The Princess Diaries: How Stella Oduah got away with everything (YNaija Long Read)

by Wole Olabanji

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The crowd in the terminal is as thick as toothbrush bristles, total strangers packed so tightly that they are literally breathing down each other’s necks.

The angst is audible, the edge in the voices of the listless crowd approaches the distinctive din of an angry mob. You try to lift the mood in your little square foot of space on the queue by chatting with the traveller behind you, but because you have to crane your neck and raise your voice to be heard, you conclude the effort is not worth the reward.

[READ: House of Reps asks Jonathan to sack Stella Oduah over N255m armoured cars]

Then, as abruptly as it often does in Lagos, it starts to pour, sending a surge of travellers and touts into the hall to further cramp the conditions. The roar of the rain and the jostling of the soaking new entrants tips the anger and it becomes a proper shouting match.

And then it hit you.

At first you think it is an inadvertent spray from someone who had come in from the rain and you look around to find who and to ask them, as politely as you can manage to “Puleeeease watch it”. But it does not stop; instead it grows into a steady dribble that starts to soak your hair and spatter on the flight ticket held in your hand. You look up aghast, mouth agape; a quick stream entering your mouth before you duck in reflex, bewildered.

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You are still trying to recover from the incredulity of it all when someone that looks like a cleaner appears with a pail and routinely plunks it in position where a small puddle had begun to form. As you board your flight, you can’t tell if it was the whole experience at the Murtala Mohammed International airport or the small swallow of dirty water from its leaking roof that has left a sour taste in your mouth.

How Stella lost her groove

Nowadays, that sourness seems to be clinging with growing stubbornness to public perception of the aviation industry’s leadership. This is somewhat abrupt given that, only a few months ago, it would have been convenient to misspell the first name of the Minister for aviation as “Stellar” on account of what was actively marketed as her brilliant performance – relative to the lacklustre cabinet of her principal.

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From hitting the ground running with the grand vision of building aerotropolises, launching an aggressive airport renovation and upgrade programme to the widely and wildly popular commencement of international flights from the Enugu airport in the heartland of eastern Nigeria, her description as a performer had begun to gain traction.

Even for a country where sycophancy is a high art form, nicknaming her the ‘Amazon’ somehow avoided that garish taint common with such grovelling.

Then planes began to fall from the skies again.

[READ: Accidents are God’s will… they are inevitable – Stella Oduah, Aviation minister]

A relatively rapid string of fatal air crashes and many near misses, serious delays on the airport upgrade programme and questions about the quality of work done so far began to undermine that image.

The final nail came with the revelation, first by online platform SaharaReporters.com that the minister approved the purchase by the National Civil Aviation Authority of two luxury armoured cars reportedly for her use.

The fallout have followed a peculiarly Nigerian trajectory for the scandal-ridden who have managed not to fall out of favour: breaking, being ignored, gaining traction, attracting clumsy explanations, going viral, attracting unbelievably childish denials, reaching a crescendo, becoming a subject of multiple probes, being described as persecution to denigrate and divide the ranks, descending into a free for all verbal fracas about ethnic persecution, hardening of positions around issues totally unrelated to the original scandal, and becoming history – a history of frozen arguments with absolutely no meeting points.

In the heat of those arguments, what we end up with are two portraits of the same character; one rendered as a haloed saint floating in the surreal brilliance of ‘heaven’ and the other as the devil, complete with pitchfork and a patchwork of dancing fiery flames in the background.

In reality, Stella Oduah is no saint. And, by Nigerian standards, she certainly is not the devil himself.

Our country boasts a long, very long line of candidates who are eminently more qualified for that characterisation.

It’s a wonderful life

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For most Nigerians, the first encounter with Stella was through the series of television adverts put together by her admittedly effective – innovative even –campaign initiative driven together with her husband for President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.

The ‘Neighbour2Neighbour’ concept was novel and adverts were fresh and folksy; fitting squarely into the broad messaging theme of selling a candidate the public could see as the next guy in a queue or the grocer down the street; better yet, the candidate who had no shoes.

They were a departure from the staple of Nigerian campaign advertising that previously focused almost entirely on creating memorable jingles in the mould of the unforgettable “MKO is our man o!”

Theirs tried to speak to a completely different demographic; my demographic – young to middle age, middle class families that were increasingly taking an active interest in Nigerian politics.

Although any link that is drawn between the cleverness of campaign messaging and actual election results in Nigeria can be tenuous, still Jonathan won the election handily, and by the unwritten and encrypted code of sharing ‘election spoils’, Stella Oduah ended up with a ministerial portfolio. To ask insiders though, the weightier reason for being appointed a cabinet minister would be her position as director of administration and finance – the bag (wo)man for the Jonathan 2011 presidential campaign.

