The embattled Minister of Aviation, Ms Stella Oduah, has been accused by the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation of approving N564m for the purchase of 54 cars beyond her power.
The committee alleged that Oduah, who finally appeared before it on Thursday after failing to honour earlier invitations, did not follow the budget approved for the Aviation ministry and its agencies by the National Assembly.
The minister, who wore a striped blue ankara dress with a matching blue head scarf, walked into the hall at 11.42am looking somewhat disturbed. She also wore white beaded jewellery to complement her embroidered blouse.
Oduah first walked to take a seat facing the committee members and made to sit but changed her mind. She went halfway between her seat and the high table, where she exchanged pleasantries with the Chairman of the committee, Mrs. Nkiruka Onyejeocha.
After that she walked out of the hall, spending about 10 minutes before returning to her seat to make a presentation.
A few seconds after, the committee chairman while giving her opening speech, tried to douse the tense atmosphere at the venue of the hearing.
“We are not mourning here, there is no aeroplane crash; I want to see everyone smiling. Please feel free and relax,” she counselled.
- Oduah on the hot seat
Thereafter, Oduah was called upon to testify on her role in the purchase of two bulletproof cars at a whopping N255m and other vehicles by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
She took an oath, promising to say “nothing but the truth, the whole truth.”
The minister, who seemed to have regained confidence looked the committee members in the face and then apologised for her failure to honour their earlier summons.
She denied that the NCAA bought the two bulletproof cars for her use.
Her audacity took the lawmakers aback a bit, as she also rationalised the action of the NCAA, claiming that its decision to buy the 54 cars did not breach any law of the land.
She stated that the NCAA bought the bulletproof cars for its own operations in line with the rising profile of Nigeria as an ICAO member.
The minister, who sounded impatient as she gave her testimony, added that there was a required international standard for state-of-the cars to provide security for visitors and certain category of passengers visiting any country.
According to her, she was alarmed by media reports tying the purchase of the cars to her personal comfort.
She said, “It is not true that NCAA spent N255m to purchase the bulletproof cars for the minister.
“It is totally untrue; there is nothing reflecting my name. The cars were not registered in my name.
“All I did was approve based on the proposal sent to me on lease financing by the NCAA.”
She defended the NCAA, saying that it bought the cars as part of its three-year budgetary plan to beef up its operational fleet.
But, there was a mild drama when the committee questioned her over the approval of N564m for the 54 cars above the N100m which ministers could approve.
Oduah said the expectation was that because the NCAA entered into a “lease financing” agreement with the First Bank of Nigerian to span 36 months, the amount of money it would have paid to the bank by December was N100m. According to her, the N100m is still within the spending limit.
The Head, Lagos Mainland branch of First Bank, which handled the transaction, Mr. Seyi Ojefeso, had on Tuesday told the committee that the NCAA approached the bank for a loan to purchase vehicles for its management staff.
Ojefeso claimed that it was possible that the NCAA “got it mixed up” when it described it as a lease agreement.
He explained that the NCAA applied for a loan package of N643m to finance the purchase of 54 vehicles.
For the bulletproof cars, he said there was a Coscharis pro forma invoice attached to the application in the value of N255m.
He added, “We offered an auto loan to the NCAA in May to purchase cars for its management staff.
“The application was for N643m; we financed the purchase of the cars based on the application they submitted to us.”
But the committee observed that the original request of the NCAA to the minister was N564m, but First Bank eventually approved a loan of N643m.
When asked to explain how the difference came about, Ojefeso said only the NCAA could answer the question since N564m was not in the agency’s communication with the bank.
When the committee members accused her of giving anticipatory approval for expenditure beyond her power, Oduah said she expected the NCAA to go back and do “the needful” by complying with procurement regulations.
Leading the barrage of questions, Mr. Jerry Manwe stated, “You did not follow the budget approved for you by the National Assembly because when you calculate the total expenditure, the NCAA would have paid over N1bn for the 54 cars.
“The agency would have paid N160m which is above your approval limit by December as part of the instalments and not N100m, which is within your power.
“The committee refused to approve the N140m the NCAA proposed for bulletproof cars because we said you cannot use bulletproof cars to patrol the perimeter fencing at the airports.
“Nowhere in the budget did we approve bulletproof cars, but you went ahead to spend money in anticipation of budgetary provision.”
But, the minister countered that the interpretation of her approval was that the NCAA should do the appropriate thing by complying with the requirement of procurement laws.
“My memo says, approved. Please, do the needful; what does that mean? What does that tell you?”, Oduah asked Manwe.
