The Federal Government on Friday grounded a helicopter chartered by Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, at the Benin Airport, 42 days after a similar fate was visited on his Rivers State counterpart, Rotimi Amaechi.
Amaechi’s Bombadier BD70 jet was grounded at Akure Airport in Ondo State on April 26 by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority after he had attended the burial of the former deputy governor of Ekiti State, Mrs. Funmi Olayinka, in Ado Ekiti.
Oshiomhole and some aides were on their way from Government House, Benin to Awka, Anambra State in the chartered OAS helicopter marked 5N-BPX AS335 for the burial of Mrs. Collette Obi, the wife of the Special Adviser to the President on Inter-Party Affairs, Senator Ben Obi when the aircraft was recalled to Benin Airport.
When the Filipino pilot, Capt. James Manahash, received the signal from the airport’s control tower, he immediately altered course and headed to the airport. He disembarked and went to enquire why he was recalled.
He was told that he did not pay aerodrome and landing fees and that he did not also file a passengers’ manifest.
The pilot was, however, told that he would not be allowed to fly the helicopter for reasons which were not stated to him.
Not even the intervention of the governor, who was forced to disembark after sitting in the aircraft for one hour, could make the airport staff to allow the aircraft to continue with the journey.
When it became obvious that he would not be allowed to fly, Oshiomhole and his aides cancelled the journey and called up the governor’s convoy.
When it arrived, the governor left the airport to his hometown, Iyamho, in Etsako West Local Government Area of the state.
Efforts to get his comments on the development, however failed.
The General Manager, Public Affairs, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Mr. Supo Atobatele, confirmed the incident to one of our correspondents, saying the pilot refused to pay because he was carrying a governor.
He also indicated that that was not the first time the pilot would committed the same infraction, a charge the expatriate subtly confirmed in his chat with journalists.
Atobatele said, “Again, the pilot refused to pay our charges. He refused to pay because he was carrying a governor. You are carrying a governor doesn’t mean that you cannot pay our charges.”
Asked if the helicopter was allowed to fly later, he said, “Well, we gathered that there was an agreement between our staff and the pilot. The governor tried to intervene and then there was a kind of settlement as the governor used his influence.
“But the fact still remains that the pilot refused to do the needful and it is a commercial helicopter. He has to pay the adequate navigational charges; and because he was carrying a governor he refused to pay, so we had no option but to ground the helicopter.”
He stressed that the revised civil aviation policy had made it clear that all pilots must pay their dues to the respective aviation agencies before they would be allowed to fly regardless of the occupants of their aircraft.
In a statement released some hours later, Atobatele said the pilot called from Edo State Government House, stating that he would be lifting from there to Awka, Anambra State. He said the pilot was, however, informed of the need for official documentation for the safety and security of people onboard.
He said, “His (the pilot’s) initial response was that he was flying the governor and they were going for an important meeting in Awka. He was advised to lift from the airport direct and do the documentation. This would have taken only three minutes.
“The pilot hesitated for a while and later consented to fly to the airport. At 10.18am, the helicopter landed at the airport and the pilot went straight to the Aeronautical Information Service without manifest as he claimed he didn’t know the names of those on board.”
NAMA said the pilot was assisted to write the names of those onboard for the sake of the governor. It noted that its officials in line with requirements for safety and security ensured that the pilot complied with the flight procedure in a process that lasted 30 minutes.
Atobatele said, “The Benin Airport Air Force Commandant, Air Commodore U.J. Atiku, told the pilot of the need to file in the necessary papers as a professional and that he should not give impression that the governor was denied departure to Awka.
“Amidst of all these, the governor sought to speak with the airspace manager on the cause of delay. The ASM was never given chance to explain the need to observe mandatory procedures for safety and security; rather he was verbally assaulted severally while trying to explain the primary reason for the delay.”
He said the pilot, who was simply addressed as Capt. Vame, believed to be a Korean, later apologised to NAMA officials for his refusal to document his flight and pay the necessary charges.
“He pleaded that the incident should not be filed against him. There is no political issue in this case. NAMA is an air navigation service provider and we operate within globally acceptable standards.
“We are professionally guided by rules and procedures. The service we render borders on safety from the ground to the air and back to ground.”
But, the governor’s Special Adviser (Media), Mr. Kassim Afegbua, pointed an accusing finger at the Presidency, saying they “are at it again.”
He said, “I think the government of the day is competing with too many crises. It is disturbing that governors are no longer recognised and respected in the scheme of things even when it is known that they were duly elected by the people.