It is useful to note that in a country where electoral fortunes are mainly determined by the spread of boon and the dread of goons, access to deep pockets and hard-nosed street savvy are arguably the most highly valuable credentials in a campaign organisation. In such climes, America’s David Plouffe would have a hard time getting a clerk’s job in a campaign run by Tony Anenih. For Jonathan, Stella Oduah turned out an inspired combination: a generous serving of Anenih and a pinch of Plouffe.

Here was an American-educated woman who had cut her street teeth in the greasy world of Nigeria’s oil and gas sector; first within the opaque towers of the NNPC where she spent nearly a decade, and subsequently founding Sea Petroleum and Gas in 1992 to pursue petroleum-industry opportunities, up- and down-stream.

Nothing prepares a person for the high-wire subterfuge of Nigerian politicking better than the low scruples wheeling and dealing of the oil business. Indeed, as Daniel Yergin brilliantly sketches in The Prize, oil and politics are inseparable Siamese twins.

This is more so in Nigeria’s cash and carry politics; in a country where a person can go from beggar to billionaire in the few seconds it takes for an official to whimsically sign a document that allows the declaration: “I am now into oil and gas.”

The aviator

She was 49 and in her prime when she became minister for aviation in 2011. She set off with a grand vision and considerable energy to transform the sector. The centre piece of that vision was to expand the four major international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano into integrated airport cities – aerotropolies – which would function as regional business hubs.

Arguably, this was a bolder vision than any other minister of aviation had made to grow the sector. While previous ministers had focused mainly on technical and safety issues which had resulted mainly in improved radar coverage of the nation’s airspace, her entrepreneurial instincts tended to put more emphasis on turning the sector into a cash cow.

[READ: Grounding Dana Airlines was a mistake – Stella Oduah, aviation minister]

Critics continued to murmur however that the cash cow was for her milking, to the detriment of safety, which is considered paramount in the aviation industry.

Indeed, the safety record during her tenure has been anything but stellar. After the disastrous Sosoliso plane crash of 2005 which killed 117 people including 60 students of the Loyola Jesuit College, Nigerians made a strong point that enough was finally enough.

The anguish of parents who watched helplessly as their children burned to death on the tarmac of the Port Harcourt International Airport became the shared sorrow of a nation. The aftermath saw considerable effort made towards improving safety in the sector. Until 3, June 2012.

The 2012 Dana Air crash in Lagos kicked off another series of shocking tragedies, with at least two serious crashes involving Nigerian airliners since then and several potentially catastrophic near misses.

Specifically, in a most tragic accident – a cruel take on Fela’s legendary ‘deadi bodi geti accident’ song – the nation was hit by news of the Associated Airlines plane that was chartered to convey the remains of the former governor of Ondo state Olusegun Agagu from Lagos to Akure for burial. It had crashed in Lagos, minutes after take-off.

While it will take some time to complete and release a report on the investigation of the crash, what has emerged so far lends credence to the general perception of the poor regime of safety under Mrs Oduah, or Princess, as she prefers to be called. It has been revealed for instance that the aircraft had not been cleared for commercial flights.

In a loud indictment of the regulatory authorities, it was undergoing repair work and had only been cleared to undertake test flights.

What drove the final nail in however was the Minister’s attitude to the crash. In a hastily put-together news conference, she shocked the nation by calling the crash “an act of God”.

Of course, for a nation that most likely has the highest number of worship houses per capita, there is a tendency to imbue even the mundane with divinity. But, in this case, the Honourable Minister scored an A for tone-deafness, even cruelty considering that the bodies had not even yet been buried.

She had officially lost the plot.

Notes on a scandal

If they believed had her claim that the plane crash was an act of God, then Nigerians must have concluded that there was a full blown celestial conspiracy against the aviation minister when just about two weeks later, news broke about the purchase of two armoured cars by the NCAA for her protection.

The revelation could not have emerged at a more damaging time: the profligate minister in a time of national mourning.

[READ: Going spiritual: Stella Oduah leaves country, goes to Israel for pilgrimage]

It is an unusual week in Nigeria when no scandal breaks, and Nigerians are accustomed to the less than responsible – if there ever was an understatement – management of public finances. Nevertheless, the decision by Mrs Oduah to approve the purchase (lease, if you think it makes any real difference) of two armoured BMW cars for her use by a cash strapped agency at the total sum of N255million immediately calcified her image as unfeeling, if not sadistic. Many on Twitter had begun to call for her death by air crash.

But if you follow the scandal however, it would not be difficult to be amazed at how the intensity of the anger has gone back to business as usual. For, within a few days of the scandal breaking, it was perfectly normal for Mrs Oduah to head for the ‘Holy Land of Israel’ on pilgrimage with the president and a procession of clergy men from whom we heard not as much as a whimper.

With the ‘sinner’ dwelling easily in the cozy embrace of the ‘saints’, it becomes somewhat pretentious to expect any kind of punishment for the woman who got the president elected.

