The former aviation minister turned senator Stella Oduah has revealed the truth behind the 255M scandal which made national news and cost her the appointment as a minister under former president Goodluck Jonathan administration.
In this interview with Chinenye Ugonna of Legit.ng, the stylish Senator and oil mogul talked about her motivation, her passion and also what keeps her going as a businesswoman and a politician. No doubt she is one of the most vibrant female senators in the upper assembly, she revealed her involvement in the campaigns that brought former president Gooduck Jonathan to power. Read the excerpts below.
What will you say has been your motivation over the years given the fact that politics is not a female dominated area? And how have you been able to encourage other women to get into politics as well?
You have to be in my shoes as well as that of other women to come in close contact with rural communities and see the abject poverty, underdevelopment, the horrible state of unemployment. When you see all that and you have passion for people, nobody will tell you that you need to get involved for you to have a platform to make a difference. For me, its been the driving force. How can I make a difference? How can I help? That is why I am doing what I am doing.
On why I mentor women. There are various vanguards and NGOs. When you talk to young women and you wonder what they want to be when they grow up. In a state where you have this glass cylinder that has refused to disappear, the chances of them doing well and thinking well of themselves appear very slim. And for me, that's totally unacceptable. So how do we mentor them to say look, if you want to become somebody's wife, there is nothing wrong with it but what is important is that you are a human being and you have the right to aspire, you should aspire and to be something better than your mother.
Not just that, I think having a vision about themselves and seeing themselves going and becoming professionals in their own rights for me would be a dream come true.And so these vanguards are terms to do all that from counselling them and generally showcase the fact that being a female should not be an impediment to you goal for life; you must aspire to be better.
Is politics something you always had a zeal for from childhood?
I never wanted to go into politics. I have always wanted to help. When I started business, that was a platform for me to help. Being able to employ people and giving them opportunity to excel. I did that very well, I've gotten to the peak of it. But it wasn't just enough; there has to be something much better, much better platform that would have a robust coverage hence would be politics. And so far, it's a beginning and I think it would be better as we move on but so far, people have to be priotised, otherwise it is not worth it.
You have said that there was a change in the aviation ministry while you were the minister. Can you tell us some of your achievements as aviation minister?
First of all, aviation ministry is a very complex ministry. It is a combination of social, economic and technical, therefore for one to do well in aviation, you must have skill in all these areas. But what is most important is, you must have the passion to change.
When I went to aviation, it was in a horrible state of decay. It is unfortunate that we have some sense of amnesia in Nigeria otherwise, if you take an average airport and how it used to be, like the Abuja airport, we used to have horrifying experience. I couldn't use the toilet when I get to the airport and some of the doors, you have to literally bend your head. Then the local airports in Lagos was a horrible sight too. It's the same story all over. So what we did was to have a holistic view of the state of these airports but it's not just the airport because there a several things that go on behind the airport, the runway lights, raiders, etc. And so to holistically have a review of that and provide holistic solutions that would ensure that we have safety airspace, that we have terminals that truly represent us. If I cone to your house and your living room is in a very dirty state, it tells me who you are before I even get a chance to talk to you. And when you come into Nigeria, the first place you will see is our airports. So it is very important. As much as comfort and safety come together, the aesthetics is equally important and so we cleaned that up. We did the renovation. Money that was meant for four airports, we spread it to do sixteen airports.
Not only that, we prioritized training because you can have all that and you do not have capable hands to run them, it would go back to worst. And we ensured that imbibed in all these is maintenance. I have left for almost three years so I do not know the place is now. What we did was in a way suicidal, very hands-on, very tasking, I lost my privacy, I was literally working 24 hours to ensure that we did all that. For me, my conscience is clear, I feel happy that I was able to contribute. I am also happy that the evidence is clear except for those who decide to go blind. Otherwise, for what we were given, we justifiably did the best for the ministry.
