NCAA proposed N140 million for the two cars although National Assembly blocked the spending.
At a combative House of Representatives hearing Thursday, lawmakers, and officials of the Bureau of Public Procurement, BPP, shredded claims advanced by aviations agencies and the minister to escape criminal prosecution with respect to the car procurement scandal rocking the aviation ministry.
Minister for Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, compelled the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, against due process principles, and outside budgetary approvals, to procure two armoured plated BMW cars for her at a cost of N255 million, four times the market price.
In a rare act of prompt response to instances of grand corruption in his administration, president Goodluck Jonathan, prior to an official trip to Israel, fired a query at the minister, a close ally who ran his last campaign, and empanelled a three-man committee to look into the matter.
Rushing a response to the presidents’ query and heading off to Israel, presumably as part of the presidential official entourage, Mrs. Oduah, who studied accounting and business studies, claimed the purchases were in tune with the procurement law of the land, and that they were duly appropriated in the 2013 budget.
Furious lawmakers and procurement experts Thursday in Abuja tore through her claims, ramming knocks at every point she made in her widely circulated response officially meant for the president, but, in what again appeared to be an abuse of protocol, was curiously mass circulated to help stem her tumbling public relations profile.
The House committee on aviation, which has oversight responsibilities over Mrs. Oduah’s ministry and agencies, recalled that the NCAA proposed to purchase two armoured cars, at N140 million for “executive movements and security/safety purposes,” as well as assorted brands of Toyota cars as operational vehicles.
In the approved budget, however, signed by the Aviation committee chairpersons in the Senate and the House, the armoured cars were unapproved and deleted. Details of the NCAA budget were made available at the hearing, which showed how the armoured car proposal was struck off by the legislators.
“The constitution is clear: no public fund shall be spent without the approval of the National Assembly,” said Nkiruka Onyejiocha, who heads the aviation committee.
The Committee hearing also revealed a pattern of disdain and contempt for legislative oversight at the Oduah agencies illustrated by the fact that although the National Assembly approved 25 operational vehicles for the NCAA, comprising of Toyota Hilux, Corollas, Prados and Hiaces at the total cost of N240 million, the agency went ahead to implement its own preferences.
Defying relevant laws, the NCAA, in its implementation, insisted to buy 54 cars, including the two armoured BMW cars that were rejected by the lawmakers, all at a total of N643 million, with a financing from First Bank that may could the total cost to N1 billion when all interests are added.
A surprising point was how the armoured cars, even when they had been rejected, suddenly rose from N140 million that the agency proposed to the National Assembly, to N255 million, an amount that has added to the fury many Nigerians have shown since the scandal broke, calling for the removal of the minister, Mrs. Oduah.
Language play as a Defence
Officials of the NCAA, at the committee hearing, adopted the language play and weaving claims of the minister, in her query response to the president, insisting, “Due Process was followed in the procurement of the said operational vehicles.”
Acting director general of the NCAA, Joyce Nkemakolam, who supervised the procurement, despite apparent evidences to the contrary, maintained at the hearing that the purchases were lawful.
When questioned by the committee chairperson, Mrs. Onyejiocha, if the purchase was right, he answered in the affirmative, contending that it was in the budget, and offering as evidence, a subhead in the approved budget that allows for the purchase of “operational vehicles.”
Mr. Nkemakolam said the subhead was a “holistic description” with import stretching to cover the armoured cars, as evidence of approval for the purchase, he said, “the NCAA wrote to the minister for approval before buying the cars, and the minister approved,” in essence investing the minister with a legislative power.
In the budget, such vehicles were supposed to be used for the inspection and monitoring, of airport perimeter fencing, and this prompted Jerry Manwe, a member of the committee from Taraba state, to quip that “There is no way armoured cars can be used for the inspection of perimeter fences.”
The grounds radically shifted for the aviation team at the hearing when officials of the Bureau for Public Procurement drilled holes in their claim characterizing the claims as false.
Mr. Ayo Aderibigbe, who represented the director general of the BPP, Emeka Eze, said the aviation ministry was never in correspondence with the BPP on the issue of the cars in question, and that a Certificate of No Objection was never awarded to NCAA as green light for the purchases.
“We have nothing to forward to the honourable house on this because they don’t exist,” he said for each, implying the NCAA did not subject any of the purchases through the required procurement stipulations. Mr. Aderibigbe remarked.
Ms Seember Nyager, who heads the Public and Private Development Centre, a civic institution in Abuja that promotes transparency by monitoring procurement culture in the country, echoed this same point, stating that there was no where in both the 2013 and in the 2012 budget that approvals were offered to purchase the NCAA cars.
She alluded to the word play and lexical shift in the language of the aviation officials that allowed them break the procurement laws while deluding themselves that they were acting lawfully.
“The budget expenditure of the NCAA is supposed to be approved by the National Assembly and not the ministry of Aviation. If operational vehicles were needed, we should see it in the Appropriation Act; this is not listed in the Appropriation Act so again, how do we know that it is part of the approved budget? As far as we know, it is not “ she queried Ms Nyager argued further: “Assuming that the NCAA sought authorization from the Ministry of Aviation who then sought approval from the appropriate quarters (NASS) so that due process was indeed followed, the advertisement would have to have been placed for at least six weeks if the default open competitive bidding method was adopted.
However, the date for request of authorization and the date of the bid opening is barely six weeks. This suggests that there may have been a breach in the process and the only way to prove otherwise is by ensuring public access to these records.
“Assuming that there has been no breach in due process so far and the procurement process is at the stage of recommending a preferred bidder, the threshold for the Parastatal tenders board is 2.50 million and above but not more than 50 million. For any goods above 100 million, then the BPP would need to issue a certificate of no objection. If the value of the vehicles is up to 100 million, then it certainly does not fall within the threshold of the Ministry.“
Eze Onyekpere, Lead Director, at the Centre for Social Justice accepts Ms. Nyager’s reasoning adding that the ministers’ rationalizations on the car procurement fail when subjected to two rational tests: why was the price of the car inflated and who approved her budget to appropriate the purchase.
Mr. Onyekpere said the inability to come clean with a clear case of crime here was what led Mrs. Oduah into “all these language manouevres” warning here “it is not about formal presentation and being smart.”
Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, chief executive at the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, puts the blame on President Jonathan who he said had shown no serious commitment to anti-corruption beyond rhetoric.
“Next week in London the Open Government summit opens with the door slammed against Nigeria because of the impunity of corruption here, that is how bad matters have gone Mr. Musa said, wondering how Mrs. Oduah was not placed on suspension, and was allowed to join the president in Israel for the state visit.
“This is a poor way to inspire a country, this is sending the very wrong message, this is a clear show of disregard for public concern, Mr Musa pleaded, contending that “the mindset of the president, is that public pain and frustration with corruption does not matter since the lady is in his kitchen cabinet.”
He said most Nigerians would have appreciated that Mrs. Oduah distance himself from public function and keep quiet till the report of the investigations on her is ready.
Coscharis, the firm that supplied the car at a rate many believe was deliberately inflated, appealed to be allowed to respond on Tuesday as the head of the company, Cosmas Maduka, was away in China, and would be returning soon.
The committee said the representatives of the NCAA, including current director general, could not answer required questions satisfactorily and directed the agency to return on Tuesday with all invoices involved in the transaction and a six-month statement of account of the bureau. Mrs Oduah is also expected at the Tuesaday hearing.