•Minister’s ties with presidency impedes EFCC investigation
By Onwuka Nzeshi, Reuben Buhari and Dele Ogbodo and Chinedu Eze
The House of Representatives Tuesday ordered an investigation into the controversial purchase of two armoured BMW 760 Li cars by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for the Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah.
It gave the order after debating the issue following a motion moved by the Minority Whip, Hon. Samson Osagie.
The procurement of the cars for the use of the minister has generated an outcry in the last one week, particularly in the face of conflicting reports on its actual cost and the motives for the purchase.
There has been a sustained campaign since the story broke for the minister to resign her position for encouraging profligacy by an agency under her watch or be fired by President Goodluck Jonathan.
Before the House announced its intention to probe the transaction, which a lawmaker described as illegal, on the grounds that there was no provision in the 2013 budget for the procurement, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) confirmed that it had beamed its searchlight on the car deal.
However, it was gathered that given Oduah’s ties with the presidency and the pivotal role she played in Jonathan’s electoral victory in 2011, this may slow down the pace of investigation into the purchase of the two bulletproof cars bought at N255 million.
But the spokesman for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mr. Yakubu Dati, linked the campaign against the minister to an alleged plot to stop the president from running in the 2015 presidential election, if he chooses to do so.
In addition to ordering an investigation into the N255 million car deal, the House also ordered another investigation into the alleged barring of Qatar Airlines and other foreign airlines from operating from the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano.
The investigations are to be conducted by the House Committee on Aviation.
The lawmakers, who resumed plenary yesterday after the Sallah break, waded into the bulletproof cars purchase scandal when Osagie brought it up in the House.
He said pursuant to Section 88 of the 1999 Constitution, the House had an obligation to investigate the circumstances surrounding the purchase of the cars.
He explained that over the past one week, the nation had been inundated with the news of the purchase of the BMW bulletproof cars worth $1.6 million at a time Nigerians were struggling to get over some serious safety concerns in the aviation industry.
Osagie said given the poverty and unemployment ravaging the nation and its people, it was “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.
He expressed concern that the furore generated by the matter had cast doubts on the sincerity of the Jonathan administration to fight corruption.
He said it was disturbing that in spite of the elaborate recommendations of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMFAC) as to the way public officers, including cabinet ministers ought to be catered for in terms of salaries and emoluments, housing and transportation and the passage of those recommendations into law by the National Assembly, some government agencies were still indulging in acts of impunity.
Reading the mood of the lawmakers on the issue, House Speaker, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, cautioned them against an elaborate debate and urged them to allow an investigation into the matter.
He said the House had to be careful not to make judgmental comments as that could portray the lawmakers as biased even before they had commenced the investigation.
After his observation, it was resolved that the House Committee on Aviation should investigate the matter and report to the House within one week.
The investigation is to determine whether the NCAA was right in its decision to purchase the cars; whether the purchase was authorised by any appropriation law and whether the NCAA had been complying with the Fiscal Responsibility Act in terms of remittances of its internally generated revenue or not.
Other issues for determination are that whether the minister was entitled to the armoured vehicles under any law in Nigeria and if not, whether the EFCC and all anti-corruption agencies were not bound to investigate and prosecute all those involved.
The probe would also determine if the president can continue to retain the services of Oduah and all those involved in the scandal.
But the probe may have indeed begun on the floor of the House as a member of the Committee on Aviation, Hon. Matthew Omegara (PDP/Imo), testified yesterday that the purchase of the two armoured vehicles was initially proposed in the 2013 Appropriation Bill but was “clearly deleted” during the process of the passage of the bill into law.
Omegara said the decision by NCAA to go ahead to purchase the vehicles was condemnable and illegal.
He dismissed the excuse advanced by the NCAA that the funds for the purchase were sourced from the agency’s internal revenue and urged the House to probe the utilisation of the IGR by various government agencies.
In the second motion sponsored by Hon. Aliyu Madaki (PDP/Kano), the House resolved to mandate its Committee on Aviation to investigate the alleged barring of Qatar Airlines from operating at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano, and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
The committee has also been mandated to investigate the renovation work done at the Kano international airport to ascertain whether the job has been carried out as specified in the contract agreement.
