Despite the raging controversy over the purchase of two BMW armoured cars for her by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, has left the country on a trip to Israel.
THISDAY learnt Wednesday that the minister left Nigeria on Tuesday, the day the House of Representatives initiated a probe into the car scandal, as part of President Goodluck Jonathan's official delegation to the country.
Shortly after the House passed a motion that its Committee on Aviation should probe the car deal, the committee chair, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, in a statement, summoned the minister along with some other stakeholders to appear at a public hearing scheduled for yesterday on the transaction.
However, the committee said yesterday that the probe would go ahead as directed by the House as her absence would not affect its work.
The president, who yesterday set up a three-man administrative panel of inquiry to probe the car scandal, departed yesterday for Israel to participate in this year's pilgrimage and for a state visit.
During the visit, Nigeria and Israel are expected to sign a Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) to strengthen air ties between the two nations, with Oduah signing for her country.
But industry sources said her departure was reflective of the insensitivity displayed by the presidency and minister to the scandal involving the armoured car purchases, as Jonathan should have asked her to stay behind and asked the permanent secretary in the ministry to represent her.
With the constitution of the three-man panel by the president, Oduah is being probed on three fronts - the legislature, the presidency and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) - to determine her culpability or otherwise in the car purchase scandal. Some of those who were not aware that the minister had left Nigeria on Tuesday ahead of the president's departure yesterday, raised eyebrows at her absence at the weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on the assumption that she did not turn up for the meeting apparently due to the heat generated by the purchase of the two bulletproof cars at a total cost of $1.6 million (N255 million).
Indeed, the swirling protest over her involvement in the car scandal spilled into the streets yesterday as two groups, comprising Oduah's supporters and antagonists, clashed during a protest in Abuja.
The president's Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, announced the constitution of the three-man panel to investigate Oduah over the car deal after the FEC meeting in Abuja.
The panel, headed by the immediate past Head of Service of the Federation, Alhaji Isa Sali Bello, has as members the National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dakusi (rtd), and Air Vice Marshal Dick Iruenebere (rtd).
Abati told State House correspondents that the president had taken the initial step of asking Oduah for explanations about the transaction.
According to him, the panel will determine whether the procurement process for the armoured vehicles followed due process.
It will also find out the purpose for the procurement of the vehicles and any other ancillary matter regarding the car deal.
Abati said the secretariat of the panel, which is expected to submit its report within two weeks, would be provided by the office of the NSA.
He added: "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.
"Indeed, Mr. President considers this a very weighty matter and that it is not true as some people have been alleging that no action has been taken on it."
Asked if the minister would be made to step aside during the investigation, 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."
Notwithstanding her absence, THISDAY learnt yesterday that the House would go ahead with its probe on the car deal. It was gathered that before leaving the country, the minister had written to the House committee requesting to be given up to the middle of November to round off her trip to Israel and other engagements outside the country before she could honour its invitation.
The revelation came just as the House adopted a report indicting the NCAA for grounding a bombardier aircraft belonging to the Rivers State Government.
Sources within the aviation committee told THISDAY that the committee would not wait given the public outcry and the need to tackle the issues as soon as possible.
"We can't wait for her. This is not something that has to wait for anybody at all. This is a national embarrassment and nobody is bigger than this country. We will go ahead with our investigation.
"Look at somebody who is under heat because of what happened and instead of staying back to tackle the issue, she has travelled outside the country. "If I were her, I would have stayed back to clear my name of the stain this matter has brought," one of the sources said.
However, it was learnt that the committee was prepared to take testimonies from the NCAA, National Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and other stakeholders and write its report, because it has a terms of reference and time frame of one week to submit its findings.
The controversy over the procurement of the bulletproof cars however degenerated yesterday into a clash between two groups in Abuja.
Members and supporters of the Anti-corruption Network of Nigeria (ACN), led by a former House of Representatives member, Hon. Dino Melaye, who had set out to protest the controversial procurement, clashed with another group sympathetic to Oduah at the federal secretariat.
The clash lasted for more than three hours as each group tried to drown out the other with songs. While the Melaye members chanted "Oduah must-go" songs, the pro-minister's group countered with songs such as "Oduah must stay, Dino pay us our money".
Although the protests were non-violent, the groups caused a traffic jam at the federal secretariat before police officers, led an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Odukoya Sunday, came to disperse the protesters.
Addressing the press in the confused atmosphere, Melaye accused the minister of renting the crowd to disrupt the planned protest.
He said: "You can see that we are peaceful protesters, we are here to exercise our fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution."
He accused the pro-Oduah group of coming out to scuttle the protest, saying the faction even asked him for money.
He said the group should provide evidence that they did something for him, which he needed to pay them for.
According to him, Oduah was the ninth minister that his anti-corruption group was taking on, adding that her case could not be different from others.
He said: "We protested against the Ministries of Finance, Niger Delta and the Justice with petitions submitted against them to the anti-graft agencies. Why would this one be different?" He explained that because the N255 million was not budgeted for as claimed by the House on Tuesday, the minister must face the law.
He urged Jonathan to emulate his predecessors, former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who fired their ministers for their alleged involvement in scandals by relieving Oduah of her job.
Also, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) called for Oduah's probe over what it described as the scandalous purchase of bulletproof cars "especially at this point in time when government is increasingly unable to meet its basic obligations to the citizenry."
Arising from a meeting of its National Executive Council (NEC), the NLC, in a communique issued in Kaduna yesterday said: "Neither the process nor the price nor even the reason for the purchase satisfies transparency nor good conscience. The minister should therefore be called to account. Accordingly, NEC calls for the immediate probe of the minister."
NLC expressed dissatisfaction that the federal government was yet to seriously address corruption especially high profile cases such as the fuel subsidy scam. The judicial process, NLC said, was being frustrated in spite of overwhelming evidence against the subsidy scam suspects.
"It holds the view that one of the reasons why the economy is on the downward slide is the levity with which government continues to deal with corruption. NEC finds it incongruous that government would want to protect these criminals because of party affinity, yet party affinity has not put food on the table of the ordinary Nigerian.
"Accordingly, it calls on the government to diligently prosecute these big thieves. Nobody should be above the law even if they funded the election of everyone in the party," it added.