More cans of worms were thrown up on Wednesday in Abuja during the public hearing by the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation on the controversial N255m bulletproof cars purchased by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
But the woman at the centre of the scandal, Ms Stella Oduah, dared the committee as she again reneged on her promise to honour an invitation earlier extended to her.
Her absence however led to a near disagreement between the Committee Chairman, Mrs. Nkiruka Onyejeocha, and a member, Jerry Manwe.
Manwe had complained that the committee started proceedings without first clarifying why Oduah, who is the Minister of Aviation, was absent.
He said, “We adjourned (on Tuesday)to take the minister today (Wednesday). Why is she not here?
“She should have been the main issue today (Wednesday).
“The absence of the minister (Oduah) is a slap on the face of the House.”
Responding, Onyejeocha argued that the hearing was not about Oduah alone.
She overruled Manwe and moved on to hear the officials of the Nigerian Customs Service, Coscharis and First Bank Nigeria Plc state their roles in the purchase of the cars for Oduah by the NCAA.
The committee chairman later read a letter from the Ministry of Aviation in whicn the minister explained why she could not make the public sitting.
Onyejeocha told her colleagues that the Aviation ministry wrote to inform the committee that Oduah was on “transit” from Israel to Nigeria.
In the letter, the minister, who had allegedly failed to honour 12 invitations by the House, claimed that she would arrive in Lagos late on Wednesday and applied to appear before the committee on November 4.
• Oduah must appear today, says committee
But, Onyejeocha directed that the minister must appear on Thursday (today).
She said, “If she fails again, we take it that she does not want to appear. We are saying this in the spirit of fair hearing.
“Thursday (today) is sacrosanct and we will turn in our report whether she comes or not.”
The committee had on Monday issued a statement in which it insisted that the minister must appear before it on Wednesday.
It warned that it would not hesitate to take necessary actions against her if she failed to turn up on Wednesday.
The House spokesman, Zakari Mohammed, had also told The PUNCH on Tuesday, that sanctions that could be imposed on the minister if she failed to appear before the committee, included issuing a bench warrant to facilitate her arrest by security agents.
• Fresh revelations on the deal
But even with her absence, the committee, the NCS, Coscharis Motors and First Bank Nigeria Plc made fresh revelations on the controversial cars.
Among the fresh revelations made public at the hearing was the difference in the chassis numbers of the cars inspected by the committee members and those in the transaction documents between the NCAA and Coscharis.
Another is how 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.
The Customs Service was the first to blow the lid when it told the committee that no duty was paid on the cars because Coscharis obtained a duty exemption certificate from the Federal Ministry of Finance.
According to the Customs, the government lost N10.1m due to the waiver, which covered 300 vehicles, including the two controversial bulletproof cars.
The Deputy Comptroller-General (Modernisation and Economic Relations), Mr. Manasa Jatau, who testified before the panel, disclosed that the Ministry of Finance granted the waiver after Coscharis wrote that it wanted to import 300 assorted vehicles for the EKO Games.
He added that the “end beneficiary” of the cars, including the two bulletproof vehicles was the Lagos State Government.
However,he hinted that the waiver was later used as a cover to import the bulletproof cars to evade the payment of import duty.
He revealed that there was also a third bulletproof car imported by Coscharis.
The Customs chief who did not name the owner of the third bulletproof car, added that the office of the NSA issued a security clearance for the two bought for Oduah.
Asked whether a waiver granted for a specific purpose, could be transferred to a different end-user, he replied, “To the best of my knowledge, end-user certificate is not transferable.”
The DCG said, “N10.1m was the duty payable on the 300 vehicles; but no duty was paid because there was an import exemption certificate issued by the Federal Ministry of Finance.
“The waiver was for a period of one year.
“The waiver showed there were 300 vehicles for the sports festival, hosted from November to December, 2012.
“Only three of the vehicles were bulletproof and the NSA gave security certificate for their clearance.”
Coscharis Motors was represented at the hearing by its Chairman, Mr. Cosmos Maduka, and the Managing Director, Mr. Josiah Samuel.
The company admitted that it got a waiver to import vehicles for the games, saying that “it is the usual practice for government to approach us to supply vehicles for major events.”
However, efforts by the committee to establish how the waiver was used to cover the bulletproof cars, did not yield results.
Samuel parried questions and chose rather to advertise BMW cars to members at the hearing.
• Coscharis accused of connivance
The committee however accused the company of conniving with the NCAA to inflate the cost of the cars. But Coscharis denied the accusation.
On the price of the cars, Samuel claimed that the BMWs were “7 Series, B7” security cars, which were costlier than their equivalent quoted by “independent amourers” on the Internet.
He argued that the cars in question had factory-fitted armour, as against buying a plain car before taking it to an independent firm to rebuild.
The Managing Director stated that the factory price for the grade of BMW cars it supplied the NCAA was €418,000, excluding other charges.
