Fed Govt, Rivers locked in showdown over pilots

A row has broken out between the Federal Government and Rivers State government over the Caverton Helicopter flight into Port Harcourt on Tuesday.

The pilot and co-pilot of the flight which flew in 10 persons have been remanded till May 19 by a Magistrate’s court in Port Harcourt. They were arrested by Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike.

While the Federal Government vowed to ensure the release of the pilots whose flight into the city was “lawfully and legally” approved, Wike accused federal aviation agencies of not taking the state “into confidence in issuing such permits.”

The Federal Government said it would get the pilots   back  to continue their flights in the national interest but Wike declared Caverton Helicopters Persona non-grata in Rivers State.

The pilots and passengers were remanded yesterday by  the chief magistrate court in the Port Harcourt Correctional Centre till May 19 when their trial would commence. The court also ordered that COVID-19 tests be carried out on them to ascertain their status.

Wike, who led a team that arrested the pilots and the passengers at   the Nigerian Air Force Base in the Garden City, on Tuesday said he was willing to shed his immunity to testify in the pilots’ trial.

“I am willing to drop my immunity as a governor as far as this case is concerned. I am ready to be a prosecution witness.,” the governor vowed.

The Federal Government on Wednesday faulted the arrest of the pilots – Samuel Ugorji and Samuel Buhari—as ”dangerous ignorance,” by the Rivers State government as well as the Air force and police personnel that facilitated it.

It vowed to ensure the release of the pilots because their flight was duly approved “in the national interest”.

The Federal Government also accused the Wike-led administration of wading into an aviation issue, which it has exclusive right over as provided for by the 19999 Constitution.

The Federal Government’s position was also backed by the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), which said it would down tools if the Rivers State Government failed to free the pilots and tender an apology.

Sirika, who spoke at Wednesday’s edition of Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic daily briefing in Abuja,  said the Air force officer who called Wike into a Federal Government property(Air Force Base) and the policemen who followed him(governor) to make the arrest displayed sheer “incompetence.”

He said, “Civil Aviation is on the Exclusive list. No other person but the Federal Government has the authority to legislate that. The Nigeria Air Force and the Armed Forces are also on the Exclusive list. There is no other person but the Federal Government that has the legal right to legislate that.

“So, the Air Force officer, who jumped the Commander-in-Chief, the Chief-of-Defence Staff and  the Chief of Air Staff and then went ahead to  call  a governor to come into the property of a federal government exhibited dangerous ignorance and gross incompetence.

“Also, the policemen that followed the governor there to make the arrest exhibited dangerous ignorance from our perspective in civil aviation.

“We approved the flight and we did so in national interest. All of those flights were to improve the national revenue  which Rivers State is  one of the biggest  beneficiaries. So, those flights by Caverton, Aero Contractor, Bristow, Arik and a couple of others  were for national interests and improved national revenue.

“At a time when oil has gone below $30 and the cost of production is $30, President (Muhammadu) Buhari, thought that these flights should be allowed in this era of  pandemic so that the nation will not be crippled economically.

“It is against this background that  the  aviation authorities, guided by the Civil Aviation Act 2006, approved such flights.

“So, those flights were approved lawfully and legally. And we  will do everything lawful and legal and reasonable to get those pilots back and the operations will continue in the national interest.”

But Wike, in a state broadcast yesterday, directed local government council chairmen to close the offices of Carveton Helicopters across the state.

He said: “We appreciate the need to protect business interests and operations in the state and we will do whatever that is required to ensure that no business is unduly affected by the measureswe have taken to combat the Coronavirus.

“However, we shall not welcome businesses or companies that value their business activities or profit more than or in cleardisregard of the lives and health of our people.

“By its actions Calverton Helicopters has clearly shown that Rivers lives do not matter to it. It is an enemy of Rivers people and is hereby declared persona non grata in Rivers State.

”With this declaration Calverton Helicopters can only chose to operate in any part of Rivers State at its own risk as Local Government Chairmen have been directed to close their officesand prevent their operations.”

Wike said that it was highly insensitive and provocative actions of Calverton   Helicopters   took   place   in   the midst of credible intelligence  reports  about  plans by  enemies of the state  to   traffic carriers of the dreaded Coronavirus into the State.

He said: “Their morbid intention is to create panic by pushing up the infection rate and rubbish the robust measures we have since put in place to cut off the spread of the virus and keep our State and our citizens safe and secure from the ravaging pandemic.

“As expected, and required by our laws, the crew and the passengers on board that ill-fated helicopter were promptly arrested   by   the   law   enforcement   personnel and are being prosecuted   before   our   courts in line with our COVID-19 Declarations and Containment Orders.

”Calverton Helicopters claimed to have gotten permits from some federal agencies  to  fly passengers   into  the State , which never bordered to take the State Government into confidence in issuing such permits in violation of our laws and containment orders.

“While federal agencies reserve the   right   to issue flight permits to airline operators to fly into Rivers State, we insist that the State Government must equally be informed and taken into confidence in the process.

“This the only way to avoid suspicion, conflicts of interests and unnecessary bickering   between   the   State   and  Federal Governments in our collective efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

”Let me reiterate that for us, COVID-19 in Rivers State is a matter of life and death, and  we  will never succumb to any blackmail from any person, institution or authority in our determination to protect our citizens and our State from the spread of this deadly virus.

National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE) National President, Galadima Abednego, observed with dismay why the pilots should undergo ”unnecessary humiliation and harassment for doing a service that is essential and vital to the survival of the nation’s economy.”

Abednego said: “NAAPE deems the actions of Rivers State Government as an unwarranted attack on our members is left with no other option than to demand an immediate release of the pilots and an apology from  the governor of Rivers state, failing which we will direct all pilots both local and International to boycott flying into his state now and post lock down.”

The pilots were arraigned before Chief Magistrate  D. D. Ihua-Maduenyi on four-count of conspiracy and disobedience to lawful order.

Superintendent of Police Gladys Imegu Enoho, Officer-in-Charge, Legal, Rivers State Police Command is the prosecuting counsel. The State Attorney-General, Zacheus Adango, heads the prosecution team.

Though they pleaded not guilty to the charge marked PMC/532C/2020, the court remanded them in any government facility to enable medical personnel determine their COVID-19 status.

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