The N255 million bulletproof cars scandal involving aviation minister Stella Oduah again accentuates the high-level impunity, corruption and propensity of politicians and other public officers to squander the nation’s riches
By MUYIWA LUCAS
Last week’s Federal Executive Council, FEC, meeting was sombre. Not for the loss of a member or a report of any air crash. Rather, it was for the scandal rocking a prominent and influential member of the body, Stella Oduah, minister of aviation, over her purchase of two armoured BMW 760Li through the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, at the cost of $1.6 million or N255 million.
The foul mood that enveloped the cabinet meeting is, perhaps, understandable. Oduah, believed to have the ears of President Goodluck Jonathan and also a member of his kitchen-cabinet who many classify as an “untouchable” in this administration, may have boxed the President into a tight corner on the matter, forcing him to take measures, even if reluctantly.
Rising from the meeting, Jonathan set up a three-man committee headed by Isa Bello Sali, a former head of service of the federation, to investigate the bulletproof cars scandal. The other two members are Sambo Dasuki, National Security Adviser, NSA, whose office will host their sittings, and Dick Iruenabere, a retired air vice marshal. They have two weeks to complete the job. Prior to this, the President painfully had to query Oduah on the scandal and requested some explanations for the bulletproof BMW. Therefore, for Oduah, it doesn’t only rain; it pours.
Oduah, who has bestridden the nation’s aviation sector like a colossus, initiating projects like airport remodelling, has been involved in several controversies in the course of discharging her duties, like the cancellation of several concession agreements in the industry, which she believes are not in public interest. But none of these appears to be as scathing as the current one she is embroiled in. This transaction, viewed largely as an abuse of office by the minister, has thrown the aviation community and, indeed, the country into confusion, especially with the revelations coming out of the deal.
The armoured BMW 760Li deal purchase process began last June, and was concluded with delivery of same on August 15, 2013. Joyce Nkemakolam, who became acting director-general, DG, of the NCAA following Harold Demuren’s exit as DG of the agency, was said to have sent a letter to Coscharis Motors, requesting the company to deliver two BMW 760 Li armoured vehicles to the agency based on a pro forma invoice dated June 25, 2013 at the cost of N127, 575,000, or $796,846.21 each. Nkemakolam was the accounting officer of the NCAA from April 14 to August 14, 2013.
However, with Fola Akinkuotu, current NCAA boss, and the minister receiving knocks for the controversial purchase, their colleagues and other top civil servants see them as ‘just unlucky’ to have been caught pants down. The cars they have bought have been successfully purchased by many of their peers without any controversy. The cars are just two out of many such bulletproof cars in the country. Many ministers and top politicians in government, who have convinced themselves that their positions are strategic, have bulletproof cars. The leadership of the National Assembly, NASS, are also believed to have bulletproof vehicles. The Senate president and his deputy allegedly have about 20 cars each attached to their offices at the taxpayers expense. Sometime during the last administration, apart from the fleet of the Senate president, a N30 million bulletproof Lexus 4 X 4 was added to his fleet. The same is applicable to the principal officers in the NASS. Heads of some very strategic agencies and parastatals are also cruising in bulletproof vehicles.
But such luxury cars are not restricted to public officers at the federal level. Nearly all the governors, deputy governors and speakers of the state assemblies have bulletproof cars whose purchase were not captured in their respective state budgets. Usually they buy in twos for security reasons. For instance, in 2011, the government of Lagos State allegedly took delivery of three armoured vehicles valued at N600 million for the governor and a top party leader in the state. Similarly, a few months after purchasing a $45 million jet, a governor in the south earlier in the year took delivery of N200 million bulletproof sprinter luxury vans from the Texas Armoring Corporation, TAC, in US. The vans are additions to the top-of-the-line bulletproof luxury SUVs the governor already has in his official convoy.
