As the deadline given to the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation to submit its report of the investigation into the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority's purchase of two BMW bulletproof cars for the minister of aviation, Mrs Stella Oduah, at N255m draws closer, LEADERSHIP can reveal that the minister may be indicted by the committee for negligence and dereliction of duty.
A prominent lawmaker in the House of Representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, confided in LEADERSHIP last night that the fact that she gave her approval for the purchase of the cars already shows that she agreed that the cars should be purchased. Oduah's argument that she asked NCAA to do the needful means nothing, he said.
According to the lawmaker, the minister, aware of the fact that she doesn't have the authority to approve any contract above N100 million, should have declined approval and if she felt there was a need for the procurement she should have initiated a memo to the Federal Executive Council, FEC, for approval.
He said, "In the first place, her threshold of approval is N100 million and she approved about N600 million. She was the gatekeeper. She was the one in the first place who should have told the NCAA that 'this is above my limit' and then maybe initiated a memo to FEC or follow up the details.
"There was negligence of duty on her part and, of course, dereliction of her duty. She was supposed not to have done the approval; taking loans and all that was not supposed to be her responsibility, it is supposed to be FEC's.
"The explanation that she said the NCAA should 'do the needful' doesn't have any meaning. If you say 'approved, 'do the needful', then what is needful?"
The lawmaker further stated that putting the former acting director-general of the agency, Mr Joyce Nkemakolam, who initiated and implemented the procurement, in the line of fire is wrong because, as the aviation minister, Oduah had the power to refuse the request based on it being beyond her powers.
He said, "The blame shouldn't have been heaped on that man (Nkemakolam) because he is not the final authority. The minister is like the mother of the sector. If anything happens, she takes the blame even if it is that of her subordinate, not to talk of the one that has her approval."
He also explained that one of the cars was being used by the minister even though she told the committee when she appeared before it that the cars were not procured for her use. That is an indictment on its own, he said, "And at the end of the day, she is even the beneficiary because she is using the bulletproof cars. When members of the subcommittee went to inspect the cars, her personal effects were inside the car. That is why one of us was asking, 'who uses the car?' and Nkemakolam said it's for VIPs and anyone who wants to use it can, including the lawmakers."
On whether the committee could be persuaded by certain interests to write a favourable report to exonerate the minister, he said that was not on the agenda of the committee. "She can't go away, she can't. Do not forget that the report will come to the floor of the House and then we can remove and add," the lawmaker said. "The agreement between the bank and the ministry shows that it is N116 million and not that N100 million discounted payment she was saying. She lied. When you go to a bank to take auto loan, it is binding that you are taking N600 million to buy cars; it is as simple as that. If she says the agreement is not binding, does that mean the bank will not take its money? It is depositors' money first and foremost and banks are there to make money."
After failing twice to honour invitations by the House Committee on Aviation to come and explain her role in the purchase of the two bulletproof at N255 million, Oduah appeared on Wednesday last week and informed the lawmakers that she had done no wrong in approving the contract for the cars which, she said, did not belong to her.
She also told the committee that the NCAA, a parastatal under the Ministry of Aviation, did not breach the Appropriation Act by purchasing 59 operational vehicles at N643 million through a lease purchase agreement by it, First Bank and Coscharis Motors, even though the National Assembly approved N240 million for 25 operational vehicles in the 2013 Act.
Oduah also explained that she gave conditional approval for the contract to be executed, as she asked that the "needful" be done.
"The intent of the memo is approved but, for the memo to be executed, it has to go through a process. So you cannot say on the assumption and in conclusion that the minister approved. Also, the role of the minister and the template of the accounts is finance leasing and it is very much in order," she said during her presentation at the hearing last week.
Conspiracy To Save Oduah Thickens
Indications emerged yesterday that the presidency and some influential members of the ruling PDP have intensified efforts to save the minister of aviation, Ms Stella Oduah, from being prosecuted over her involvement in the purchase by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Agency (NCAA) of two armoured cars at an inflated cost of N255m.
The architects of this grand conspiracy, LEADERSHIP gathered last night, are harping fervently on the defence put up by the minister on Thursday in which she tactically absolved herself from any wrongdoing on the grounds that the bulletproof cars were bought by the NCAA for the guests of the ministry and not for her personal use.
LEADERSHIP had exclusively reported in its October 21, 2013, edition that President Goodluck Jonathan might have considered the redeployment of Oduah in order to give her a soft-landing, despite calls from a critical segment of the public that she should be removed from the cabinet for allegedly allowing her personal interests to override national interest.
