Investigations into the controversial purchase of two BMW bulletproof cars by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) witnessed a dramatic twist yesterday as the Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, finally appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, where she denied her alleged complicity in the transaction.
Oduah whose inability to appear before now had generated tension, told the investigating panel that she neither requested the NCAA to purchase the controversial cars nor were they registered in her name.
She acknowledged that the media has been awash with the purported spending of $1.6 million (N255m) by the NCAA for the purchase of the vehicles but said such reports were untrue and were designed to smear her reputation and scuttle ongoing reforms in the aviation sector.
She spoke just as the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) clarified the alleged waivers issued for the importation of the bulletproof cars.
As Oduah was striving to clear her name in the car purchase scandal, an online medium, Sahara Reporters, yesterday reported that the minister pressurised the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to borrow a huge amount from a commercial bank to buy her two bulletproof cars.
The Senate Committee on Aviation had on Wednesday vowed to get to the root of the purchase of two bulletproof Lexus car, at a cost of N60 million each, while the cost of the remaining two Toyota Prado armoured sport utility vehicles was yet to be disclosed.
However, giving her side of the story yesterday while appearing before the House committee, the minister denied culpability in the car purchase transaction by NCAA. She said: "Let me state emphatically from the outset that the allegation concerning the purchase of two bulletproof cars for me by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is false in its entirety. "It is not true that the NCAA has spent such amounts of money on the purchase of vehicles. It is also not true that the NCAA has purchased two bulletproof BMW vehicles for the Honourable Minister of Aviation.
"My understanding is that what the NCAA has done, is to plan for the acquisition of vehicles for the next three years within the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) through a lease financing arrangement with First Bank Nigeria Limited (FBN).
"Under this arrangement, NCAA would have paid N100 million by the end of fiscal year 2013. The sum is below the appropriated amount of N240 million and less than what is required for Federal Executive Council's approval.
"It would appear that what the NCAA has done within the framework of the MTEF and its desire to be prudent, is to plan its budget in a manner that the cash flow of the authority is able to accommodate spending."
She defended NCAA's decision to procure the vehicles, a need which she anchored on the strategic role of the agency in the aviation industry and the fact that it plays host to important dignitaries from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and other regulatory institutions.
"Perhaps, these are the factors that the NCAA considered in planning for the acquisition of the different specifications of vehicles through a lease financing arrangement.
"It is customary and obligatory that we ensure the security and safe passage of all our international guests, when they visit.
"In aviation, as well as other security measures, requires proactive and preventive measures. The NCAA acted with the highest patriotic consideration within the ambit of the law and the constitution," Oduah said.
The minister blamed those she said had "entrenched interests" in the aviation sector for her plight, stating that contrary to the report that the NCAA had spent N255 million for the purchase of the vehicles, the agency, by the end 2013 would have spent N116 million for the acquisition of the vehicles.
This figure, she added, was below the N240 million the National Assembly appropriated in the 2013 budget for vehicles' procurement.
On the allegation that the two bulletproof cars were bought for her, the minister said: "There was nothing in the approved documents reflecting my name, when the budget was being made. At no time did I ever request for any vehicle from the NCAA.
"It was the agency that had the need and made the request to the Federal Ministry of Aviation. After the purchase under a three-year lease financing agreement, the vehicles were never delivered to me. The vehicles were also not registered in my name but in the name of the agency."
Her testimony, which lasted for over 40 minutes, elicited a barrage of questions on the approval she gave for the transaction, the legal threshold permitted in the Public Procurement Act as well as the purported absence of the two reinforced BMW cars in the 2013 budget.
In response, Oduah explained that when the NCAA presented the request for the cars, she gave approval with a proviso: "do the needful". She told the panel that having given the approval, she expected the NCAA to push the car purchase through the necessary lawful procedures and processes in line with the extant rules.
At this point, the heat was turned on the NCAA as lawmakers demanded from its officials why they did not follow due process in the transaction.
As it was at the beginning of the investigation, the lot fell on the Director of Aerodrome and Airspace Management, Mr. Joyce Nkemakonam, to explain what transpired at the time the deal was sealed. Nkemakonam, who was the acting Director General of NCAA during the transaction, insisted that the deal followed due process as provided by the internal mechanisms of the agency.
"When the approval was given, we presumed that we were going to do the due diligence within our system. We were of the mindset that we had already gotten the approval of the National Assembly. "We were of the mindset that we were working within the limits of the budgetary approval and that we were working on a lease purchase arrangement for the cars," Nkemakonam said.
The lawmakers raised concerns about the level of awareness of NCAA officials on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Public Procurement Act as well as the budgetary limits, arguing that it appeared that those who drove the transaction lacked adequate knowledge of these laws.
