Nov 2, 2013

I didn’t grant waiver for amoured cars – Okonjo-Iweala

                               Aviation Minister, Ms. Stella Oduah

MINISTER of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, yesterday, told members of the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation that the BMW armoured cars that were allegedly bought at a cost of N255m by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, were not meant for her personal use.

As Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also denied granting waiver for the clearing of the armoured cars.

I didn’t grant waiver for amoured cars —Okonjo-IwealaThe Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has denied granting waiver for the clearing of the armoured cars.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement issued by her Senior Special Assistant, Mr. Paul Nwabuikwu, in Abuja, that she only granted waiver for the clearing of cars to be used for 2012 National Sports Festival, EKO 2012, hosted by the Lagos State Government.

According to her, it was the Lagos State Government that applied for waivers for the importation of the vehicle for the festival, as contained in a letter dated June 23, 2012. She explained that the waiver affected Coscharis Motors Nigeria Ltd, only in relation to its being the official partner for the supply of automobiles for the sports festival and no more. The statement read in full:

“Recent media reports which claim 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.

“Rather, on June 23, 2012, the Lagos State Government applied for Waiver of Destination Inspection Charges and Duty Exemptions for Coscharis Motors Nigeria Ltd, the official Automobile Partner for the National Sports Festival (“EKO 2012”), to purchase 300 vehicles on its behalf for the event.

“Since the Lagos State Government met the laid-down criteria, the waiver was granted.

“It is also important to clarify that the waiver granted to the Lagos State Government for the event did not include the purchase of armoured vehicles”.

Oduah disclosed this at the investigative hearing on the controversy on a day the Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, clarified that she did not grant waivers for the controversial armoured cars.

Princess Oduah also told the committee that her media aides, who rose in her defence when the story broke by saying the cars were meant for her security, actually spoke in error.

In her 12-page presentation to the committee, she said: “As you all are aware, what necessitated this public hearing were the events that followed a false and malicious online publication that I had compelled the NCAA to purchase for me two (2) nos BMW bullet proof cars at the cost of $1.6million.

“Let me state emphatically from the onset that the allegation concerning the purchase of the two (2) nos bullet proof cars for me by the NCAA is false in its entirety.”

After reading her presentation, Rep Zakari Lafia Mohammed asked her whether it was a loan or lease that her agency obtained from First Bank of Nigeria, and she said it was the same, adding that the money NCAA would pay would still be below the N240million at the end of the year.

On whether she acted within the ambits of the law by giving approval beyond N100 million, she said she approved the money and asked the NCAA to do the needful. The committee and the Aviation Minister then engaged in an argument over what she meant by “needful.”

She had claimed that in her approval she said “kindly do the needful.” Rep Mohammed took her up by suggesting that “saying the needful means a go-ahead to implement.

Responding, Oduah said: “No, you are wrong on that, the needful does not mean full approval.”

My aides spoke in error—Oduah

On the defence put up by her media assistants, the minister said both assistants were wrong to have initially denied and also saying later the cars were bought for her for security reasons. According to her, the confirmation the media said they had was wrong. “As a matter of fact, their justification and confirmation which they brandished is nothing but the erroneous responses of my aides.”

She further said: “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, who described the information as a mere rumour.

.”This was followed by the statement of my SA 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.”

The NCAA D-G, Fola Akinkuotu was then asked whether he did the needful, and he said he was not in-charge at NCAA when the order was given for the purchase.

Also, Permanent secretary of the ministry, George Ossi was then taken to task for allegedly misleading the minister by not advising her appropriately.

The committee said the permanent secretary ought to have asked the NCAA to do the right thing. The permanent secretary, however, claimed that due diligence ought to have been done by the agency before applying for approval. He claimed that he was not available at the time everything happened. The D-G also said he would have followed the Procurement Act if he was the one the directive was given to do the needful. He said the acting D-G, Joyce Daniel Nkemakolam ought to explain why he did not do that.

In his evidence, Nkemakolam said: “We interpreted the directive to mean to go through it in line with the Procurement Act”. He said due diligence was followed but they had a mindset that they were within the budget limits.

But when he was asked why he didn’t follow due diligence to ensure that it was in tandem with the procurement law, he said he thought since the agency had got the approval of the National Assembly, there was no need for such diligence. He was also asked why he initiated a memo to approve 54 vehicles when what the National assembly approved was 25 vehicles. He was reminded that what was approved was N240million and not N643million.

NCAA was further asked whether the board sought approval of the President to approve the car loan. Nkemakolam said he was working on the mindset that they were still within the approved limit explaining that what NCAA discussed with First Bank was a lease. He was asked whether the NCAA board approved the money and he said the NCAA has interim board and that he was working on account that it was a lease and not loan.

