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N255m car scandal: No cover-up for Oduah -Presidency

By The Rainbow
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The Presidency on Thursday promised that President Goodluck Jonathan will not cover up the embattled Minister of Aviation, Ms Stella Oduah, on the N255m bulletproof cars bought for her by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.

Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters, Mr. Ahmed Gulak, made the Presidency's position known in an exclusive interview with our correspondent.

But despite the assurances from the Presidency, Nigerian lawyers said they had no confidence in the ability of the probe panels and committees set up to bring the minister to book if found guilty.

Gulak told Saturday PUNCH that the position of the President remained that whoever is found wanting, no matter how highly placed, would be sanctioned appropriately.

He said if Jonathan planned a cover-up for the embattled minister, he would not have bothered to query her and constitute an administrative probe panel to investigate the matter.

The presidential aide added that the fact that the National Assembly was also investigating the matter showed the seriousness the government attached to the issue.

He, therefore, appealed to all stakeholders to wait for the three-man administrative panel to conclude its assignment next week and see what the President will do based on the report before forming their opinions on the issue.

Gulak said, 'How can people be accusing the President of planning to cover up the minister?

'If he had planned a cover-up for her, he would not have bothered to query her. If he wanted to do cover up, the President would not have constituted a probe panel to investigate the matter.

'I can tell you authoritatively that President Jonathan will not cover up anybody.

'We should all wait for the outcome of the panel and see what the President will do. What I know is that he will not hesitate to sanction anybody found wanton, no matter how highly placed.

But, lawyers who spoke to Saturday PUNCH on Thursday said all the committees set up by both the National Assembly and the Presidency were not necessary, saying the job should be left to anti-corruption agencies.

According to Mr. Bamidele Aturu, a lawyer, the committees whether by the Presidency or the House of Assembly constitute a waste of resources and time.

He said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission ought to take up the investigation instead of the media show or soap opera that the committees were engaged in.

He said the minister should have saved the President the embarrassment that her continued stay in office had caused rather than  going before the committee  to give what clearly was no more than  an attempt to rationalise the indefensible.

Another lawyer, Jiti Ogunye,  said the whole investigation by the House of Assembly and the Presidency was diversionary, adding that the committees were only blowing hot air.

He said  the Presidency should have directed the EFCC and ICPC to investigate the matter. ''Let criminal investigation commence and if a case is established against her, let prosecution follow,'' he added.

He described the minister's defence as hogwash, an afterthought and an untenable pretext for the unpardonable act of squandering public funds by her ministry and the department which her ministry supervised.

He said the issue was not whether the vehicles were meant for her personally but the fact that under her watch the vehicles were bought at outrageous price and the purchase did not follow due process.

''The NCAA was not established to buy armoured vehicles. Are they carrying money,'' he queried, adding that previous committees on corrupt allegations did not yield any positive results.

Similarly, another lawyer, Mallam Yusuf Alli (SAN), said he was not sure that the investigation would produce any meaningful result because some of the legislators carrying out the probe are not 'clean'.

Alli, who spoke with one of our correspondents in a telephone interview on Thursday, said the minister should have taken the high road by resigning at the initial stage.

He said, 'My thesis is that if it had been a country in which we have high morality and decency among public officials, we won't even have to go to all these levels. The concerned official would have quietly resigned and saved all of us these exposé. But we are in a country where the culture of resignation even in the face of the most startling scandal is totally absent.

'It is as if we are obtuse to all things that are decent and proper. I said I hope anything comes of the sitting because in the same House of Representatives, there are few members facing serious criminal allegations. These sets of people are the ones probing someone else. It is the pot calling the kettle black. Anybody who wants to launch a moral crusade must be clean.'

Asked if resignation would have been enough to make the scandal go away, Alli said if the minister had taken that step, she would have retained some level of rectitude.

Also, the Acting National Coordinator, Committee for Democracy and Rights of the People, Mr. Saka Wahid, said it was shameful that past probes by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration had amounted to nothing.

Describing public probes as a waste of taxpayers' funds, CDRP alleged that the Presidency was shielding Oduah

In a telephone interview on Thursday, the group said, 'Would the Presidency claim not to know that the cars were brought for the minister in the first place? It is obvious that she would have announced the purchase of the cars gleefully to the President and glasses would have been clinked over it.'

'Who is deceiving who? What is the outcome of all the probes in the past? Was any culprit ever brought to justice? Nigerians are wiser.'

An online publication, Sahara Reporters, had also stated that the committee seemed reluctant to ask Oduah hard questions.

It quoted a  member of an anti-corruption group who witnessed the session as saying 'Why were they not grilling Ms. Oduah on how her spokesman, Joe Obi, could have issued a statement on such a sensitive issue without clearing it with her? Why would he say the cars were purchased for the minister's safety and security, and now she's suddenly claiming that they were bought for foreign delegates visiting the ministry?  And there is the most important question that any serious committee should ask: Why did she authorise the spending of nearly $800,000 to buy each car when the real price tag is not up to $200,000?'

'The source said that, unfortunately, 'oversight committees of the National Assembly have a reputation for letting corrupt government officials get off the hook in exchange for payoffs.'

Oduah had appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation on Thursday where she denied being the owner of the  controversial N255m bulletproof cars purchased by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.

Before her appearance, there were fresh revelations on the scandal in the ministry on Wednesday.  Part of these revelations was that Coscharis Motors which imported the armoured cars failed to pay duty on the vehicles to the Nigerian Customs Service.

It was also discovered that  both the Federal Ministry of Finance and the National Security Adviser were made to believe that the two vehicles were for the 18th National Sports Festival [Eko Games 2012] hosted by Lagos State.

According to the Customs, the government lost N10.1m due to the waiver for the two bulletproof cars. PUNCH