The lawmakers argued that as bureaucrats, the NCAA officials ought to have been familiar with the laws and should have advised the minister appropriately.
Chairman, House Committee on Aviation, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, also gave room for her committee members to further grill Coscharis Motors on the particulars of the two BMW bulletproof cars. The committee also asked for more documents from the car vendor. Earlier, the Chairman of Coscharis, Mr. Cosmas Maduka, had tendered the invoices for the vehicles sold by his company.
In her closing remarks, Onyejeocha said the investigation had given all parties the opportunity to defend their roles in the transaction.
She said having heard the testimonies and received various documentary evidence, the committee would wind down the public hearing to review its findings and write its report. According to her, the facts would speak for themselves. Oduah, who later spoke to reporters on her way out of the venue of the investigative public hearing, expressed delight that she had been given the opportunity to tell her own side of the story.
Oduah may however have more explanations to make as investigations continue into allegations that FAAN bought another two bulletproof cars for her.
A report yesterday by an online medium said the minister allegedly pressurised FAAN to borrow money from a bank to finance the procurement.
The report quoted sources as saying that FAAN Managing Director, Mr. George Uriesi, conspired with the minister to obtain a loan of N1.3 billion from FBN. Part of the loan was used to buy 205 cars for several staff members, directors as well as board members of FAAN.
In addition, four armoured cars were purchased for Oduah and Uriesi. It said the sources listed the cars bought for the minister as two "American Specs Lexus Limousines", adding that as it happened in the NCAA deal, the vehicles were never physically delivered to FAAN.
As the minister and FAAN gave their testimonies, pro-Oduah supporters yesterday stormed Abuja to drum up support for her.
Over 30 women, bearing placards with different inscriptions converged on the federal secretariat, Abuja chanting solidarity songs in support of the embattled minister.
Addressing journalists, the President of the Women Solidarity for President Goodluck Jonathan, Mrs. Rita Audu, who led the demonstrators, said the women's group embarked on the protest to let people know that the minister was being persecuted by those out to stop the president in 2015.
But as the controversy over the purchase of vehicles by some parastatals in the aviation ministry raged, the Ministry of Finance denied granting any waiver on the contentious armoured cars.
The ministry said the waiver being said to have been granted for the procurement of the cars was granted to the Lagos State Government, which had applied for the concession and met the laid down criteria.
A statement yesterday by Mr. Paul Nwabuikwu, Special Adviser to the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, pointed out that recent media reports to the effect "that the Federal Ministry of Finance granted a waiver to Coscharis Motors Nigeria Ltd. for the purchase of armoured cars are totally false and without foundation."
The customs service also provided clarification on what its official who testified on Wednesday before the House Committee on Aviation said, saying that it never said the Federal Ministry of Finance granted waiver to Coscharis Motors for the importation of the armoured cars.
It also clarified that the N10.1 million which ought to have been paid as duties was actually limited to the bulletproof cars in question and not all the 300 vehicles imported by Coscharis.
The NCS in a statement by its Deputy Public Relations Officer, Mr. Joseph Attah, a copy of which was given to THISDAY said: "What the representative of the Comptroller General of Customs DCG Manassah Jatau said was that waiver was granted for 300 vehicles to the Lagos State Government to be imported by Messrs Coscharis Motors Nigeria Limited for use during the 18th National Sports Festival, 2012.
"However, it should be noted that of the 300 vehicles granted waiver, 25 units were BMW (7 series). During the clearance process, three were discovered to be bulletproof cars, which statutorily require end user certification. Coscharis got it from the Office of the National Security Adviser and presented same to customs to facilitate the clearance."
Meanwhile, the Lagos State Government yesterday said it did not request for the bulletproof vehicles, nor did it use cars of such category during the 18th National Sports Festival, which it hosted in 2012. The state government also maintained that it only requested for regular saloon cars, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and buses, which it got from Coscharis in its capacity as the official vehicle providers for the sports festival.
A source close to the Commissioner for Youths, Sports and Social Development, Mr. Enitan Oshodi, told THISDAY yesterday, that the state government duly made a request to President Goodluck Jonathan for the duty waiver for the cars used during the festival.
The source explained that the state government requested "for a waiver of destination inspection charges and duty exemption on 300 vehicles, which were to be used for the festival. "Following the offer of sponsorship of and provision of vehicles for the festival by Coscharis Nigeria Limited, the state government made a formal request to the president as requested by the sponsors, which was granted.
"The request was duly granted by the president to the issuance of a Certificate of Waiver in respect of the duty payable on the importation of the cars by Coscharis Nigeria Limited," the source said.