Jailed James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, was also reported to have bought a $250,000 armour-plated Hummer jeep while in office. Ibori was also reported to have given Land Cruiser Prado to the house of assembly members, less than seven months to the expiration of his tenure. Gabriel Suswan, Benue State governor, is said to drive two armoured Cadillac Escalade. Also, Rabiu Kwankwanso, governor of Kano State, on June 3, 2012, was reported to have received shipment of three armoured Escalade Cadillac SUVs at the total price of N156 million excluding shipping cost, from TAC; the vehicles were supplied by Maibiyar Motors. The vehicles provide protection against high-power rifles such as 7.62×39, 5.56×45, 7.62×51 and M80 ball. Additional areas of armouring are the fuel tank, battery and computer module. It has anti-mine protection including DM51 grenade/fragmentation. It is a 6.2L V8 gasoline engine and a 6-speed automatic transmission.
At the rate of an average N50 million per armoured car and five cars for each state, the 36 governors would have lavished N8.75 billion on the cars. A national weekly, Sunday Punch, put the total number of such cars being imported into Nigeria at between 600 and 1,000 every year. In 2011, Nigerian politicians and businessmen spent about N3 billion on bulletproof cars within six months of the year alone. Of these cars, the Mercedes Benz G-500, E320, and S-class in the B4, B6, and B7 armoured categories, which cost between N50 million and N70 million each, were the most preferred.
The magazine found out that the most commonly used armoured car in the country is the Toyota V12 armoured landcruiser, which sells for between N78 million and N100 million, depending on the level of armouring.
For public officers, the exotic cars are gift items at the end of their services to the country. New ministers, governors and DGs of some very rich agencies get bulletproof cars and other essential needs as welcome packs. For ministers, the unspoken law is that parastatals under a ministry pay for whatever is considered as special needs of the supervising minister.
TELL’s investigations showed that the leading armouring company in the world is the TAC. An official of the company who was not permitted to talk to the press told the magazine in anonymity that Nigerians are among their top clients. It takes 90 to 150 days to armour one car, so the company, he claims, is under pressure to cope with orders from Nigeria and other developing countries. The source estimates that yearly, his company gets about $20 million orders from Nigeria.
The services of the TAC are not meant for everybody. They are strictly for the well-heeled upper class – captains of industry and politicians. The official confirmed that costs vary from $55,000 to $500,000 depending on the level of armoring required. A breakdown shows that the price includes 100 per cent of the chassis cost, 50 per cent of armouring and conversion cost to be paid upfront and a final 50 per cent paid before delivery. The company rates West Africa, Mexico, Russia and South America as high-risk countries.
TAC is not only the armoured vehicle manufacturing company wooing Nigerians. With the rich and the powerful looking for armoured vehicles to buy in order to protect themselves from terrorists and allied criminals, an apparently new armoured vehicles manufacturing company that calls itself Proforce, last October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day, in a full page advertisement, asked Nigerians looking for vehicles like APCs, SUVs, UAVs, Salooms, passenger buses, tanks and armoured patrol boats to patronise them. “You Are Fully Protected,” the company with offices in Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, boasted.
Apart from bulletproof cars, which they also fuel and maintain with public funds, public officers in Nigeria have also developed high taste for exotic executive aircrafts. In this class are the state governors, in particular, who buy jets in the name of their states and use same for personal and official assignments. One governor took possession of a brand-new Gulfstream G.450 valued at about $45 million, about N6.75 billion, while another bought a Bombadier Global 5,000 for the state at the cost of about $57 million. Governor Danbaba Suntai crashed the state’s Cessna 208 jet last year October while flying it to Yola, Adamawa State. He was the pilot of the ill-fated aircraft. Now the crashed jet is public money down the drain while Suntai is yet to recover from the incident.