Many of her defenders predictably kicked off the game of robustly defending her, because she was from their part of Nigeria. Of course this ends in a zero sum game where no thief ever gets lynched in the end, except those who have the misfortune of low ambitions like snatching a handbag or such other inconsequential things; in which case we are too happy to bath them in petrol and set them alight as one united mob.

Perhaps nothing signals the acquiescence of our society to the unrelenting forces of corruption like the free pass handed to Mrs Oduah by the Senate when she appeared before it on 10 December 2013 to answer questions.

She was asked only about the Associated Airlines crash.

This is in spite of the fact that the lower house had previously uncovered damning details of irregularities in the procurement process which clearly violated the Appropriation and Public Procurement Acts. On the part of the executive, the president had previously announced the setting up of a three-man investigative committee – presidential slang for “bury it”.

Indeed, it would have been no less shocking if she had been asked to “bow and go”.

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The usual suspects

In November 2013, the roof of a shopping mall collapsed in Riga, the capital city of Latvia killing 54 people. Later in the month, the Prime Minister announced his resignation, taking responsibility for the accident.

Mrs Oduah and her supporters have clung tight, instead, to the wafer-thin defence that she instructed the Director General of the NCAA to “Do the needful”.

More galling is the now-failed attempt to tar citizens as ungrateful for asking someone who has “sacrificed” everything to “serve her people” to be accountable. These defenders threaten Nigeria with the paucity of good men and women in office if their continue with unrealistic expectations such as, you know, probity with public monies.

Then, as the comedy of horrors continued, the director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority decided to focus on the real culprit here – at another press conference, he was unsparing in describing the whistle blower who leaked the story to the press as criminal.

Irony is dead.

Knowing that the idea of taking personal responsibility is somewhat alien to public officers in Nigeria, some have looked to the president to sanction Mrs Oduah. That has not happened, and she continues to attend public events unhindered, even if other public officials scramble away from the stench of a soiled reputation.

If the president indeed sanctions this minister, it will be drastically out of character. Right from the 2011 presidential campaign where she spent from an endlessly deep pocket some have now traced to Central Bank governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s letter to the President decrying a $12 billion in crude oil proceeds held by the nation’s oil corporation, to the total surrender of the regulatory mandates of her ministry to partisan agendas played out in grounding aircrafts of Rotimi Amaechi and Adams Oshiomhole, state governorshostile to the president; Mrs. Oduah’s loyalty to her principal has been total.

And, as his fierce protection of other shady characters including his oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke shows, this president values loyalty – above all else.

Then there is 2015.

As escalating intrigues and historic realignments of power blocs threaten to pull the red carpet off his feet, this president is more likely to convince himself that what he needs more than anything else is to keep his friends close and his loyal bag-women closer.

Die another day

There is peculiarly Nigerian statement that permits corruption: it says that, it is okay to “chop as long as you work”. Its proponents point, in beer parlours, around office water-coolers and civil service corridors – without any actual information to support this – that Western presidents are corrupt, but survive due to performance.

Beyond the immediate facts of the Oduah case, her survival of these scandals re-informs the noxious idea that has calcified as national ethos. Of course, it’s a conditioned view of leadership resulting from decades of having nothing which makes owning a counterfeit seem like the best turn of fortune – but it is no less fatal for the fact.

No less fatal to the 23.9 per cent minimum unemployed in Nigeria as at October, according to the National Population Commission. And certainly not to the 15 who died in October when a plane supervised by Mrs Oduah’s crashed due to, according to the Chief Executive Officer of the Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau, a malfunctioning engine.

Unfortunately, in a nation where the youth comprising all of 70% of the population tends to be more willing to get into a street brawl over a wrong call by a referee in a Chelsea VS Manchester United match at the Stamford Bridge in England, rather than seriously engage and challenge public officials to explain the reported disappearance of N2 billion printed currency at the mint, or N2 trillion unremitted funds from NNPC; the small matter of N255 million for the convenience and safety of a “performing” minister pales in comparison.

[READ: House of Reps asks Jonathan to sack Stella Oduah over N255m armoured cars]

And where do we stand now, despite howls on Twitter, righteous indignation by the House of Representatives (at a November public hearing with its aviation committee, they stopped just short of calling her a serial liar), a Freedom of Information request by the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, and endless column inches by pundits who (yet again) cannot believe the audacity?

Well, the Stella Oduah revelation by Sahara Reporters was broken on October 15, 2013. It is three months since then. The Senate has let her go. The President has let her stay. Nigerians, apparently, have let her be.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all you need to know about the way our country rolls.

One comment

  1. i usually don’t read write ups all the way, but i did enjoy your style of writing and most importantly the content as well.
    the belief in Nigeria is that u cannot enter water and expect not to get wet, therefore, when in public office, you are expected to work but no one should hold u accountable if you pocket some money as well.
    i believe the time for an overhaul of our country is now

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