But a source in the presidency who spoke on condition of anonymity told our correspondent that the president was bent on ensuring that nothing happened to Oduah who played a key role in his election in 2011 through the Neighbour 2 Neighbour campaign group. "Such useful persons in the party like Oduah must not be toyed with, especially when the 2015 elections are around the corner," he said.
Besides, there are palpable signs that the three-man panel set up by Jonathan to probe the minister was diversionary, as the presidency may not be interested after all in probing her.
For instance, while the special adviser to the president on media and publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, had announced on Wednesday, October 21, that Jonathan gave the panel two weeks to submit its report, the members of the panel got their letter of appointment only on October 28. This means that the two weeks' time frame started running on October 28 instead of 21.
A member of the committee and the national security adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki, whose office is being used as the panel's secretariat was in Israel with President Jonathan at a time Oduah was also said to be lodging in the same hotel Jonathan was being accommodated in.
The plot to give the minister a clean bill of health, according to the presidency source, intensified at the weekend following consideration that her remark that the NCAA should do the needful after she had appended her signature to approve the purchase of the BMW armoured cars could as well be a strong point to canvass her exoneration.
The chairperson of the House Committee on Aviation had, in her closing remark last Thursday, said that justice would be done as fact will speak for itself.
Falana writes to EFCC
Lagos lawyer and human rights activist Mr Femi Falana (SAN) has alleged that the appearance of the minister before the House Committee on Thursday was useless, as the lawmakers deliberately refused to ask her the relevant questions on the purchase of the armoured cars.
Falana's position is contained in a letter he wrote to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) asking it to commence prosecution of the aviation minister and her agents for gross economic and financial crimes bordering on wilful violation of the relevant provisions of the constitution, the Public Procurement Act and the financial guidelines of the federal government.
He threatened to seek an order of mandamus from the court to compel the anti-graft agency to carry out its statutory duty, should it fail to comply to his request.
Airline operators stop remittance of charges to NCAA, FAAN, NAMA, others
Meanwhile, another crisis seems to be brewing in the aviation industry as the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) has stopped all remittances to the aviation agencies with effect from November 1, 2013.
This is coming as AON has urged the federal government to intervene in what it said was astronomical charges imposed on them by aviation agencies which are crippling their operations.
But the aviation ministry and the NCAA denied that there was anything like that, just as it said the airline operators were only dishing out a fictitious story.
Spokesman for the group Alhaji Mohammed Tukur, who said he had been mandated to speak on behalf of the airlines, said that all remittances, both old and new, have been stopped pending the time the agencies which he said are implicated in monumental fraud in the ongoing BMW car scandal bought for aviation minister Oduah were able to reform themselves.
Thus, all remittances due to the NCAA, the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and other relevant aviation bodies have been stopped.
Tukur alleged that the airlines were in trouble due to the imposition of security charge, landing and parking charge, remittance of 5 per cent passenger taxes on every ticket sold, fuel tax, multiple navigational charges, airport tax, very expensive office spaces, among others.
He said the association was also studying the involvement of two of its members over the reported BMW scam and that they may be sanctioned if found culpable.
Tukur said, "The suspension of payment of taxes, charges took effect from November 1, 2013. We call on the federal government and all concerned to set up investigative panel to resolve these anomalies.
"Due to the ongoing crises, we have resolved to stop the remittances of all charges, both current and outstanding debts to the agencies , pending the time they reform or come clean on the taxes and charges they have collected which runs into several billions of naira in a couple of years. They also need a reform to comply with global practices and standards.
"The aviation industry was recently embroiled in fresh controversy on the propriety of new tariffs imposed by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) on non-scheduled commercial airline operators among other charges that have made it difficult for them to cope."
Airlines have lamented excessive taxes on their operations globally. Also, recently, the managing director of FAAN canvassed the introduction of airport development levy as a means for government to recoup spending on infrastructure upgrade at airports.
Though aviation agencies now collect some of the charges upfront, the recent issue might affect their capability to meet up with most of their financial obligations.
It's not true, says NCAA
Responding, Fan Ndubuoke, spokesman of NCAA, said: "We are not aware of that decision by AON. I won't know their reason for that, but until they have communicated with us officially, then, we can have an official reaction to the story.
However, Yakubu Dati, coordinating general manager, public affairs for aviation agencies, said there was nothing like that, adding that Tukur was only dishing out a fictitious story.
"He said they will stop remitting fund since November 1, but airlines are still flying," he stated.
Dati said Tukur couldn't have been speaking for the airlines since he was no longer the general secretary of AON.
But Tukur insisted he had the mandate of some airlines to speak on the matter.
Efforts to get NAMA's spokesman Supo Atobatele to comment on the issue did not yield fruit.