The impunity with which Nigerian government officials spend public fund is further accentuated by the size of the Nigerian President’s automobile fleet. For instance, in the 2012 budget, N280 million was provided for the purchase of two bulletproof Mercedes Benz saloon 600 E Guard for use by the President and vice president at N140,000,000 each. There was also provision to spend N356,724,300 to replace aged vehicles belonging to the Presidential Ground Fleet, PGF. Other automobile provisions for the PGF in 2012 were five Mercedes Benz saloon 350, made up of semi plain/partial bullet proof at N25 million each; 10 jeeps comprising Range Rover, Prado and Land Cruiser at N10 million each and procurement of accessories and maintenance equipment for guard vehicles at N25 million. The President’s vehicular entourage also includes escort cars, escort bikes and a fully equipped ambulance. The presidential car is driven within a chain of about six identical S-class Mercedes Benz cars as a decoy.
Still on the Presidency, while domestic airlines are comatose, and without a national carrier, the Presidential Air Fleet, PAF, has 10 aircraft, making it the third largest “airline” in the country after Arik Air and Aero Contractors. Our findings revealed that the PAF fleet is a delight for any businessman in airline business. The fleet is made up of two Falcon 7X jets; two Falcon 900 jets; one Gulfstream 550; one Boeing 737 Boeing Business Jet, BBJ, and one Gulfstream IVSP.
Others making up the list are one Gulfstream V; Cessna Citation 2 aircraft; and Hawker Siddley 125-800 jet. The Boeing 737 BBJ, christened Nigerian Air Force 001 or Eagle One, is exclusively used by the President. The Falcon 7X jets, bought in 2010, cost $51.1million each, while the Gulfstream 550 costs $53.3 million. Experts in aviation and aircraft business told the magazine that the average price of the Falcon 900 is about $35 million; Gulfstream IVSP, $40 million; Gulfstream V, $45 million; Boeing 737 BBJ, $58 million; Cessna Citation, $7 million, and Hawker Siddley 125-800, $15 million.
By implication, the PAF is worth about $390.5 million or N60.53 billion. Yet, maintaining these fleet comes at a huge cost, estimated to be about N9 billion annually, because airline operators say that it costs about 20 per cent of an aircraft price to operate it yearly including insurance, flight and cabin crew, maintenance, fuelling, catering and training. Also, in the fleet of the PAF are three A139 choppers, used by the President when taking short trips or visiting inaccessible areas also to save time and limit traffic disruptions associated with motorcades. President Jonathan, unlike his predecessors, has really favoured this means of transport, relying on it many times. The choppers are maintained by the Nigerian Air Force.
Last June, what some described as the country’s fiscal reckless generosity took another dimension when a jet from the PAF was dispatched to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, to fly Joyce Banda, Malawi’s president, to Abuja, to deliver the keynote address at the Global Power Women Network Africa Summit at the invitation of Patience Jonathan, Nigeria’s First Lady. The same aircraft took her home after the event.
While Jonathan has increased the PAF fleet to 10 in the last three years, Malawi does not have a presidential aircraft. This is because, Banda, on assumption of office in 2012, undertook a surgical review of her country’s economy, and realising that a presidential jet could not be sustained since the country’s 40 per cent of national budget came from aid donors, while revenues from its major exports – tobacco, tea, coffee and sugar – were falling due to lower global demand and prices, she sold the jet for $15 million.
When Nigeria’s public officers have cause to fly commercial airlines, they fly first class or charter private jets also at the expense of taxpayers. State governors, particularly, have helped to enrich private charter companies in the aviation sector, as they no longer use domestic commercial flights. Those whose states cannot afford to buy an executive jet make do with chartering same. And because governors are always on the move, the cost of chartering these jets dig a huge hole in the state treasury.
The magazine learnt that owners of small private jets charge about $3,200 or N480,000 for an hour charter flight while those operating heavy jets charge about $4,500 or N675,000 for an hour flight. To charter a BBJ for a one hour flight cost between N1.8 million and N2 million. This type of aircraft is the preferred among state executives and other high-ranking ministers.
