The problems facing aviation minister Stella Oduah multiplied yesterday when President Goodluck Jonathan bowed to pressure and barred her from signing the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) with Israel.
Oduah is still trying to explain how and why she authorised the purchase or lease of two armoured cars at the cost of N255million. Public outcry has continued to trail the acquisition of the cars.
The BASA is the culmination of negotiations between Nigeria and Israel aviation officials for about a year now and was one of the highlights of President Jonathan activities in Israel where he is on pilgrimage.
While the acting foreign affairs minister of Nigeria, Prof. Viola Onwuliri, signed for Nigeria, the deputy foreign minister of Israel, Mr Zeev Elkin, did same for his country.
The development is contrary to a statement issued by Mr Joe Obi, special assistant (media) to the aviation minister, just before Oduah departed Nigeria for Israel. He said that the minister was going to sign the BASA on behalf of Nigeria.
The statement was made available to journalists on October 22. It read: "Nigeria and the State of Israel will today (23rd October, 2013) sign Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) to enable airlines from both countries fly directly to each other's territory without stop-overs in other destinations.
"Aviation Minister Princess Stella Oduah will sign on behalf of Nigeria while her Israeli counterpart will sign for his country. Oduah left Abuja this morning to the State of Israel for the event."
Also, the two pictures sent in from Israel by Mr Yakubu Datti, spokesperson for aviation parastatals, showed only Onwuliri and not Oduah signing the agreement.
When contacted on who signs the BASA, an aviation lawyer, Captain Dele Ore, said it doesn't have to be the aviation minister.
He said Nigeria as a sovereign country can designate any Nigerian government official, even of the rank of permanent secretary, to sign the BASA. Also, an aviation expert and former member, House of Representatives, Bala Ibn Na'Allah, said that the Foreign Affairs Minister could sign the BASA if designated by the president and the director-general of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) will make sure that any Israeli airline coming to Nigeria must meet the nation's aviation regulations, while the minister of aviation will approve the licence for the airline to start operations in Nigeria.
Israel joins three other Middle East nations that have signed the BASA with Nigeria. The agreement will allow direct flights between the two nations, thereby eliminating the long stopovers in neighbouring countries.
Both President Jonathan and Israeli President Simon Peres expressed optimism that the BASA will promote and strengthen economic cooperation between the two nations. Jonathan was happy to be the first Nigerian president to visit Israel and promised to sustain efforts in tackling terrorism in Nigeria while asking for Israel's security assistance in this regard. "I seek the cooperation of your country to confront the security threat from terrorist groups that my country is now facing. There is no doubt that Israel has had decades of experience in combating terrorism. Nigeria can benefit tremendously from your experience in this area," Jonathan told Peres, who promised that Israel will help Nigeria in whatever way possible as both countries face the common menace of terrorism.
Reps threaten to arrest Oduah
However, aviation minister Oduah risks arrest if she fails to appear tomorrow before the House Committee on Aviation that is investigating the propriety in acquisition of two armoured BMW cars worth N255million. The committee shifted its hearing from today to tomorrow, saying that Oduah's failure to appear before it is a "serious constraint" in concluding its investigation within the one week time frame.
The clerk of the committee, Abubakar Chana, had written to Oduah: "The committee has been utterly gracious for postponing the hearing to Wednesday. It is the directive of the House of Representatives that you should appear on the scheduled date of which failure to do so will leave the committee with no option but to enforce the appropriate laws and apply necessary sanctions."
Oduah had, in a letter dated October 25, informed the Committee that she would not be able to appear tomorrow before it as she would still be engaged in Israel on national assignment but would appear on November 4. But the committee rejected her request for the November 4 appearance.
Culprits in N255m cars' purchase risk 5-yr jail term
Meanwhile, the chairperson, House Committee on Public Procurement, Hon. Jumoke Okoya-Thomas, has disclosed that Oduah or any other person risks five years' jail term if the person is found to have breached the Public Procurement Act.
In a chat with journalists, the lawmaker said, "Section 58 (5) of the Public Procurement Act states that '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'."
She however added that this depends on whether the government has the will to implement the provision which is aimed at creating "sanity in this country and to check excesses".
Speaking to journalists on the NCAA car scandal, she said the "argument of lease purchase does not hold as long as they are going to pay with public funds and to say that NCAA is within the threshold makes it look like splitting the budget, which is another case on its own under the Procurement law".
Okoya-Thomas said the Oduah has been having issues bordering on procurement with the committee and had ignored more than 12 invitations sent to her.
"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 might 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."
However, she blamed the presidency for deliberately weakening the BPP as well as refusing to comply with the Procurement law on the issue of the Bureau's board.
She said, "The issue of the constitution of the Board of BPP is embarrassing as it has not been constituted till date. Sometimes we need the cooperation of the executive. When we go out there, we want people to adhere to the provisions of the law."
NCAA clarifies 'no documents' stance
Also, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has insisted it has "no documents for the purchase of bulletproof cars" for minister of aviation Princess Stella Oduah but has documents for "the lease finance arrangement".
According toNCAA's spokesman Mr Fan Ndubuoke, "NCAA has documents relating to the Lease Finance arrangement for the procurement of Operational, Security and Safety Vehicles for the use of the Authority as provided for in its 2013 Appropriation".
Ndubuokewas reacting to reports that the agency failed to supply any document to the Freedom of Information Act request made by civil rights lawyer Mr Femi Falana (SAN). Ndubuokesaid the reports are misleading.
He said: "It is pertinent to re-state here that NCAA indeed has no documents for the purchase of bulletproof cars for the honourable minister of aviation as demanded by the Lagos Lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, (SAN).
"Instead, NCAA has documents relating to the Lease Finance arrangement for the procurement of Operational, Security and Safety Vehicles for the use of the Authority as provided for in its 2013 appropriation.
"All these documents are already in the public domain and have also been deposited with the various committees looking into the matter. The public is hereby enjoined to discountenance the innuendoes which tended to suggest that NCAA does not have documents at all regarding the bulletproof vehicles.
"It must be made clear here that Mr Femi Falana (SAN) specifically requested documents for the procurement of vehicles for the honourable minister of aviation."