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Aviation: The Audacity of a Whistleblower

By Chigozie Chikere

Until Wiki Leaks came along, the Pentagon Papers published by New York Times was for the past four decades the largest leak of classified documents in American history. Though Barack Obama had promised Americans the most transparent administration in history, the vigour with which he has pursued leakers since the floating of Julian Assange’s infamous outfit clearly indicates that moles and all forms of espionage are a formidable threat to any administration. In fact, by 2011, Obama and his Justice Department had pressed criminal charges against five suspected leakers under the Espionage Act, more than all other administrations combines, including Nixon’s.

Nigeria's Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah

Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah

Like oil spillage and flooding, information ebbs and flows are beyond the power of rulers. Princess Stella Oduah, Nigeria’s Minister for Aviation, faced with the filthy tide of document leaks that is generating severe criticisms from civil society organisations and the media coupled with the onerous task of fishing out the mole and bringing him to justice, is no exception. This is not stopping Nigerians, angry and possibly biased from blaming her.

This very information whistleblowing is the most mischievous of its kind that Nigerians have ever seen. Two BMW 760 LiHSS armoured cars delivered by Coscharis Motors at $1.6m, approximately 255m Naira to Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA for onward delivery to the office of the minister for aviation is the item of news that has been spreading uncontrolled since Tuesday, October 15. It is mischievous in the sense that the revelation is a direct threat to the good working relationship that exists between the minister and the presidency, to the on-going aviation infrastructure development project, and to the envisaged total transformation of the aviation sector under the supervision of Princess Oduah, not to mention to the staff of the ministry itself. Moreover its effects have spread far beyond the ministry and the public sector where it ordinarily should be felt. Commentators have overlooked the transparency of the transaction and the ownership of the vehicles and are instead pointing accusing fingers at NCAA, First Bank of Nigeria, Coscharis Motors, the minister herself and also inciting the public against all the parties involved in the bargain.

As is the way with defilement, the approach of the critics and of the media to the recent developments in the aviation ministry would definitely provoke visceral disgust. A disgusted nation is likely to turn on its leaders as Nigerians did in January 2012 when the President announced a fuel price hike. Without analyzing the factors that necessitated the increase, the possible economic benefits of the increase in terms of revenue, and the expected cushioning effect in terms of public utilities and social amenities, the press went to town with horrible speculations while opposition parties heated up the polity with their hocus-pocus. The result was mass protests that crippled economic activities in major cities of Nigeria and subjected the people to untold hardship for days.

It is true that the vehicles were acquired at relatively exorbitant prices and appears to be a rip-off on the funds of NCAA, especially now that capital projects are being executed to put Nigerian aviation on track. Notwithstanding, concerns have been voiced, in part, by ministry staffers and the minister’s aides who confirmed Oduah’s complaints about threats to her life hence the need to beef up security by adding high security vehicles like armoured cars to her fleet. Others have considered the criticisms and the call for Oduah’s sack as an exercise in futility since the transaction followed a legal process and the cars were procured for the ministry and not for the minister as critics have alleged.

Many of Oduah’s political problems stem from her undivided loyalty to President Goodluck Jonathan and her priviledged position as head of a ministry, which in President Jonathan’s transformation agenda, occupies a position of high priority. Again there is this perceived coolness about her; a posh composure that makes anxious people feel she does not empathise with the masses in their hardship and misery. But there is not much that the minister can do in that regard. As a minister, her loyalty to the President is sacrosanct and her dedication to duty a national call and a path of honour that remains non-negotiable. In the event of an air mishap, the minister’s role is clearly defined. She mobilizes all search and rescue agencies, orders and oversees immediate and thorough investigation and briefs the presidency, the press and the general public on the outcome with unquestionable sense of loss and of urgency.  Attempts to deal with threats to her life has been left operationally in the hands of her security aides, who by recommending armoured vehicles share an overwhelming interest in deactivating the threat and frustrating the masterminds.

The search for the mole and whistleblower within the ministry is administratively legal as it is an attempt to protect the state and to forestall a future occurrence.  The effort so far is being received with mixed feelings and severe opposition among Nigerians but that does not in any way justify the act. Earlier, the presidency had accused some online news media of collaborating with terrorists to frustrate the Federal Government’s war against terrorism, and now Nicholas Edwards, the mole at the ministry has leaked a trove of classified documents to SaharaReporters, which itself was mentioned by the presidency for its subversiveness and obvious hostility. Edward’s role is similar to that of Shamai Leibowitz, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Linguist whom President Obama jailed for 20 months in 2010 for passing secret documents to a blogger.

There was also the case of Thomas Drake who was charged with misappropriating classified material when he leaked reports of mismanagement and illegalities at the National Security Agency, NSA to the press. But this time around the government watched its case against Drake collapse as all 10 original charges against him were dropped. Thomas Drake instead became the 2011 recipient of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling and of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, SAAII award.

Regardless of whatever outcome, governments take advantage of the fact that the law does not compel it to differentiate between good leaks and bad leaks. And that explains the minister’s aggressive pursuit of Edwards. It may appear as double standard for a government that pledges openness and is making progress in the fight against corruption to now clamp down on an official who is publicly acclaimed for his effrontery in exposing what he perceived to be a fraud.

However, what the President can do is focus on the future. The scandal is targeted at making a nonsense of the genuine alliance of the presidency and the ministry he had hoped might push through the crises of air mishaps, infrastructural decay, and paucity of funds. But it has provided a chance to talk about deeper problems in information management and classification. Americans have been able to read most of the Pentagon Papers for 40 years until the documents were declassified two years ago.

There is nothing wrong with an administration classifying some information as secret. Even as it tries to keep secrets, it is still expected to make progress towards greater openness. Government agencies are putting more information online. The Finance Minister, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was commended last year for her openness in the budget proposal and defense which saved a lot of cost on the economy. Princess Oduah on her path along with NCAA followed due process in the order and procurement of the armoured cars, but the mole in the house for reasons best known to him felt the transaction deserves some publicity. The Minister has owned up in all sincerity. It is now left for Nicholas Edwards to show up from his hideout and face the dicey consequences of leaking official state documents to a blogger.

Chigozie Chikere
Member, The Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport, CILT Nigeria
22 Ijero Road, Ebute Metta West, Lagos
Phone: 08039504536
E-mail: grandefather@yahoo.com


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