In pursuant to yesterday’s resolution, the House Committee on Aviation summoned Oduah to appear at an emergency public hearing on the matter.
The investigative public hearing is billed to hold tomorrow at 10am.
A statement from the Chairman, House Committee on Aviation, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, said other key stakeholders in the industry had also been invited to the event.
Other persons and organisations invited to appear before the committee to testify on the car deal include the Director General, NCAA; Managing Director, Coscharis Motors; Comptroller General, Nigerian Customs Service; Director General, Bureau of Public Procurement; Managing Director, First Bank of Nigeria Limited; Federal Ministry of Finance; and members of the public.
But as the legislature and anti-graft agencies have begun probing the Oduah car deal, THISDAY learnt yesterday that the investigation might be slowed down at the EFCC due to the minister’s close relationship with Jonathan.
Her ministerial appointment is largely seen as a reward for her role in the Neighbour-to-Neighbour campaign that was at the forefront of Jonathan’s presidential election in 2011.
She replicated that role during the fuel subsidy protest in January 2012, when she used Neighbour-to-Neighbour to counter the arguments of labour and protesters against deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry.
EFCC spokesperson, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren, who confirmed the commencement of investigation to THISDAY, however, refused to comment on the stage the investigation had reached or who had been invited or questioned on the procurement.
But Mr. Folu Olamiti from the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) was not categorical on whether the agency was probing the transaction when approached by THISDAY.
He said: “No comment yet on this issue from us. Moreover, my chairman has not told me anything yet but as time progresses, we will let you know.”
However, a source in EFCC, who corroborated Uwujaren’s statement that the commission had started probing the car deal, said the agency was treading with caution because of the close relationship between the aviation minister and the presidency.
According to him, “Yes the investigation has started, but we are being cautious about it. Even though we want to get to the root of the whole scandal, but because of the relationship between the aviation minister and the presidency, we have to be a bit careful so that we don’t embarrass the presidency further.
“I am sure you remember the role she played in the Neighbour-to-Neighbour campaign organisation during the general election of 2011 which greatly aided the victory of our president. Because of that, even though we want to unravel the truth and we will, but we want to be cautious about it.
“The fact that she was one of the few ministers untouched by the recent dismissal of some ministers by the presidency is an added reason for us to be more careful in our investigation.”
Amid the raging controversy, the FAAN spokesman yesterday linked the campaign against Oduah to an attempt to weaken the president’s bid to re-contest in 2015.
Dati told journalists in Lome, Togo at the 22nd Airport Council International (ACI) Africa General Assembly, Conference and Exhibition that the allegation against the minister had taken a new frenzy because of the political situation in the country.
He said: “The war going on over the acquisition of armoured vehicles has no comparison; not even when a former Minister of Aviation was alleged to have diverted N19.1 billion of the intervention fund after the air crashes of 2005 and 2006; not even for another minister who was said to have also diverted N6.5 billion out of which nothing has been recovered till today.”
He claimed that the planned protest against the minister today by a former House of Representatives member, Hon. Dino Melaye, had confirmed the political party behind the campaign against the minister and the president, as Melaye is “a strong man of the APC”.
“The phantom linkage of the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, to the purchase of official vehicles by NCAA has assumed a comical dimension as every car, bus and van in all the aviation agencies now allegedly belong to the minister.
“No mention is made of the fact that of all the documents paraded for the vehicles, none mentioned the name of the Minister of Aviation. This is not withstanding the fact that the NCAA has come out to clarify issues on the transaction.
“Nigerians must also note that the main target of this sinister plot is President Goodluck Jonathan who must be stopped from running for re-election in 2015, in line with the dictates of the G-7 (New PDP), whose members have demanded that Okonjo-Iweala, Alison-Madueke and Princess Oduah must go as a condition for a truce,” Dati added.
Meanwhile, the National Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), one of the agencies under the Ministry of Aviation, yesterday disclaimed ownership of the four Toyota Tundras and four limousines parked at its premises at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
Sahara Reporters, an online media, had claimed that the agency had purchased the vehicles for Oduah.
Refuting the report, a top official of the agency, who sought for anonymity, said the vehicles belonged to Overland Services Limited, a private transportation service provider at the airport.