as NCAA also procured same brands of vehicles for its staff on credit, believed to have been fi nanced by First Bank.

Interestingly, the controversial bulletproof vehicles scandal has now turned the heat on Oduah, whose supervisory role in the ministry and the spate of air mishaps have continued to attract stringent criticisms.

Leader of the Anti-Corruption Network, ACN, Dino Melaye, said his organisation had conducted investigation into the matter and found out that there was no threat to the minister’s life as claimed by his media aide.

Melaye also said the vehicles could have been purchased for far less the amount they were purportedly procured. “There are two questions to ask – was the N225 million appropriated by the National Assembly? Does the purchase of the vehicles not negate the monetisation policy, which says that only the President, Vice president, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, their deputies and a few other public offi cials should have offi cial cars? If she does not fall into this category, why did they purchase the vehicles for her?

“They claim there was a threat to her life. There was no threat to Stella Oduah’s life. Even if there was a threat, we have done our investigation and we discovered that those vehicles cost less than N100 million.

“You are spending N225 million at a time you claim there is no money for ASUU, at a time you cannot pay statutory allocations to states. Jonathan administration is the most corrupt administration in Nigeria,” he said.

Ezenwa Nwagwu, Convener of Say No Campaign, Nigeria, SNCN, asked the antigraft agencies to wade into the scandal immediately, insisting that the NCAA offi cer(s), who authorised the release of the money, should be penalized.

“We have lost about 200 citizens to sheer incompetence and add salt to injury, we are being told that a cashstrapped agency under her had to cough out that amount of money to provide armoured vehicles. In saner climes, she would have resigned. But here we are treated to half truths and excuses.

“What is important now is that an independent inquiry should be set up to look into the happenings in the aviation sector. We cannot be deceived by the so-called reforms. When you renovate 11 airports at the same time, the implication is that it is a honey-pot, after the petroleum sector.

“We must as a matter of urgency beam our searchlight on happenings in the sector. It is not enough to go round media houses. What Nigerian want now is an independent inquiry into the activities in the sector.

Nwagwu lamented that the Jonathan’s administration kept treating corruption with kid gloves, especially by allegedly shielding Oduah and the Petroleum Resources Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke.

“These are two ministers that can never do wrong in this government,” he said.

Auwal Musa Rasfanjani, Executive Director, Centre for Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, expressed worry over the fl agrant abuse of public offi ce, corruption, impunity and constant disregard of public procurement law by some ministers and other public offi cers under the supervision of President Jonathan.

“We are particularly concerned over the Minister of Aviation who runs the Ministry of Aviation like a personal and private entity.

“Many Nigerians express worries for the various allegations of corrupt practices and outright looting in the name of renovating our airports and the recent scandal of purchasing bullet proof cars without due process and also the allegation of refusal of landing permit to some international airlines who applied but were denied the permit because they did not give bribe to her.

“It is also on record that the National Assembly had conducted a public hearing which found her guilty but yet no sanction was taken against her due to her connection to the President.

“If buying the bullet proof cars is for her own security, then we don’t understand why she doesn’t pay more attention to the safety of millions of Nigerian passengers travelling within the country every year,” he said.

Rasfanjani demanded outright probe of the minister, saying this becomes necessary “in order to bring sanity, transparency, accountability, professionalism, and safety to our aviation industry which is now being characterized by corruption and impunity under the auspices of the Minister of Aviation.”

This, he said, will serve as a deterrent to other ministers and public offi cers who abuse the trust of their offi ce.

The Airline Operators of Nigeria, AON, through its Assistant General Secretary, Muhammed Tukur, described the purchase of the bulletproof cars as unfortunate, saying it showed the high level of corruption in Nigeria.

“This shows how bad things have gone in this country; that the minister has admitted to receiving the cars from the NCAA reveals that they do not care for the people of this country.

“We can see that all these people and parastatals use their offi ces to siphon funds for anything they want. We think there is no other option but for her (Oduah) to resign her appointment as the aviation minister.

“Also, we call on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to thoroughly investigate the issue, because, some of us had foresight of these things, and we know that there are more coming up soon.”

The Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, ATSSSAN, said the ‘necessary government agencies’ should not hesitate to prosecute anyone found to have played a role in the purchase of the bulletproof cars.