Drama in the house

The drama continued with Rep Manwe asking the former DG of NCAA to disclose who uses the controversial bullet-proof cars since the minister bluntly confessed that they were not bought for her use.

It was one question that got him jolted as minutes passed before he could provide an answer. And when he finally found his voice, he said: “Anybody can use the vehicles when they are in the pool. They are operational vehicles.”

But the lawmaker wouldn’t give up. He continued with a rider to the question. “Do you mean that a messenger or cleaner in the agency can use the cars?”

At this juncture, there was dead silence in the hearing room, with the D-G losing his voice for the second time. And when again, he found it, he answered this way: “Those categories of vehicles are for VIPs which include the minister, including you, the honourables.”

Just then a blast of laughter erupted in the hall which to some extent provided some comic relief to everyone. But Rep Manwe wouldn’t stop. He asked again: “Can we have the log book of the movement of the car?”

In a subdued voice, the D-G answered: “I am not a transport officer. I don’t know whether they are still keeping those log books.”

When it now became obvious that the D-G had exhausted all the answers he had, the lawmakers mandated the agency to bring the man who received the vehicles at the point of delivery by Coscharis Motors.

In her closing remark, the chairperson, Onyejeocha assured Nigerians that justice would be done to the report of the hearing.

“Fact speaks for itself. We have tried to listen to people — Coscharis, the minister, NCAA, First Bank, BPP and Customs, and we have their submissions with us. We will consider what we have whether it is in line with extant laws and financial regulations. We assure everyone and all Nigerians that we will do justice to this hearing,” Onyejeocha said.

Speaking with some journalists shortly after the hearing, the minister, Oduah expressed gratitude to the National Assembly for giving her an opportunity to present her own side of the story.

Police disperse pro-Oduah protesters in Abuja

A new dimension was added to the armoured cars saga, yesterday, in Abuja when the Police dispersed a group of women who staged a solidarity march for Stella Oduah. The women who numbered about 50 had stormed the Federal Secretariat, to protest against what they alleged was the continued harassment of Oduah.

They had had arrived the Federal Secretariat chanting solidarity songs in support of Oduah with placards of different inscriptions.

Some of the placards read “Leave Stella Oduah alone” “Stella has transformed the aviation sector.”

Speaking to journalists during the protest the leader of the group who identified herself as Rita Obu and President of Goodluck Jonathan Women Support Group alleged that there was an attempt by Stella Oduah’s political opponents to frame her up in the same manner they framed up Patricia Etteh, former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Etteh was forced to resign in 2007 over a scandal that erupted in the sixth assembly of the House. She was later exonerated of any wrongdoing by the lower Chamber of the National Assembly.

Commenting on the allegation that the Aviation Minister abused her office by pressurizing the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority NCAA to purchase the cars for her use, the leader of the group asked: “Is Stella Oduah the only minister or public officer for whom bullet-proof cars have been bought in this country?”

She continued: “What her male political opponents have done is to frame her up.

Whenever, any woman is appointed into any high office in this country, the men would go and rake up untidy things about her for the purpose of bringing her down. They should leave her alone”.

In response to a reporter’s question she asked “Have the men exposed other political office holders who are also riding bullet-proof cars ?”

“Have male political office holders who are using bullet-proof cars been removed from office?”

“I want all these questions answered” she said.

According to her: “I am not saying it is good or not good for top government officials to be driven in bullet proof cars.”

What has been done to others who are being driven around in security cars?” she asked.

She said she didn’t want to mention names but was aware that other ministers and even governors were being driven in bullet proof cars.

In response to another question about public outrage over the cost of the cars, she retorted “The cost of security cars bought for other past top government officers was also too high”.

She maintained that all other top government officials should also present their bullet proof cars for probe.

She denied that the group was sponsored by the Aviation Minister to embark on the protest adding that the group’s major goal was to protect the interest of women.

She cautioned President Goodluck Jonathan against sacking the Aviation Minister adding that it would be tantamount to partiality on his part.

She linked the agitation for the sack of Princess Oduah as part of a plot by a cabal to destabilize the Jonathan administration.

Another group which identified itself as the Grassroot Movement for Unity and Stability also participated in the protest alongside the women.

In a press release circulated at the venue of the protest and signed by the group’s National Coordinator, Edisemi Yiki, the group declared that “our society will die the day men and women of good conscience choose to remain silent in the face of cheap baseless blackmail which cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt” .

According to the group: “We are concerned that certain persons have constituted themselves into a secret cabal with the sole aim to undermine and rubbish the developmental efforts of the Aviation Minister.”

The group further stated that some of the present administration’s enemies see Oduah “as a threat come 2015 especially because her political machine known as door-to-door contributed to President Jonathan’s victory at the 2011 polls”.