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Pro-restructuring rally in Benue : Why we stopped South, M-Belt leaders’ trip to Benue – NAF

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•Says plane faulty; replacement (5N-IZY) didn’t request use of airfield
•Makurdi airport is military; coordinating base for Operation Whirl Stroke
•Urges politicians not to drag NAF into partisan politics
•Junaid Mohammed, Ikokwu, Tanko Yakassai, Afenifere react

By Emmanuel Aziken, Clifford Ndujihe, Kingsley Omonobi & Dapo Akinrefon

ABUJA—The Nigerian Air Force, yesterday, explained the circumstances that surrounded its denying landing permit in Makurdi for the aircraft that was to have conveyed Southern leaders to the Middle Belt Forum conference on restructuring on Monday, saying it received information that the plane initially hired for the flight had some ‘snags’.

Those affected by the development included leaders of Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, Igbo socio-political group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and and Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF.

NAF in a statement signed by Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya, however, insisted yesterday that the air field in Makurdi was not for civil aircraft operations but military aircraft, stressing that  the ongoing ‘Operation Whirl Stroke’ meant to checkmate the activities of killer herdsmen and militia in Benue, Taraba states and other places was largely being coordinated from NAF Base in Makurdi, with fighter aircraft flying in and out of the Base.

NAF’s explanation, however, drew strong reactions from Second Republic lawmaker, Junaid Mohammed; Igbo leader, Chief Guy Ikokwu, and Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, who expressed dismay over it.  But elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, agreed with NAF’s explanation of the incident.

Adesanya, who called on all concerned citizens to desist from dragging NAF into partisan politics, said the Air Force remained a highly professional and apolitical organization that would rather focus on its military duties.

Our story — NAF

The statement, entitled  “Reports of Denial of Landing Rights to a Chartered Flight at NAF Base Makurdi,” read:  “The attention of the Nigerian Air Force, NAF, has sadly been drawn to allegations that it prevented a chartered flight from landing at its Base in Makurdi on July 16, 2018, for political reasons.

“There is absolutely no iota of truth in the allegations that NAF’s decision was politically motivated.  To start with, the runway at NAF Base, Makurdi, is not a dual user facility but one constructed strictly for military purpose.

“Accordingly, in line with global best practices, there is a clearly established procedure for non-NAF aircraft to operate into and out of the runway in Makurdi, and that procedure is well known to all qualified pilots in Nigeria.

“Indeed, many airlines had in the past adhered to the stipulated procedure and, therefore, successfully landed and taken off from the NAF runway in Makurdi.

“The procedure includes a written request to NAF Headquarters, Abuja, for permission for a specific aircraft to operate into its airfield on a specific date and time, including the names of passengers and other necessary details.

“In this case, there was, indeed, a request for permit by Benue State government, dated July 16, 2018, for aircraft with Registration Number 5N-FCT to land at NAF Base, Makurdi, on  July 16, 2018.

“Although requests for landing permits are expected to reach NAF Headquarters not later than two days before the desired landing date, the NAF went out of its way to expedite the process and accordingly granted the permit for aircraft with Registration Number 5N-FCT to land at NAF Base, Makurdi, on July 16, 2018.

“However, at about 5pm on July 16, 2018, NAF was verbally informed that there was a need to change the aircraft for which permission had already been issued, reportedly because the aircraft had developed snags.

“NAF, therefore, asked for another written request, in line with established procedure. As at that date, NAF Headquarters is yet to receive a written request for the replacement aircraft with Registration Number 5N-IZY to land at its Base in Makurdi.

“For the avoidance of doubts, NAF does not concern itself with political or religious affiliations of individuals/organizations in granting landing rights at its airfields.

“The issue of security and safety remains uppermost, particularly noting that the ongoing Operation Whirl Stroke is largely being coordinated from NAF Base, Makurdi, with fighter aircraft flying in and out of the Base.

