Abuja — Following public outrage that greeted the controversial purchase of N255 million bullet-proof vehicles for the Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday set up a three-man administrative panel to investigate the circumstances surrounding the purchase.
The embattled minister, who has already been summoned by the two chambers of the National Assembly to answer questions on her role in the purchase of the cars is reported to have summoned courage and flew to Israel on Tuesday, a day ahead of President Jonathan's visit to the country, where he is expected to perform some spiritual rites and sign some bilateral deals.
Abati further assured Nigerians that the President was committed to fighting corruption, saying that anybody found to have violated any laws in the purchase of the cars would not be shielded by the President.
The panel, to be chaired by former Head of Service, Alhaji Isa Sali Bello, has as members the National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) and AVM Dick Iruenebere (rtd). The committee is to submit its report within two weeks.
The Presidential Adviser said: "On the purchase of two BMW armoured cars by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, President Goodluck Jonathan has taken the initial step of asking the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah for explanations and that is in the public domain and so it will not be right to say that the President is not well seized of the matter.
President Jonathan has also today taken a step further by setting up a three-man administrative panel of inquiry. This panel has the assignment to investigate whether the procurement process with regards to this armoured vehicles followed due process.
"This three-man panel is also to find out the purpose for which the vehicles were procured and then to inquire into any other incidental matter.
"This three-man panel is to be chaired by the immediate former Head of Service of the Federation, Alhaji Isa Sali Bello, the National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) and AVM Dick Iruenebere (rtd) are members.
"The secretariat of the panel, which is expected to submit its reports within two weeks will be provided by the office of the NSA.
"Let me assure you that 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 maybe found guilty of misconduct or misappropriation of public funds either in this respect or in any other respect.
"Indeed Mr. President considers this a very weighty matter and it is not true as some people have been alleging that no action has been taken", he said.
On whether the Minister will be asked to step aside while the panel carries out her investigation, Dr Abati said: "Well, I have just announced to you what I was asked to announce: that a panel of inquiry has been set up. This panel will address all the relevant questions and advise Mr. President accordingly within two weeks."
Oduah splits Presidency, off to Israel for pilgrimage, BASA deal
Meanwhile, competent sources told Vanguard that the decision by the minister to travel to Israel in the midst of the car controversy was to reduce tension generated by the negative development and give her some time off to pray to God while in the Holy Land.
But there were doubts in the Presidency last night as to whether she would be part of the Presidential team to seal the Bilateral Air Services Agreement, BASA, with Israel in Tel Aviv, given the negative publicity the car deal had given the country since it broke out last week.
But sources close to the minister said that she was not bothered about the development, as she was said to have received assurances from influential persons close to the Presidency that she would not be dropped because of her political worth to the system.
A source close to the Presidency told Vanguard that the decision to query Oduah and eventually raise the panel to probe her did not come easy, as top PDP members and some aides of the President prevailed on him not to do anything against the minister, given the role she played in the election of Mr. President.
It was learnt that after a heated debate, the President bowed to some of his aides, who reasoned that not taking any disciplinary action against the minister would send the wrong message to the world that the President was condoning corruption.
Some of the aides were said to have impressed upon Jonathan the need to act fast in taking action to assuage doubting Nigerians about his avowed war against corruption and to send a strong message to others in the system who might engage in similar acts.
A source said: "The President finally agreed to set up the panel to probe Oduah after some powerful elements in the PDP BoT and the party tried in vain to dissuade him from taking any disciplinary action against the minister.
"The argument of the minister's protagonists is that she is a star performer, who has changed the aviation landscape in Nigeria and has been very useful to the party and the President, as the leader of the Neighbour-to-Neighbour group that has been mobilising for the President during elections.
The minister's colleagues are said to be split on what should be done to her following the car deal imbroglio.
Sources said many ministers, who are apparently fed up with Oduah's excesses, are pushing for serious action against her while her supporters think otherwise, blaming political enemies for her ordeal.
Dino Melaye arrested over protest
In a related development, the Police, yesterday arrested anti-corruption crusader, Dino Melaye, after he led a protest against the Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah over the car deal gone awry.
This is even as a pro-Oduah group emerged from the Federal Ministry of Aviation, located at the Federal Secretariat, Abuja, with some armed hoodlums and attacked the protesters, led by Melaye.
Melaye, a former member of the House of Representatives, was picked around 12:55 pm by a team of police men, from the FCT Police Command, led by one ASP Odukoya Sunday, in a police Hilux vehicle with registration number: NPF 2128C.
His arrest came following his refusal to allow the Police drive away some of the protesters they had arrested on claims of obstructing of traffic and disturbing of public peace.'
Jonathan should sell armoured cars --SERAP
Also yesterday, civil society group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has issued a public appeal to President Goodluck Jonathan to "urgently order the sale of the two armored BMW cars reportedly bought with funds from the Aviation Ministry, and to use the accrued funds to provide compensation to families of victims of recent air accidents and use part of the funds to set up a Trust Fund to jump-start genuine reform of the aviation industry."
In a public appeal dated 20 October 2013 and signed by SERAP executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni, the organization said that, "The reported diversion of $1.6 million (N255 million) to pay for two cars by someone that should normally be the number one safety official in the aviation ministry illustrates the level of corruption in the sector, and explains why people's lives have been repeatedly messed with by those entrusted with air safety and security in the country's aviation industry."