Just when most Nigerians thought you would take a break from politics considering how you left as minister on the grounds of the N255M BMW scandal, you picked your senatorial ticket. What motivated you to do that?
My motive hasn't changed. It remains constant and the drive is consistent and that is ‘how can I help? How can I showcase to the people who gender is an accident of birth?’How can I be relevant to my people? How can I showcase to the young ones that gender, birth has absolutely nothing to do with your capacity? So when one door close and God in his infinite mercy opens a window, I took the opportunity and my people were anxious for me to continue helping them. And so I took it and I intend to do that with confidence.
Do you intend taking your political career to a higher level in the nearest future?
I don't know, I think only God will decide that. But again, my passion remains consistent and that is how can I be useful to my people? How can I encourage the young ones especially females that the sky is their limit if only they believe in themselves and God?
You were an active force in the Neighbour-to-Neighbour campaign for former President Goodluck Jonathan. Would you say that contributed to the support you enjoyed from the PDP while running for your senatorial seat?
PDP is my party, and clearly as a party they would give you support. The much support they gave to me, they gave to all candidates. They didn't go out of their way for me, but yes I was their candidate.
For Neighbour-to-Neighbour is and was at that time the best grassroot support platform. I am yet to see any platform that would beat Neighbour-to-Neighbour because they did very well. I founded Neighbour-to-Neighbour but on one purpose which is the neglect of the grassroot and rural community. How do we tell them that it is their lives, they have been neglected over the years, and they should stand up to say who they want and who they do not want and it worked. For the first time, what an average man or woman were not aware of, we had access to them and we were able to talk to them one-on-one and got their full details. It wasn't easy but it was worth it and am happy we did it.
What constituency projects are we expecting from you?
My focus is community/rural development. I believe that unless we have a bottom-up approach to our development, we will never have a sustainable economic growth. Rural areas must have independent, integrated economy that would integrate with the federal economy. I think industrialisation needs to go back to our rural communities because that is where the raw materials are. When that happens, we are going to have clusters of industrialisation coming out there, urban migration would seize, employment would be created, but most importantly, these rural dwellers would have access to international markets. And so when you grow tomatoes in Kano, when you grow yam in my village, you can find them in markets even in London. You can go to Tesco and find our teas, pepper, tomapep. We must go back to our rural communities.
We must integrate and industrialize them. If only we only we do that, then you can see development coming there. Rural roles must come to play. The fact that there are no basic amenities like healthcare centres, the roads are occupied by rats and rabbits and all that. So we must have a rethink and priotise rural development, we must mainstream them. Our youths out there are idle, women are the chief-economists in these rural areas, so we must mainstream and develop them. That would be my focus. And that would give me joy to see that rural communities have basic amenities, industries where people would work. If you go abroad, you won't see industries on the street of London or New York. You would see them in suburbs and rural communities. That is where they ought to be. You grow them, they come up and blossoms. That is my passion.
Have you started doing anything in your constituency since you became senator?
Yes! We have started clusters of farming communities, so we can now bring the processing part of it which is secondary. For instance, if a particular community is good at planting corn, tomatoes or pepper, we ensure micro support to such communities, so they can do more and guarantee buying those crops from them. Second one is to bring the processing plant that would be situated there to mop up all the tomatoes, pepper, can them. In doing so, we would have value chain of opportunities like those who will do the farming, the packaging, the cleaning and the industry work which is where the employment part of it comes into play. While that is happening, banks will come because they know there is an economy above the merge, roads will come because we need road access to such communities and so many others and all will be to the benefit of the rural dwellers.
Recently, Port Harcourt International airport was named one of the worst airports in Nigeria. What is the effort of you committee to over-sight that?
