By Raymond Eyo
“Truth is as impossible to be soiled by any outward touch as the sunbeam.”
– John Milton, 17th Century English poet
On October 31, embattled and generally discredited Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, finally faced the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation for grilling on the subject of the corruption scandal having to do with her ordering for the purchase of two bulletproof cars worth $1.6million (₦255million), allegedly for her use by an agency under her ministry, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
Despite the earlier admission by Oduah’s spokesperson, Joel Obi, that the minister indeed sanctioned the illegal and unbudgeted purchase for her use in the face of threats to her life, it was always necessary to hear her own story before the appropriate authorities and anti-graft agencies can take concrete action. In fact, the said anti-graft agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), ought to have moved swiftly to question Oduah, as soon as the scandal broke out so as to forestall any interference with evidence on her part that could sabotage such investigations. Well, that did not happen and why it didn’t is a story for another day – and one that actually deserves to be investigated itself.
Our present purpose, however, is Stella Oduah’s assertions at the October 31 hearing on #StellaGate. After weighing her statements in the light of the earlier official disclosures by officials who should be in the know of what really transpired, it appears obvious to me, and many other discerning Nigerians, that Oduah’s defence was fraught with many half-truths and inconsistencies, designed to manipulate facts against the overwhelming evidence so that she can be let off the hook and probably continue in office.
For one, Oduah defended the NCAA, saying, in effecting the purchase, “they acted within the law”. But when reminded that the National Assembly did not approve the same purchase, Oduah instead referred her inquirers to the NCAA. This begs the important question: Why would Oduah say NCAA acted within the law when they, admittedly, made an unbudgeted purchase? The Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences law states that expending state funds on projects outside the budget is punishable by a three-year jail term and a ₦1m fine. Likewise, the Public Procurement law stipulates that contracts that breach procurement protocols such as open bidding attract between five and ten years in jail. Clearly, therefore, the fact that the purchase of the armoured cars wasn’t approved by the National Assembly makes anyone who sanctioned it liable to criminal charges!
As minister, it is Oduah’s responsibility to ensure that all agencies under her are compliant with extant laws! Why did Oduah approve a purchase without crosschecking if it was within the ambit of the law or not? Isn’t she supposed to call to order any erring departments and agencies under her ministry’s watch, in the event of their acting out of order, particularly when huge funds are involved, like in this case?
At the hearing, Stella Oduah also said: “Armoured cars are not meant for me but foreign dignitaries.” Which foreign dignitaries was she referring to that deserved expensive armoured protection in Nigeria? Presidents? Aviation ministers of different countries? Industry experts? Since when did it become verified and established that foreign dignitaries are under threat in Nigeria to warrant armoured protection? In any case, if every MDA has to procure armoured cars for foreign dignitaries at such exorbitant and inflated rates, what will be left for capital expenditure or even for the important recurrent overheads? Many questions; all begging for answers!
Furthermore, Oduah said her spokesperson’s admission of the armoured cars purchase was “inaccurate”. If Oduah’s spokesperson’s account was inaccurate, then it again highlights the incompetence that characterizes Nigerian governance where nepotism, tribalism and favouritism hold sway over meritocracy. By this I mean, if Oduah’s spokesperson didn’t verify his assertion, with his boss, before making it public, it indicates he lacks knowledge of the job and therefore wasn’t the right pick for the job! Ostensibly, Oduah is lying blatantly, or she clearly didn’t value merit when picking her spokesperson. Either way, she is guilty of one form of malfeasance or the other. More importantly, it is also possible that Oduah’s denial of her spokesperson’s earlier stance is a volte-face prompted by the public outrage over the purchase. This alone is sufficient reason for the matter to go to court.
One additional thing that Oduah’s untenable assertions at the hearing, vis-à-vis the earlier statements by her spokesperson and NCAA, also reveal is the well-established fact that Nigeria’s apparatchiks and their surrogates always decline individual blame for their collective malfeasance. Public affairs analyst and commentator, Ayobami Oyalowo, agrees to this by saying: “It is all a spin. They are collectively lying their way out of the issue.”
In all, Oduah’s defence at the hearing was lacking in depth and solidity and abundant in lies and half-truths. From every indication, there is a great need for President Goodluck Jonathan to immediately fire Oduah and for her to stand trial in a law court so that all the relevant facts can be ascertained, beyond doubt, and the appropriate punishment meted out to all who have been involved in this messy and costly corruption scandal.
Nigerians are watching keenly! If this scandal toes the uneventful path of the many others before it, especially under his presidency, it will only reinforce the widespread perception that Jonathan is aiding and abetting corruption.