Beyond the howls of outrage at the illegal purchase (with public funds) of bulletproof cars for Stella Oduah, the Minister of Aviation, Nigerians need to come to terms with the reality that the government has lost the war on corruption. The scandal partly explains why our airspace is dangerous; why billions of naira poured into the sector have not revived the industry and why officials charged with managing air transport are obsessed with their own comfort. Indeed, Oduahgate, if not properly handled, will have shattering implications for the Jonathan government.
While calls for the sacking of the manifestly incompetent minister have rightly gathered momentum, the Nigerian government must resolve to cleanse the aviation sector, initiate widespread reforms and flush out the obsequious and irredeemably corrupt bureaucrats that have held it hostage. Most importantly, we have to deal with the twin evils of pervasive corruption and the monumental waste represented by a bloated and over-pampered public service.
The task is daunting. President Goodluck Jonathan has, in three years in office, failed to demonstrate purposeful leadership and only pays lip service to fighting corruption and prudent financial management. It is dismaying enough that Oduah apparently sees nothing inappropriate in her actions and public anger over the $1.6 million (about N250 million) purchase, but it is even more troubling that the President has not deemed it fit to fire her. The National Assembly that should protect the public interest and exercise oversight on the executive is equally greedy and uncaring. A passive electorate and weak civil institutions have also fostered a culture of impunity and lack of accountability in those occupying public office.
The frightening case illustrates just how. According to news reports, the minister requested that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority purchase bulletproof cars for her. The officials obliged, spending $1.6 million of the agency’s funds to buy two BMW SUVs to massage Oduah’s vanity. Here is an organisation that complains of underfunding and lacks many of the essential up-to-date equipment that is standard everywhere else. This is shocking, but unsurprising. It is not yet known just how many similar expenses have been borne by other agencies being supervised by the Aviation Ministry. But it is known that the parastatals were asked, on “instructions from above,” to raise money for unexplained “activities” relating to the opening of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, in August, for which the cash-strapped Nigerian College of Aviation Technology alone raised N5.03 million.
In justifying the purchase, Oduah, through her aide, said she requested the cars due to “threats to her life.” That is troubling enough. This is certainly in line with her disdain for the public. Responding to criticism over the crash of an Associated Airlines plane that killed 14 persons recently, she had bizarrely attributed it to “an act of God,” and, to rub it in, added that plane crashes are “inevitable.” Even the most fair-minded person must be baffled and shocked by these actions and statements.
Since the minister and legislators are routinely maintained in circumstances described by a former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili, as “obscene luxury,” it is not surprising that bureaucrats not only routinely fail to discharge their duties, but also luxuriate at public expense. It has since emerged that the NCAA has purchased 34 new cars (13 Toyota Prado SUVs and 21 Corolla saloons) for its top managers despite a subsisting policy on monetisation of fringe benefits. The Director-General of the NCAA, Fola Akinkuotu, and the entire management and board should be immediately investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and prosecuted and sacked if they are found to have broken the law. We sorely need upright, courageous officials that can say, “No,” to the unlawful demands of politicians in temporary tenancy of public office.
The probe should extend to all agencies supervised by the ministry whose shortcomings are all too obvious to the public. The Dana Airline crash of last year that claimed 151 lives and this month’s crash exposed how corruption, incompetence and blatant compromising of regulations and standards have made air travel a risky venture in Nigeria. The industry needs a massive shake-up to enable it to recover, just as it has rebounded in most other parts of the world after the slump that followed the September 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
Mind-boggling cases like this are bound to catch the attention of those who have been dehumanised and debased by an insensitive government. At an exchange rate of N155 to $1, Oduah’s vanity would establish eight cottage clinics of N30 million each, or fund the sinking of 50 boreholes in a country where only 17 per cent of its 160 million people have access to pipe-borne water, according to a UNDP report. Most ministers also enjoy the extra-budgetary perks Oduah got. The steep damage of this era to public finance will not be wiped out so easily.
The Jonathan government’s chronic lack of transparency makes the odious cars purchase possible. In a decent world, Oduah would not be defending the scurrilous affair but answering questions from anti-fraud agencies. The President should fire this minister immediately. Failing to do so suggests a lack of modicum of integrity in government. The President should search for an honest, passionate professional that understands aviation to succeed Oduah, the latest in a long line of ministers who lack knowledge of the industry.
Jonathan should take the war against corruption more seriously, while the National Assembly should adopt a more vigorous and effective stance on its oversight responsibility. Nigerians should not be complacent but continue to demand accountability from public officials.