It is horrible but it is far better than what is used to be. Also, I think there is something people are not seeing. Port Harcourt airport has a new international terminal that the Chinese are building. Its suppose to be a 45,000 passenger processing terminal. It would be completed in December next year but that is a long time to look up to what you have now. The short-term solution was to use the little fund available to do one wing, then due to lack of fund, the second wing was affected. When we spoke to the ministry the last time, that is being prioritized. So I believe in a couple of months, they should be able to get it done and make it more useful. But it can't be the worst airport in the world. Clearly Port Harcourt is bad because the passenger rate is high and the airport is just way too small to accommodate all those people. We need patience because the decay has been there for a very long time. It needs resources, manpower, but most importantly, is encouragement because these guys are really working hard but all you hear is the negative part.
I remember when we were there, we won the best aviation industry, ACAU gave it to us and ACAU passed Port Harcourt which means they are okay for them to have passed. And if I also look at what is in the works, then you will be the patient with them to know that they will get better.
You have a foundation (Princess Stella Oduah Foundation) which is supposed to be responsible for payment of bursaries to students majoring in ICT, agriculture and engineering, disbursements of loans and all that. What has been your drive? Have you been able to achieve most of these things?
Well, foundation has no destination just as charity has no destination. It is ongoing. You keep on helping as much as you can and keep in focus the main objective which is a developmental NGO that focuses on enhancing the youths, making sure their unique skill is enhanced. For instance, people from my constituency are majorly farmers so how do you take the traditional farming and bring it into entrepreneurial farming and showcasing to the younger ones that because you are a farmer doesn't mean that you would remain poor or you won't be good in life. Most wealthy people in the US today are actually farmers. So we can create that but first they must have the skill, implements to work and they must understand the global market as it is. In doing so, you have given them the tool to survive and make a living. That is what we want to accomplish and we are doing very well because they have done over 200 plots this year.
It started as what we call Jolife. Jolife was in the concept of abstaining from excess to help your neighbor. So if you are a beer drinker and you are buying beer for N100, if you can abstain from that beer and save that N100, you would be amazed what you would save. And that worked so well and later metamorphosed to this foundation that is far much wider and can accommodate much. We are also doing talent hunt for those who have untapped skills. In my place we have Flavour so we are hoping that there would be many more Flavours and things like that. So essentially, its developmental and also give confidence to the young ones that they can actually make it.
You raised a motion two weeks ago concerning floods which got you a lot of support from your colleagues. Has anything been done in that regard?
Well, I am particularly following that up because every year, we have flood and so it should not come as a shock to us anymore. Prior to that, we have the forecast which tells us the damage that would be done. So except we are deaf, daft and dumb and we don't know that these things would come. Just like a pregnant woman, and the husband comes in shock that she is going to have a baby at nine months.The essence is to seek preventive measure to avert the damages that flood has caused to our communities one of which is having a dam. And also look for a much better way of communication this information to the rural communities so they know what to do to help government in preventing this flood and the damages that it has done.
Having people being displaced yearly is distracting and scaring because he knows that he has just six months in this house and he will move to become a refugee for God knows when and how long. The essence is to have government go back to the drawing table to do what is needful. Cameroon did it, they had built dams done all over. So when they open, it flows down to us and how can we contain that which is doing all these harm to us?
After the Dana air crash, you came out publicly to say that the crash was an act of God, and there was a lot of controversy around that. What is your take on this?
I think I was taken out of contest to start with. The guy asked "what do I think about death and accident?" And I said that as a Christian, God determines what happens in our lives. But also he asked me a question which for reasons best known to him should not be added, he asked "what have we done to ensure accidents does not happen as frequent as possible?" And I gave him all the preventive measures that the ministry has taken including equipment, penalties, including the fact that the pilots have very strict rules and regulations that have been put in place and even the maintenance, with the help of experts in the field. But those were not interesting to him but the fact that I said "accidents were an act of God." So he took me out of context.
There was a publication on an online newspaper about a fake doctorate degree. What is your reaction to that?