“How else do you explain the role of the NAMA clerk who grounded the governor’s helicopter and prevented him from keeping his appointment in Anambra because he was acting out a script that has become the rule of engagement by a dictatorial regime? We remain unprovoked because we are civilised people.”
In his comments, the Benin Airspace Acting Manager, who gave his name as Mr. Okolie, said, “I don’t have anything for you. If anyone said his aircraft was grounded by us, ask him why.”
Speaking to newsmen, the helicopter pilot said, “I was surprised that I was recalled after taking-off from Government House because I had communicated with the control tower on radio.
“We were already airborne when we got a call to return to the airport and they even threatened that failure to do so would lead to the complete grounding of the aircraft. The governor prevailed on me to return and listen to them.
“When we got back to the airport, I was told to pay landing and aerodrome fees which ordinarily we could pay later because we were already airborne.
“Even after completion of the process of payment within 10 minutes, we were still delayed for one hour fifteen minutes, with the governor still seated and thereafter left in anger.
“I’m surprised by this development because this is not the first time I would be coming to Benin to fly the governor. I was even threatened after payment, that the aircraft would be grounded completely if I argued with them. I have flown for 35 years, seven of which I spent in Nigeria and this is the first time I’m encountering a situation like this. I did not know what problem they have with the governor.”
OAS Managing Director, Capt. Everest Nnaji, told Saturday PUNCH on the telephone that he was still trying to find out why his pilot was being delayed.
The Congress for Progressive Change described the grounding of the aircraft as the antics of a “dying regime.”
CPC National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Rotimi Fashakin, told Saturday PUNCH in a telephone interview that the action had the imprints of the Presidency.
He said, “That is what you see with dying regimes. They lose focus, vision and start to bare their fangs.
“Can you imagine President Obama grounding the aircraft of an opponent just because they disagree politically? May be we are getting to a level where pedestrians will be grounded.
“I wonder if Oshiomole had declared intention to run for the office of President in 2015, because that is usually what happens when someone shows interest.
“It is the level of our development. This too shall pass.”
National Publicity Secretary, All Nigeria Peoples Party, Chief Emma Eneukwu, said, “Aggression is the outward manifestation of frustration. The present Federal Government is frustrated and has resorted to hunting imaginary opponents. Suspending governors, grounding aircraft and issuing threats are all signs of despondency. A popular government has no business intimidating and coercing the opposition.”
But the Presidency said there was no truth in the claims by opposition parties that the grounding of the helicopter was political.
Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, told one of our correspondents that the issue had nothing to do with the President.
He said NAMA as a statutory body has the responsibility to discharge its constitutional duties according to the law.
He added that it is the responsibility of the pilot to abide by the rule of the aviation industry, irrespective of the status of his passengers.
Abati added that Oshiomhole, being a respecter of the rule of law, would not encourage anybody to do otherwise.
He said, “It is not true that President Jonathan is behind this. It is wrong to say so. It has nothing to do with the President.
“NAMA is a statutory body. It has the responsibility to discharge its duties according to the law. It is important that we abide by the rules notwithstanding who is involved. There is nothing political about it.
“No matter who his passengers may be, the pilot has the duty to respect the law. Even Governor Oshiomhole who believes in the rule of law will not encourage anybody to flout the rules.”
Oshiomhole has been a staunch supporter of his Rivers State counterpart in his battle with Plateau State Governor, Jonah Jang, over the headship of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum.
The Edo governor had last Friday issued a statement denouncing attempts by Jang to claim the chairmanship of the forum. He had noted that Amaechi was duly elected for a second term at the NGF election on May 24 in Abuja.
In the April incident involving Amaechi, NAMA had explained that the Rivers governor’s aircraft was operating illegally in Nigeria, an explanation which was keenly contested by the state government.
Aviation authorities also said a charter services company, Caverton, had denied any link to flight clearances allegedly obtained in its name for the Bombadier jet. The Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, had also alleged that the aircraft did not have a valid flight clearance for its operations on April 26, 2013 as the last one obtained for the aircraft expired on April 2, 2013.
But the state government through the Commissioner for Information, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, had described the aviation minister’s claims as a “deliberate distortion of facts.”
The House of Representatives stepped into the matter on April 30 and mandated its committees on aviation and justice to investigate the issue.In a May 14 report, the panel blamed the ministry for the incident. The ministry, however, refuted the report, as it declared that the aircraft operators had failed to make necessary documentation in respect of the jet.