She implied that her approval was not final, to the dismay of lawmakers.
There was more drama when the committee turned the heat on the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Aviation and the management of the NCAA.
The Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Mr. George Ossi, and a former Acting DG of the NCAA, who supervised the transaction, Mr. Joyce Nkem-Akonam, both admitted that the approval implied that they were to comply with due process regulations.
Nkem-Akonam stated, “What the approval means is that we go through due diligence in our system.
“We did that in our procurement department and complied with the law.
“From the point the minister’s approval came, we went ahead with the mindset that we already had a budgetary approval by the National Assembly.”
In the ensuing buck-passing and confusion, the committee read out the portion of the 2013 NCAA budget where the National Assembly “clearly approved only N240m for the purchase of 25 operational vehicles.”
Manwe then tried to blast the NCAA and the permanent secretary for allegedly “misleading the minister.”
He noted that they ignored the budgetary approval of N240m for 25 cars and made their own proposal of 54 cars for N564m which was “far above the approval limit of N100m” without recourse to the Federal Executive Council.
Another member of the committee, Mr. Adeyinka Ajayi, sought to know the date the Board of the NCAA approved the transaction, but there was no answer.
Neither Nkem-Akonam nor Osi could give the date of the approval. They promised to consult and get the date.
Adeyinka again asked, “Where are the bulletproof cars now since the minister has said they were not bought for her?”
Nkem-Akonam replied that the vehicles were “pool cars” that could be used by any officer, including Oduah.
“They are pool cars for VIP movement, including the minister; including you, honourable member”, he added.
- Minister apologises, says issues muddled up
Earlier, Oduah had apologised for her failure to appear before yesterday, blaming it on her trip abroad to sign a Bilateral Air Services Agreement between Nigera and Israel .
She also admitted that attempts made by some officials to clarify the car scandal were “muddled up.”
She spoke further, “You may recall that there have been attempts at clarifying issues pertaining to this particular procurement. In the process, some of the issues were further muddled up.
“I mention in this regard the first attempt at clarifying the issue by the Coordinating Spokesperson for the parastatals when he was first confronted with the allegation, without recourse to the Minister or the Principal Officer of the Ministry and its agencies, described the information as a mere rumour.
“This was followed by the statement of my Special Adviser, Media, who was himself guided by his own perception of the duties and challenges of my office and possibly, even the danger to the person and office of the minister.
“This is made evident by the fact that his statement focused on my personal security and safety without recourse to procurement process and policy file to which he had no access.
“Although both inaccurate and innocently misguided, I understand the urgency and aggression considering the sources the information was breaking from.
“The last official intervention in this matter came from the Director-General of NCAA, the agency charged with the oversight of the aviation sector and the agency that actually undertook the procurement.
“Whereas the DG was right in saying that the vehicles were not bought for my office, the anticipated positive effect of this correct piece of information was marred by remarks credited to the DG suggesting that the agency was more concerned about issues of administration and information security that had no bearing on this issue.”
Meanwhile, Coscharis Motors insisted on Thursday that the cars it supplied were the same quoted on the transaction documents.
Lawmakers, who inspected the bulletproof cars at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport on Tuesday, reported that they bore different chassis numbers from those quoted in the transaction documents.
- Coscharis says “transposition error” occurred
However, on Thursday, the Chairman of the company, Mr. Cosmos Maduka, and his team blamed the discrepancy on “transposition error.”
“The cars you inspected are the correct cars. There are 12 cars on the end-user certificate and the DW68011 you are referring to is one of them”, he said.
Amidst heated disagreement between the two sides, Coscharis offered to access the BMW factory online, using the chassis numbers to prove that they were the right cars.
But the committee members overruled him and directed Coscharis to produce more documents to defend his claim.
Having heard from all the parties to the controversy, the committee made what sounded like a preliminary report.
- We’ve established some facts – Committee
Onyejeocha, who closed the session, said, “Facts speak for themselves.
“We have listened to the NCAA, Coscharis, First Bank, Customs and the minister.
“It has been established that N240m was budgeted by the National Assembly for 25 cars; we have seen that N255m was used to buy bulletproof cars.
“We have seen another approval of N643m for the purchase of 54 cars.
“We will consider all our findings to see whether they are in line with extant laws and financial regulations and then write our report.
“We assure Nigerians that we will report to them.”
Oduah too spoke briefly with reporters on her way out. She thanked the House for giving a “platform for my own side to be heard on this issue.”
She said she was happy that the “truth” came out that bulletproof cars were not bought for her.