Profligacy in the public sector also includes travelling outside the country with large delegations, burning hotel bills and estacodes in foreign currencies. This is one of the squandering methods common in the Presidency and governors’ offices at the state level. President Jonathan, for example, recently led a delegation of about 547 civil servants drawn from ministries, departments and agencies to the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York, US, according to newspaper reports.
It is the apparently unequalled penchant to literally play Father Christmas by public officials that has been fuelling corruption in the country. By engaging in ostentatious lifestyle, they squander scarce public funds by loading or padding contract sums and share the proceeds with their families, cronies and party loyalists.
Revelations at the House of Representatives hearing in Abuja last Thursday gave an insight into the impunity and gross violation of budgetary approval by the NCAA. According to Nkemakolam, the approved 2013 budget of N240 million for cars was jerked up to N643 million by the Ministry of Aviation.
A breakdown of the approval showed that five Toyota Hilux Pickup vans, 10 Toyota Corolla cars, five Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs, three Toyota Hiace buses, were approved at a cost of N240 million, but eventually the agency bought 54 vehicles through the bank lease for the sum of N643 million which, Nkemakolam said was financed by First Bank. The financing agreement between the agency and the bank showed that NCAA was to repay the sum with an interest of about N500 million to be paid on the N643 million within 36 months. Two months installments on the repayment, the NCAA said, have been made to the financing bank.
When asked by the committee on the wisdom of committing next year, 2014 and 2015 to repayment of excess debt incurred illegally in the process of implementing the 2013 budget, the agency could not provide any answer.
Akinkuotu, who assumed office on August 14, washed his hands clean of the transaction, but the public have since given him knocks for his earlier utterances on a matter he apparently knew nothing about. He was only trying not to put the minister on the sport.
The armoured car saga has become the latest act of corruption at the national level. It is another evidence that corruption is growing in leaps and bounds awaiting an urgent intervention from the president. However, President Jonathan’s recent pronouncements on corruption have been giving no room for hope. At a recent media chat, the president had argued that corruption was not Nigeria’s number one problem. I am not saying we don’t have issues of corruption but that is not our number one problem. Sometimes people take common stealing as corruption. A thief is a thief. When you steal money you are a thief. But what we are doing is to make sure that you don’t expose public money for anybody to steal. We have done that in agric sector.” The president has not been strong on those who stole ‘exposed’ public money to make them serve as deterrents. Last year in an exclusive interview with this magazine, he described corruption as being “like any other crime in the society…no president will wake up and say, ‘I have the magic wand to wipe out corruption.” When I look at some people that I know and they shout ‘corruption, corruption, I shake my head, the president said. Statements like these are seen as very defeatist tactics in the fight against corruption.
Although the Oduah saga is being investigated, some people, however, see the setting up of a panel as a comedy. The police, State Security Service or even the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission should have been deployed to conduct the investigation they insist. What is more, not a few are surprised that Oduah, whom Jonathan is subjecting to investigation, was also included on the President’s entourage to Israel, fuelling suspicion that nothing would come out of the panel.
For now, those claiming that due process was followed in buying the Oduah armoured BMW cars may need to have a rethink. Last Thursday, the Bureau for Public Procurement, BPP, insisted that the embattled minister and the NCAA breached the Public Procurement Act with the purchase of the armoured cars and 52 other operational vehicles for the minister and the agency. Ayo Adedigbe, a deputy director at the BPP, disclosed last Thursday during an investigative hearing at the House of Representatives that contrary to Section 15 and other relevant sections of the Act establishing the BPP, the Due Process Office was not involved in the procurement process of the cars. “No request letter was sent to the BPP for the purchase of the vehicles,” Adedigbe added, noting that contract worth more than N100 million was beyond the approval limit of the minister and the NCAA, and must go to the FEC for approval. For now, the world waits on Jonathan to prove his sincerity on the war against corruption.
Additional reports by Anayochukwu Agbo.