“We have government agencies that can look into such issues as this such as the EFCC. So, these agencies should look into the matter, and if they fi nd out that it is indeed true, they should take the appropriate action,” according to its national President, Ben Okewu.

Debo Adeniran, Executive Chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, CACOL, noted that Oduah, in order to satisfy her ostentatious lifestyle, had by accepting the cars compromised the safety of Nigerians.

“When the minister asked NCAA to buy her bulletproof cars worth $1.6m because of alleged threats to her life, where did she expect them to get the money?

“She expected them to compromise standard of course. It is now clear that the frequent air accidents are products of corruption and incompetence in our aviation sector.”

It would be recalled that several of the air crashes that have occurred in recent times have been partly attributed to human error, occasioned by incompetence and lack of adequate technical know-how on the part of the aviation offi cials.

In June 2012, a Dana Air crashed in Lagos killing 163 people while the Associated Airlines crash of October 3, 2013, also in Lagos, claimed 15 lives.

A day after the Associated Airlines’ crash, a Kabo Airlines’ Boeing 747-400 plane carrying 512 pilgrims made an emergency landing at the Sokoto airport with defl ated tires and damaged the airport’s Instrument Landing System.

An IRS Airlines Fokker 100 plane carrying 99 passengers also made an emergency landing at the Kaduna airport last Sunday, after developing hydraulic problems mid-air.

Four days after the tragic crash involving Associated Airlines’ Embraer 120 plane, Oduah had described air accidents as God’s will that were inevitable.” She said notwithstanding this reality, the Federal Government would continue to ensure that there were no accidents.

Interestingly, earlier before the bulletproof car scandal blew open, a body that calls itself the Patriots in a petition signed by one Rose Ibekaku had called for the immediate sack of the minister after accusing her of corruption, incompetence and negligence of duties.

Ibekaku in the letter to the Presidency accused Oduah of collecting N158 monthly from the accounts of aviation agencies like the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, NCAA, FAAN and other agencies under her.

Ibekaku, in the petition ,alleged that the deductions had successfully crippled the operations of the agencies concerned to the extent that paying staff entitlements has recently become a herculean task. Oduah was also alleged to have a stake in Price Waters Coopers, PWC, which audited various aspects of four agencies at N250m each.

However, the Secretary General of the National Union of Air Transport Employees, NUATE, Comrade Abdulkareem Motajo, said that what is happening in the sector now is not novel to the unions.

According to him, NUATE had severally in the past written petitions to the Presidency, National Assembly and other agencies without any action taken by the government.

He insisted that Oduah should not be removed, but should be probed by the security agencies in the country, alleging that the industry has been ran aground by the minister. “What is happening is part of what we have been saying in recent time. What is going on today is unprecedented. A lot of things are happening.

“Somebody was talking about the diversion of N19.5bn intervention fund and somehow today, the security agencies are looking into that and the money has been traced to somewhere.

“My union has written a petition to the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Aviation over some of the ills happening in the sector till date and not even an acknowledgement was given and if this thing continues like this, you can be rest assured that the sector is not safe and the industry is going to be looted continuously like this.

“As we speak, none of the six parastatals has been able to send its staff for training and others. They owe months of such allowances and leave allowances have not been paid to staff. They are just going from hand to mouth to pay salaries. The minister is taking over N150m per month from each of the Chief Executive Offi cers and on what grounds we don’t understand,” he said.

Adeniran however believes that “the chicken has now come home to roost. It is no longer surprising that the Minister could ascribe her incompetence to God.

“When she asked the NCAA to get her bulletproof cars worth $1.6m (N255m) because of threats to her life, where did she expect them to get the money? She expected them to compromise standard of course! “It is now clear that the frequent air accidents are products of corruption and incompetence in our aviation sector.

“This is the NCAA that does not have enough funds to upgrade its equipment, send its employees for critical training and hire enough qualifi ed hands.

“The truth remains that if NCAA is doing a proper job and not collecting bribes to satisfy the ostentatious lifestyle of Stella Oduah, they would have been able to avert some of these accidents. With proper safety regulations in place, the frequency of air crashes can be drastically reduced,” he said.

For now, no one is sure how the current dust will settle. Will it consume Oduah or will she come out unscathed? Time will tell.

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