“NAF remains a highly professional and apolitical organization that would rather focus on its military duties. Consequently, NAF wishes to implore all concerned to desist from dragging its name into partisan politics.”

We were denied permit because we are not pro-govt – Afenifere

Reacting to NAF’s explanation, the pan Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, insisted they were denied landing because they were not pro-government.

Afenifere’s National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, said: “It is not true that the aircraft developed some snags. The first aircraft that was to carry us said the weather was not good. The Commandant in Abuja, Lt. E. A Audu, told us that the first application we made for the landing was on the table of the Commandant in Makurdi and that it was not approved.

“I think it was because they refused to approve the landing that the airline just cleverly lied to us that it was because of the weather.  When they called the Commandant in Makurdi, we were told to make an application for landing. We made the application and got in touch with the Chief of Staff of Benue State who followed it up and called the commandant.

“When we waited for almost two hours and there was no response from the Commandant in Makurdi, we went to the Commandant in Abuja who now told us that our fresh permit was still not approved and that there was no way he could approve any flight for that day for security reasons.

“We were in Makurdi in January 19 this year and we went through the same process, we flew, landed and came back.

“Initially, they said we could not fly; now they are saying it was an aircraft snag. They should tell all those stories to the marines. They should not allow themselves to be dragged into cheap, partisan politics.

“In fact, when we were going to meet the Commandant in Abuja, one of the operatives of the airline told us that the commandant would grant us permit to fly immediately if we were pro-government. That is what we were told; now they are telling us that it was because of security reasons. So, how can they be telling us all these cock and bull stories?”

It was an unnecessary disruption of a harmless conference — Junaid Mohammed

Also reacting to the aborted flight, Second Republic lawmaker, Dr. Junaid Mohammed, said it was an unnecessary disruption of a harmless conference.

Dr. Mohammed said: “I believe in democracy, rule of law and space must be available for every Nigerian to exercise his or her own political ideas. I was not particularly happy to hear that certain people were prevented for whatever reason from attending what seemed to me to be a very harmless undertaking of going to attend a conference. So, I didn’t really see it as a serious matter.

“I hope in future those who are likely to be given the opportunity of representation would be able to interact themselves with members of the security establishment without going through so much harassment and being prevented from exercising their fundamental human rights.”

Southern leaders obtained landing permit —  Ikokwu

Commenting on the Air Force clarification, Second Republic politician and a member of  Ime-Obi (inner caucus) of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Guy Ikokwu, said it was a ruse to stop the Southern leaders from attending the summit in Makurdi.

His words:  “They lied. We duly obtained landing permit. We sent them a certified copy of the landing permit and after the landing permit was sent, they kept the southern leaders waiting for five hours. These are prevarications to make sure that the Southern leaders did not attend the restructuring summit. It is a ruse.”

Besides, he said there would have been no need to charter a flight to Makurdi if the government had done its duty of protecting lives and property.

“In any democratic situation, there must be two cardinal things: Freedom of speech and freedom of movement. The function of government is to preserve lives and property. Once these tenets are not on, then one cannot say it is democratic and the citizenry will be very wary and careful how they get on with government institutions.

“The situation in Nigeria is very brazen and many countries are looking at us and have asked their embassies to see if these things are true. The Southern leaders decided to use a chartered flight because there was not going to be freedom of movement. There are a lot of illegal checkpoints mounted by militias, and the moment they were told that those coming by road were southern leaders, it became somewhat hazardous. There is no scheduled flight to Makurdi except by presidential or chartered flight,” he said.

Tanko Yakassai agrees with NAF

In his reaction, elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, said: “Makurdi is an Airforce Base. It is different from any other airport and planes may not be allowed to land there anyhow. That means that before taking off, any plane must get a landing permit  because of the nature of the airport.

“Now, I don’t know if these people got that permit and whether they applied at the appropriate time. That will determine how one judges their experience.”

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