On how the company gets and utilises duty waivers, Josiah said most times, the waivers would come too close to the date of the event they were meant to cover.
“So, what we do is that we sign a Memorandum of Understanding with government to release the vehicles we have in our showroom. We then use the waiver to replace the vehicles we have supplied”, he added.
But, his response angered Manwe, who accused Coscharis of committing “fraud.”
Manwe said a quotation he received from an American firm showed that the same car sold for N42m.
He said, “We are not fools; you have been taking us for a ride.
“You imported the cars without paying duty, why are you selling one for over N127m? Are your own bulletproof cars manufactured in the moon.
“You got a waiver to import cars for the National Sports Festival, but you ended up using it to import bulletproof cars for the NCAA.
“You have been lying to us. You ripped off the people of Nigeria through the NCAA.
“That is the summary of what is before us here, so what are you saying?”
But, Maduka protested, saying his company did a legitimate transaction.
He said the whole scandal was “politically-motivated” for reasons he could not explain.
Maduka added, “We followed all the processes required. We sold vehicles to the NCAA and First Bank financed it.
“We were interviewed by the SSS(State Security Service), the NSA; we didn’t do any wrong.”
• More drama
But, more drama played out when the Aviation Committee’s Sub-Committee on Inspection, reported that the armoured cars Coscharis supplied were different from the ones quoted in its letter to the NSA.
The committee had visited the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport on Tuesday to inspect the cars.
However, members discovered that the chassis numbers were different from the ones quoted in the transaction documents.
The leader of the inspection team, Mr. Ahmed Chanchangi, said, “We sighted the cars at the airport yesterday (Tuesday).
“The chassis numbers do not correspond with what you said you supplied. It looks like Nigeria was shortchanged here again”, he stated.
However, Maduka disagreed and insisted that a member of his staff ought to have accompanied the team to the airport to ascertain the cars they inspected.
The discrepancy in the chassis numbers was left unresolved.
• Our role –First Bank
First Bank which was the financier of the transaction, confirmed that it entered into a loan agreement, “not lease agreement” with the NCAA.
The head of the bank’s Lagos Mainland branch, which handled the transaction, Mr. Seyi Ojefeso, recalled how the NCAA approached the bank for a loan to purchase vehicles for its management staff.
Ojefeso claimed that it was possible that the NCAA “got it mixed up” when it described it as a lease agreement.
He explained that the NCAA applied for a total loan package of N643m to finance the purchase of 54 vehicles.
For the bulletproof cars, he said there was a Coscharis proforma invoice attached to the application in the value of N255m.
He added, “We offered an auto loan to the NCAA in May to purchase cars for its management staff.
“The application was for N643m; we financed the purchase of the cars based on the application they submitted to us.”
The committee observed that the original request of the NCAA to the Minister of Aviation was N564m, but First Bank eventually approved a loan of N643.
When asked to explain how the difference came about, Ojefeso said only the NCAA could answer the question since N564m was not in the agency’s communication with the bank.
• FAAN also bought cars for Oduah
The Senate Committee on Aviation also said that four of the 202 ‘operational’ cars bought by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria for its top officials are armoured vehicles.
It added in Abuja on Wednesday, that two of the armoured vehicles were for the Minister of Aviation, Ms Stella Oduah and two for the Managing Director of FAAN, Mr. George Uriesi.
“FAAN did confirm that among the operational vehicles they purchased, four of them are armoured vehicles, two for the Managing Director and two for the minister,” the committee Chairman, Senator Hope Uzodinma, told journalists on the sidelines of the investigation into the crises in the aviation industry.
Uriesi had while appearing before the panel on Tuesday said the operational vehicles included two Lexus limousines and two Toyota Prado jeeps.
But the FAAN chief did not state who the armoured vehicles were bought for. He said the limousines were bought for N60m each and not N70m being insinuated.
Uriesi, who said he did not have details of the cost of the Prado jeeps, also claimed that the vehicles were still in the custody of the bankers wthat funded their purchase.
He also did not give the names of the persons / company(ies) that ordered the vehicles and those they were meant for.
But Uzodinma told journalists on Wednesday that Uriesi had confirmed on oath that FAAN bought operational vehicles.
He said, “Investigation is still on-going and it will not be fair for me to preempt the outcome.
“We told them to go back and put everything in writing and make comprehensive statements on all vehicles purchased. Until they come back on Monday, we cannot rush into conclusion.
“The MD FAAN said they did a funding arrangement with a commercial bank.This investigation will be a very deep one so that at the end of the day, we do a holistic approach and look at how the sector will be repositioned so that all anomalies will be corrected.”
The Director-General of the Nigeria Metereological Agency, Mr. Anthony Anuforom; and his counterpart in the Accident and Investigations Bureau, Captain Muhtar Usman, told the committee that they were not involved in the purchase of armoured vehicles.
The Uzodinma-led committee will also inspect theN255m bulletproof cars bought for Oduah by the NCAA before the end of the week.