I couldn't react because I found it mean and just unfounded. At a point, I began to doubt myself that maybe there is something about me that I do not know or maybe Sahara knows more than I do or they attended school with me? So I called the guy that did my documentation to go through my file to check if I did something wrong. He asked why and I told him to pull up Sahara and see if my documents are forged. So the guy called me back and laughed and said "oh is it Sahara?" I said yes, because the stories are just getting too much. So when I was got the satisfaction that it could not have been me that they were talking about, I made up my mind not to allow anyone define me. It's either you accept it or not. So that story was absolutely untrue. In all these they didn't ask me so I can be quoted, so it's not true. And I know the next question would be about the BMW cars.
How badly did the BMW scandal affect you?
The BMW episode was the worst period of my life because it went completely haywire with absolutely no truth attached to it. But I guess it was for a reason and I learnt quite a lot from it. When I came into aviation as a minister, I promised myself that I rather let my work speak for me. I wasn't going to spend my time talking to media, and advertising what we were doing but I rather dedicate that time to work so people can come and say "oh, how and why did they do this?" But I guess we are in a society where that is not the way to go because you have to advertise what you are doing. I still have no apologies for doing what I did.
The real truth behind the N255M BMW scandal
We did not buy BMW to start with. BMW was a lease vehicle to the parastatal, NCAA. NCAA had to do so because their expatriates coming in at the peak of Boko Haram literally refused to come to Abuja unless they had a bullet-proof car and security vehicle with them. We went to several car dealers to lease it, It didn't make sense to me that we were going to have short-term leasing for this so the DG wrote a proposal that they do not have the money nut on their budget, they had operational security vehicle. I don't know the difference between bullet-proof and operational security. It means a vehicle that is secured so when you are going to any of those states, you can have some sense of security. He came to me as a minister, I approved it that he should go ahead and lease. They went to First Bank and they leased it to them and as we speak, except they have redone the purchase, the vehicles still don't belong to the ministry, could not have been mine and not mine. If you go out, you will see my BMW, I didn't need to have two BMW. Why would anyone do that in the same city? It doesn't make sense. Truth was that for any minister who knows that your position was transitional, if you are lucky, you will be there for four years. The day you live, you won't take the vehicle with you because it's not yours; it belongs to the ministry.
For dignitaries and operation people pay to use my car when dignitaries come into the country. I can't stop them from doing what they have to do because the minister wants to go to the office. It takes me less than fifteen minutes from my house to the office, so what is the essence? These are the truths with the BMW.
Watch the video version of the interview. The closing part of the interview continues below.
BMW was not purchased and it went through all the processes it was supposed to. BMW was on the budget, it was not above the market price. In fact, if they had done their research, the ones Lagos and other states bought were far much more expensive what NCAA got. But NCAA did not buy; they did a lease purchase which means that if they will be able to overtime. What is the purpose of lease purchase? People who do not have sufficient fund to buy equipment, you sub-lease. When you do so, it means you are maximizing the little resources that you have because you have need for the equipment. It gives you access to the equipment and pay with the little you have overtime.
When we look at it in a context, a minister on the average signs fifty to hundred documents in a day and it goes down to permanent secretary who is the chief administrator of the ministry and then goes to the various parastatals, then the directors and then the implementors. No minister can tell you exactly what happens on each documents that they signed. It is not possible. There is no way I can monitor each document because there are so many documents which is just a little part of what the minister does.
The BMW was conceptualized where the minister was the implementor, the secretary, permanent secretary, purchasing officer, and everything even the bank and seller. And then you wonder how can that be? And so I came to the conclusion that if you want to kill a cat, you can call a cat all kinds of names. That would give you justification for what you want to do.
And again because the truth was really that most of the things we did in terms of policy, processes, rehabilitation and new concepts did not go quite well with a lot of people who believed that aviation was their kingdom and so "how dare she come in here, we must get rid of her to go back to status quo."Unfortunately, I left and they went back to status quo and the decay continued. But I pray that the decay would go away so that we can have aviation the way it should be. It should be catalyst to our economic growth, pivotal to the issues that we have, because it interfaces with literally every ministry and aspect of our lives.